The Fourth of July is right around the corner! And with any holiday, there is, of course, excitement around the celebration—food, drinks, fireworks, sunshine, fun—you name it. But, unfortunately, for many pet owners, this summer holiday comes with quite a bit of stress.
If you’re the owner of an anxious furry friend—you know what I mean.
Any holiday, especially one that includes fireworks or loud noises, can put a damper on your good times. And regardless of whether you’re staying home, you’ve planned to attend an event where you can bring your pet, or you’re trying to create an environment that will keep him/her calm while you’re away, there’s quite a bit of pre-planning and conscious effort that goes in.
Whether you’re a seasoned pet owner or someone like me, who just adopted a furry rascal two weeks before the Fourth, here are some expert tips and advice to ease stress as you prepare for the fireworks.
1. Desensitize Early
One of the best ways to create comfort around the Fourth (and other firework-heavy holidays) is to start by desensitizing your pet early. This is something that should be done in the home, as it is the most comforting space for your pet, and especially in rooms where your animal feels the most relaxed or spends the largest amount of time.
The key is to do this gradually.
Dr. Gary Richter, founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition, encourages owners to play fireworks noises incrementally during different times of day, lengths, and volumes (starting with very low tones and raising over time).
“Leave [the sounds] on for some time and slowly increase the volume,” he says. “Dogs cannot be on high alert or a long, sustained period. So, at some point, they are going to realize that nothing bad is happening, get used to it, and move on.”
However, the desensitizing must be done earlier in order for it to work effectively and to avoid trauma to your pet as he or she adjusts. “This strategy can take weeks to accomplish,” Richter says, “[It’s] not something you can just start on July 1st.”
If it’s not too late, another great strategy is to start desensitizing when your dog is young.
Dr. Sarah Wooten DVM, CV at Pumpkin Pet Insurance, shares advice for owners of puppies. “If you socialize puppies between the ages of 8 and 14 weeks to associate fireworks with treats and positive experiences,” she says, “Then that will greatly reduce the likelihood of developing a noise phobia later in life.”
Much of the fear around fireworks is created from negative previous experiences. The sooner you can build positive experiences and associations—at any age—the better situation you will have around the Fourth of July (and the happier your pet will be!)
2. Firework-Proof Your Home
Fireworks create sound disturbances, of course, but they also come with bright lights, flashes, and shouts of onlookers in all stages of celebration. As you prepare for the excitement, one of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to try to sound and light-proof your home as much as possible.
“Make sure there are no windows, or that your windows and blackout shades are fully closed,” says Russell Hartstein, Certified Dog Behaviorist and Trainer in Los Angeles, and founder of Fun Paw Care. “If you have large openings under the door, you can even put a [folded] towel to help block out any additional noise.”
If you can’t reconfigure your space, Hartstein recommends investing in noise-canceling headphones or even dog goggles (if your pup will tolerate them). The headphones will block the sound, of course, but they also give you the option to play soothing music. The googles can prevent flashes of light, debris, or other ambers that can injure your dog’s eyes, especially if your dog needs to be outside or walked during the evening hours.
However, Hartsein encourages owners to avoid any unneeded exposure to fireworks (like night walks or late-in-the-day events). “Never take your dog with you to watch the fireworks or leave them home to ‘tough it out’ alone,” he says. Not only is this traumatic, but you can’t stop the fear
once it starts!
Plus, your pet will do best in a home environment where they feel safe—and with you if possible.
3. Build Safe Spaces in Your Home
One of the best ways you can update your home for the July 4 fireworks is to think about what will create the most welcoming and safe space for him/her to exist in. This can be a normal room with modifications to block noise or a separate area that is intentionally carved out to make your pet feel secure (especially if you won’t be at home).
“[Set] your dog up in a centrally-located room in the house that has no windows or minimal windows,” says Dr. Michelle Burch, DVM from Safe Hounds Pet Insurance. “Having your dog in their area of the house will help to reduce the amount of noise, light stimulation, and vibrations your pet will experience from the fireworks.”
