Looking After Your Pet This Halloween

This article has been written by Pete Wedderburn - one of Ireland's best known Veterinary Surgeon, Broadcaster, Author and Columnist.

Halloween may be fun for humans, but it’s genuinely terrifying for many pets. It’s up to us, as caring owners, to do our best to keep our pets safe, relaxed and comfortable.

Every year, at the end of October, peaceful autumn evenings across Ireland are disrupted by the sound of fireworks. Bangs, squeals and whines can be heard on the streets and in many back gardens. Fireworks may be part of traditional Halloween celebrations, but they are enough to drive many pets to distraction with fear and anxiety.

Simple Steps

Even for pets that do not have a huge fear of fireworks, there are steps that should be taken to ensure that they don’t get into any sort of trouble over Halloween. Pets – dogs and cats – should be kept indoors during the hours of darkness. They should wear ID tags, and be microchipped, in case they do get outdoors and run away. Every year, the morning after Halloween, there are many reports of pets going missing after they’ve bolted in fear at a sudden unexpected firework going off nearby. Don’t forget those smaller pets living in hutches: they can also be upset by fireworks noises. Bring them indoors on Halloween night, or at the very least, turn their hutch to face the wall to give them some protection.

Sensitive Ears

Dogs have a far more sensitive sense of hearing than our own, so to them, these noises must sometimes be deafening. And because  they don’t understand that fireworks are a form of entertainment, the strange, terrifying noises may suggest that something dangerous and frightening is about to happen. While some pets are not at all bothered by fireworks, for many sensitive dogs – and their owners - this is a difficult time of year.

Our Pet Collie, Ruby

Ruby is a typical example of a dog with a phobia about fireworks. She is a Collie, and has always been a timid creature. Her early life is a mystery: she was handed in to a dog pound by a farmer who didn’t want her. She was then rescued and rehomed by an animal welfare group, and she has settled well into her new home. But she is sensitive, and every year, the sound of the first firework is enough to make her refuse to go outside. Instead, she stays indoors, shivering and miserable.

In the evenings, if there is a series of fireworks noises, Ruby becomes almost hysterical. She runs from room to room, trying to get away from the sounds. She pants, whines and trembles, desperately upset by what’s going on.  Her owner’s upset just to watch her: it’s so obvious that she’s miserable.

Ruby is an extreme example of this type of problem.  She must have had an initial bad experience when she first heard fireworks as a young dog. She now remembers that when there are fireworks noises, she experiences a feeling of terrible anxiety, so she has a double fear to cope with: the fear of fireworks, but also the fear of that feeling of being afraid. It’s difficult to get her through this time of year.

Helping Ruby Cope

Ruby’s owner comes to me every year for help, and she needs two levels of intervention: practical changes in her daily environment, then pharmaceutical help with calming medication.

The first stage is to take steps that all dog owners should take every year around Halloween, with the aim of making the home as firework-proofed as possible. A safe, secure den is the most important goal. In Ruby’s case, the central heating boiler room has been adapted to make it into a cosy private bedroom for her. It’s warm and comfortable, and the ongoing hum of the boiler helps to drown out any sounds of fireworks in the background. A loud radio is left on, playing classical music all the time. Ruby’s bed is in there, with plenty of bedding for her to hide under if she wants. Her owner leaves an old unwashed sweatshirt in her bed when she goes out so that Ruby has a continual sense of her owner close by.

To help create a soothing atmosphere in the boiler room, a special type of plug-in vapouriser (“Adaptil”) has been set up. Instead of a pleasant smell, this emits a vapour containing “Dog Appeasing Pheromone. The scent (undetectable to humans) has a reassuring, comforting effect on dogs, and helps to reduce anxiety in all situations.  

Don’t Make a Fuss

Ruby’s owner has also learned not to give her too much attention when she is agitated. If an owner makes a big fuss of a frightened dog, this can send a message that “it is good to be frightened”, and it can even make the fearful behaviour worse. It’s more effective to carry on with normal activities around a frightened dog. Then when she has calmed down and is behaving normally, it’s fine to give her plenty of attention. The idea of this is that she should gradually learn that “it’s good to be calm”. Ruby shares her home with another dog who is not bothered by fireworks, and this also helps her. When she sees other animals and people staying calm and relaxed, it helps her to stop panicking.

The above steps should be taken by everyone who has a dog that shows any fearful behaviour when hearing fireworks, and in most cases, no further action is needed.

Extra Steps

For Ruby, and for other dogs that show excessive fearfulness at this time of year, the next level of intervention may be needed: anti-anxiety medication. You need to discuss this with your vet: there are a number of possible combinations of drugs, and it’s sometimes a case of trying various approaches before identifying the most effective calming products. Ruby is on a combination of two drugs, given morning and evening. They take away that nervous edge from her personality, and once the fireworks season has finished, she’ll stop taking them.

Ruby also wears a novel item of clothing, called a Thundershirt.  This is like a tightly fitting jacket that  gently applies constant pressure all over the dog’s body. In one study, 82%* of fearful dogs showed a marked improvement in anxious behaviour when wearing a Thundershirt.

In the longer term, Ruby’s owner has another plan to help Ruby get over her fear of fireworks: she has downloaded specially made soundtracks of fireworks. The plan is to play these with the volume turned down low, gradually increasing the volume as Ruby gets used to the sounds. This type of sound therapy needs to be done far in advance of the real fireworks season, so the plan is to start in the springtime. Hopefully by next October, Ruby will be less fearful when she hears the sound of real fireworks.

Halloween may be fun for humans, but it’s genuinely terrifying for many pets. It’s up to us, as caring owners, to do our best to keep our pets safe, relaxed and comfortable.

Please note: This scenario is a fictional case based on a selection of scenarios experienced by Pete Wedderburn in his practice.

*2011 Thundershirt Dog Anxiety Survey -http://www.thundershirt.com/media/docs/2011-Veterinarian-Survey-Summary-Report.pdf

Legal Disclaimer:

This guidance is for general information purposes only and does not purport to provide legal advice. Allianz accepts no responsibility or liability for any losses that may arise from reliance upon the information contained in this article. Information correct as of October 2016.

The opinions in this article are those of an experienced veterinarian Pete Wedderburn Allianz do not endorse or recommend any of the Products (Adaptil and Thundershirt) referenced in this article.


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