Authored By: Chris Vanderhoof DVM, MPH
Summer is in full swing! Pretty soon, the season of fireworks, sparklers, and other things that make lots of noise and bright flashes will be upon us.
We all love these displays with bright lights and exciting sonic booms, but our dogs may not be as big of fans. This time of year also happens to be the most common for veterinarians to prescribe sedatives and anxiety medication. While some are certainly needed for summer travel, quite a lot are needed for just a couple of days in early July.
In this short article, you’ll learn why dogs can be so scared of fireworks, what to look for if your dog is reacting poorly to loud noises, and what to do if you think your dog has anxiety from fireworks or thunderstorms.
Why Might Dogs Be Afraid of Fireworks?
Dogs rely on having a constant, consistent environment. Like us, they come to expect routine. But unlike us, they are not privy to things we might expect that can interrupt that routine. Loud bangs and bright flashes seemingly coming out of nowhere certainly upset what your dog likely considers to be normal.
Dogs also have very sensitive hearing. The loud boom of fireworks is very distressing for many canines. While military working dogs may be expected to endure such noise, they go through extensive training to desensitize them to such noise, if that’s vital for their work.
Many dogs, especially very young ones experiencing their first summer, aren’t sure what to make of these sudden bright flashes and loud booms.
How Might Dogs React to Fireworks?
Dogs might react to fireworks in a variety of ways and at different levels of severity. Some may just appear a little nervous, with wide eyes, possibly seeking out companionship to get some reassurance that this is normal.
Other dogs may cower or hide somewhere, like under a table or the bed.
But occasionally, you do hear stories about dogs that react very badly. I once had a client who told me that her dog panicked so badly during a round of nearby fireworks that he broke the sliding glass door in an attempt to get out.
This last example is more severe but highlights the need to have a solid plan in place for the next year so that the poor pup won’t sustain such injuries again.
Remember too, that there may be a big difference in a dog’s reaction to fireworks indirectly from the familiar home environment if set off by your neighbor or a nearby ball field, and actually bringing your dog to a fireworks show directly.
Last summer, when we went to an outdoor venue for Fourth of July fireworks, I saw a dog, probably about a year of age, having a great time splashing in the lake, playing fetch, and chilling with the family.
But when the fireworks started an hour or two later, he broke off his leash and bolted. It took the owners, with some help, several minutes to collect him and unfortunately, they had to leave the fireworks show or risk him bolting again. This highlights that even an otherwise calm, happy dog, may not be able to handle the intensity of fireworks up close.
How Do I Know If My Dog Might React Badly to Fireworks?
If this is your dog’s first summer, it may be hard for you to tell just how much your pup is going to be affected by fireworks. The best litmus test, if you will, for seeing how your dog will handle sonic booms and flashes is to recall the last time there was a thunderstorm with lightning.
Thunder and lightning storms are about the closest thing to fireworks that nature has to offer. If your dog ran and hid under the bed with the last storm, you can probably bet the same thing will happen if your neighbor starts shooting off rockets next door. If your dog tried to jump through a window, then you know you need to have a more solid plan in place.
How to Keep My Dog Safe During Fireworks
Safety is the key here. If your dog just gets a little nervous during thunderstorms or fireworks and seeks you out for a cuddle on the couch, there’s no lasting harm once the sound and light show passes. You can give her some treats and encouragement.
But because some dogs will panic and possibly cause harm to themselves or others, there are several measures you can consider taking to keep your dog as safe and stress-free as possible.
When it comes to actually attending a fireworks show with your dog, consider avoiding it if your dog is not acclimated or you’re not sure how she’ll react.
If you know a neighbor or nearby location will be shooting off fireworks and can plan ahead, see if there’s somewhere you can go, like a friend’s or relative’s house that may be further away from any fireworks.
Create a Safe Space
If your dog tends to panic badly indoors during storms and fireworks, it’s important to plan ahead to have a safe space prepared where he can go, preferably with you or a family member to hang out with him, if that keeps him calmer.
While most veterinarians are advocates for crate-training and establishing the crate as a safe space is key for many reasons, it’s important to keep in mind that some crates may not fit this bill during a storm or fireworks, especially if it’s the first time he or she has experienced one of these events.
I have seen dogs badly injure themselves in a panic to break out of a crate during fireworks and thunderstorms. If this sounds like your dog, consider something like a small windowless bathroom with blankets inside as a good alternative example.
Sedatives and Supplements
As mentioned early on, this is the time of year that sedatives are prescribed for dogs more than any other time. Even if your dog just gets really nervous, and especially if your dog has a tendency to panic during storms and fireworks, make sure to talk to your veterinarian well in advance for some feasible sedation.
There are several options out there, and they can affect dogs differently, so it is best to try a dose out prior to the next summer storm or fireworks show, to gauge how well it may work.
Calming supplements are also available, but in some cases must be started in advance by several days to have an effect. Supplements may also only be recommended for dogs with more mild thunderstorm/fireworks anxiety. If your dog is the type to have a full-blown panic attack, chat with your vet about prescription medication options.
If all else fails, and your dog does break through a door or bolt off the leash in an attempt to escape the booms and flashing lights of a fireworks show, making sure your dog has a microchip placed can be an extra step of security to know that he or she is more likely to be returned to you.
After panicking, a dog may continue running for several minutes, getting lost at the least, or suffering an injury at the worst, and end up at a veterinary hospital or shelter. These situations do occur more this time of year with so much summer travel, the unpredictability and severity of summer storms, and fireworks.
Statistically, far more dogs are returned to their owners if they have a microchip placed. Ask your vet about it at your dog’s next check-up. If your dog already has one, ask your vet to scan it and make sure it’s active and functioning properly.
There are lots of unique, fun things to do during the summer, but keeping caution in mind is always important. If you’re not sure how your dog will react to fireworks, it may be best to stay with your pup at home. That way, you know what to expect and can be there if needed. If you know how your pooch reacts to flashes and booms, make sure to have a solid plan in place in advance.
Dr. Chris is considered one of the country’s leading veterinarians. He completed a dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and Masters in Public Health at Virginia Tech, a top veterinary school in the country.