Burch also recommends creating a 'cave-like experience' by moving furniture, dog bed(s), and blankets. “The additional element of hiding from the fireworks can help calm their anxiety."
Although most tips and suggestions about fireworks centers on dogs, feline friends can have anxiety, too! Dr. Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS, veterinarian at CatPointers, shares some tips specific to cats.
“Cats prefer to hide from scary things,” she says. “Make sure they have a bed in a dark corner or high up space – igloo beds work well for scared cats. Try to choose a room at the center of the house, as far from the noise as possible. You can also close the curtains and put music on to help to drown out the noise.”
Other ideas (for cats and dogs) are to keep lights low and play peaceful music for a calming effect.
4. Keep Order & Space Consistent
On the flip-side (and contrary to popular belief), some experts argue that changing your space around can actually create more anxiety.
Tom Shelby, author of Dog Training Diaries and lead columnist of ‘Ask the Dog
Charmer' shares his approach. “Dogs are creatures of habit,” he says. “Don’t reconfigure the space. That in itself will make [the animal] nervous, especially coupled with the fireworks.”
“If someone wants to reconfigure the house, they need to do that slowly and earlier than a few days before to really get the pet acclimated [because] when you change things or habits in general, it’s disconcerting for a lot of dogs.”
5. Invest in Anxiety-Reducing Products
As you intentionally shift your space, consider adding calming scents, oils, or treats to support the transition. Aromatherapy can help dogs (and cats) and some of the same scents that help humans—like chamomile and lavender—can calm pets, too!
“[Use] pheromone diffusers and collars,” suggests Dr. Burch, “The pheromones used are synthetic hormones that mimic the ones produced by mother dogs to calm their young. Having this pheromone available for your dog to smell and stimulate the olfactory system can reduce anxiety.”
Another option to create a ‘cozy’ feel is a compression shirt. “Like swaddling a baby or using a weighted blanket, a compression shirt will apply gentle and constant pressure to your dog's torso,” shares Burch. “The gentle pressure releases the calming hormone oxytocin and endorphins.”
6. Keep Your Pet Busy
Outside of exercise to tire your pet before the holiday, you may also want to consider an anti-anxiety treat (CBD-infused or CBD-free) or “busy” treat that engages your pet in the prolonged task of licking/chewing for the reward.
Eric Clemmons, VP of Operations for Heavenly Hounds, recommends assessing your pet’s behaviors to see if he or she is exhibiting signs of anxiety or fear. “Does your dog chew or claw? Bark uncontrollably at times? Excessively pant, dig or experience accidents in the house? These are just a few examples of the destructive, or undesirable behaviors that are rooted in stress and anxiety.”
If your pet is known to show these behaviors (even without fireworks) it may be a good idea to invest in a treat of some sort to keep him/her busy. However, it’s important to research the products and consult your veterinarian to understand how long supplements will take to activate and any potential health concerns based on your pet’s age or other factors.
If you’re going to start anything new, it’s also a good idea to introduce this prior to the holiday (and when you’re home!) to make sure there are no side effects and that your pet actually enjoys the treat.
7. Don’t Support a Fear Response
It’s a natural pet owner response to want to comfort your animal and let him or her know that everything is okay. Although this sounds like a good idea, experts argue that it may actually be counterintuitive.
“The important thing when dealing with a dog that is terrified is not to punish the dog, get anxious yourself, or reinforce the fear behavior,” Dr. Wooten says. “You also have to realize your dog is not in their right mind—they are in their fear mind—and they can behave very unpredictably.”
A dog’s fear mind can create unexpected behaviors: withdrawing, excessive barking, and in more serious cases, maybe even biting! Wooten recommends not trying to provide extra attention or affection if you notice your dog behaving out of character.
“[If you are] petting your dog and saying, 'It's ok!,’ you are actually reinforcing the fear behavior,” she says, “[This makes it] more likely your dog will perform the same behavior in the future. Instead, focus on positive associations, make your space as comfortable as possible, and seek veterinary or behaviorist help if your dog is still having a hard time.”