FRIDAY, July 1, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Most people look forward to watching fireworks illuminate the night sky on the Fourth of July.
But for many family pets, the celebratory pops, booms and bangs trigger a full-blown panic attack. Some dogs are so terrified, they dig out of backyards, jump through glass windows, or scale walls to escape from the sound. Others pant, pace, tremble, whine and hide under beds or behind furniture.
San Francisco-based veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin said some dogs are more fearful because they didn't have positive experiences with those types of sounds early in life during a critical learning period, which takes place between 3 weeks and 3 months of age.
"That's the ideal time for dogs to be exposed to the many different types of things they're going to see and hear in real life," said Yin, author of the e-book Perfect Puppy in Seven Days. "After that, their default setting becomes more of being afraid of things that they didn't learn were OK."
How many dogs freak out over the sound of firecrackers is unknown, but every year shelters nationwide report taking in large numbers of spooked family pets. That's why making sure a pet's ID tag and microchip are up-to-date is also vital as this holiday weekend approaches.
Noise phobia strikes dogs of all ages, breeds and mixes. Cases severe enough to prompt owners to seek professional help occur in up to 20 percent of dogs, said Bonnie Beaver, a veterinary behaviorist at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Dogs afraid of one noise, such as fireworks, are more likely to develop or experience fears of other sounds as well, she said. "A poll suggested the number one noise fear in dogs is thunderstorms followed by fireworks, vacuum cleaners and guns, in that order," said Beaver.
Over time, with repeated exposure, the problem usually gets worse so animal behaviorists recommend acclimating dogs to the sound.
How? Yin suggested while softly playing a CD of fireworks, putting the dog in a "happy state" by quickly tossing him several treats then teaching him a new game or trick. Keep the daily training sessions short, just 5 or 10 minutes. With each new session, gradually increase the CD's volume. Eventually the dog learns the scary sound isn't such a big deal because good things are happening to him.
"You're changing what's going on in his mind," explained Yin. "He's engaging in behaviors that take him away from his fear."
Ideally, owners should start desensitizing their dogs to the sound of fireworks a month or two ahead of time. However, even if there's only a day or two left before the holiday, it's still worth trying, she said.
Owners with extremely fearful dogs should consider asking their veterinarian for anti-anxiety medication. Even though the tranquilizer acepromazine is frequently prescribed by veterinarians, Yin warned the drug does not decrease a dog's fear, and may even make matters worse by increasing sound sensitivity.
Other calming strategies for nervous pets this Independence Day weekend include:
- Playing a CD of harp music that's arranged to promote progressive peace and relaxation in animals.
- Using a diffuser filled with lavender and chamomile oil. A 2005 study in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science found the aroma helped shelter dogs rest and relax.
- Putting an anti-anxiety T-shirt or vest on your dog. The specially designed clothing reportedly applies a gentle yet calming pressure around the dog's mid-section.
- Buying earmuffs for your dog. This sound blocker was designed to protect the sensitive hearing of dogs traveling on private airplanes.
- Sending your pet overnight to a friend's or family member's house located in a firework-free zone.
- Turning your home's basement, which naturally blocks sound, into a temporary sanctuary. No basement? Put your pet in a room farthest from the celebration with a cushy bed and plenty of toys. Close the blinds to block out flashes of light.
Some owners try comforting their frazzled pooches by holding or petting them, but researchers at Pennsylvania State University found it had no impact in lowering stress levels in storm-phobic dogs. What did work was the presence of a canine buddy or two around the house.
That's what calms Azella, a normally confident 8-year-old husky mix who panics when she hears gun shots, thunder, fireworks or high-pitched beeping from a smoke detector.
"If she could jump up in my arms like Shaggy and Scooby -- she would," said Azella's owner, Christina Bournias of St. Clair Shores, Mich. "In fact, she's come close."
Bournias has tried soothing her jittery pet with massages, kind words and big hugs. But what's helped Azella most is the company of a canine friend named Devlin. The husky's best buddy helps keep her calm as the explosions go off in the neighborhood for days, sometimes weeks, before and after Independence Day.
"His innocence and playfulness is seemingly therapeutic," she said.
There's more on dog psychology and behavior at the ASPCA.