‘Tis the season – for FIREWORKS!
Does this strike a chord of fear in your heart? Ringing in the new year with firecrackers and small fireworks is a long-held tradition here in Hawaii. These days, with new restrictions, it’s a little quieter, but late June, early July and the New Year are still stressful for many pets and their owners. Common reactions to the noisy celebrations include hiding, escape (animal advocacy groups report shelters are very busy in fireworks season), or vocalizing. Other signs of anxiety include shivering, panting, attention-seeking, and restlessness.
Many pets also hate travel, especially if they must fly overseas in the cargo area. This is a common reality for Hawaii pets moving to or from the mainland or other countries.
Fortunately, we have some options to help reduce the fear and anxiety surrounding stressful situations. Tranquilizers and sedatives are useful tools when prescribed by a licensed veterinarian who has examined your pet. For pets that have consistent anxiety related to daily events, there are other, non-sedating medications that can be very helpful, although they take several weeks to build up to full effectiveness. For safety reasons, airlines rarely allow unaccompanied animals to be tranquilized for transport.
Here are some other techniques to calm an agitated pet’s nerves:
Create a Safe Space
Let’s talk about crate training! This is such a great tool for minimizing the stress associated with travel (they’re going to need a crate anyway to fly), trips to the vet, changes in the home environment, or unusually loud noise.
Find a crate large enough for your pet stand up and turn around. For large dogs, this may mean a bathroom with the door closed! Add some nice, soft and absorbent (in case of accidents) bedding. In a wire crate, some pets may feel more secure if it’s covered, and thick blankets will help to muffle any loud noises. A synthetic pheromone spray, available at pet stores, can be applied to the interior or used with a plug-in diffuser. These substances – Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) and Feline Facial Pheremone (FFP) mimic the natural pheromones that induce a sense of well being in a particular species, and are thought to reduce stress levels. A few small research studies have suggested that pets exposed to lavender essential oil in their environment (EO’s are extremely strong – don’t give them directly to the pet)spend more time resting in otherwise stressful situations. Especially with cats, first expose them to lavender in a situation they can remove themselves from, because some pets really dislike the smell.
Choose a place for your crate. Ideally, it will always be available to your pet – if you only haul it out in anticipation of a stressful event, after all, they’re going to associate it with that experience (if only I had a nickel for every cancelled appointment because the cat disappeared when they saw the carrier!). A quiet corner of the home is good for more solitary pets, although many dogs would prefer to be near the family. Do not use it for time-outs or as punishment.
You want your pet to have positive associations with the crate. Toss in a treat that they really love, and when they enter to get the treat, give them praise and keep offering small treats. Do not shut the door. Repeat for several short sessions (maybe 5 minutes) over a few days. Allow your pet to enter on their own and explore at their own pace. Leave the door open and let them to come and go as they please. Once your pet is comfortable with the crate and enters willingly, you can start closing the door for brief periods, continuing to offer praise and treats so that they associate the pleasant experience with the crate. If your pet starts going to the crate when they want rest or solitude, you have been successful. Cats are so attracted to small spaces that they will often start using the crate on their own with little or no reinforcement on your part. I learned this by accident while living in an apartment so small that the cat carriers were kept in an accessible place by necessity!
For times when you are away, or during car or air travel, you can place a shirt that you have worn for a few hours in the crate with your pet. A recording of your voice or music can be helpful, too.
If your pet chooses a different location for their safe place, do not try to force them to use the crate. It’s better to adjust accordingly.
A Virtual Hug
A pressure wrap like the Thundershirt seems to produce a calming effect in some dogs. Like the weighted blankets used for people with sensory processing disorders, the light pressure seems to be reassuring.
Rescue Remedy by Bach Flower is an old favorite, and I have met a lot of clients who absolutely swear by it. And it’s easy to give: just add a couple drops to their drinking water. There is much skepticism in the scientific community regarding whether homeopathic remedies such as this actually work. Indeed, there are no research studies to support its efficacy. Still, it’s considered to be extremely safe. Get the alcohol- and xylitol-free product for pets.
Reward Calm Behavior
Behaviorists are mixed on whether to comfort a pet that is behaving anxiously. Some maintain you’re actually enforcing that anxious behavior – and it will get worse as time goes on. Others say depriving a fearful pet of reassurance is counterproductive and unkind. Either way, do reward them when they are being calm in the face of the stimulus. If you can plan ahead and have the time, systematic desensitization can be a great tool to help your pet cope with and learn to tolerate the scary situation. This is a labor intensive and sometimes lengthy process, which must be done correctly under carefully controlled circumstances, and I recommend recruiting an excellent trainer or behaviorist to help you. If you don’t know how to locate someone in your area, your veterinarian should have one or two good recommendations.
I hope some of these tips are helpful in ensuring that you and your furry ohana have a safe and happy holiday!