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How to keep your pets safe during Fourth of July fireworks

Dogs, cats and fireworks often don't mix. These are the steps you can take to minimize the fear and risk to your pets.
U.S. Independence Day
Unexplained and extremely loud noises can frighten dogs and even cats into fearful behavior ranging from low-key to running away.RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images

Fourth of July and all the festivities that come along with it may be fun for most of us, but all those fireworks aren't exciting for every member of the family. I'm talking about your pets.

“If you think about it it's amazing we're not more terrified than we are,” co-founder Michelle Schenker told NBC News BETTER. “An exploding bomb sound in the air is scary, and if you don't understand what it is it's even scarier.”

These unexplained and extremely loud noises can frighten dogs and even cats into fearful behavior ranging from low-key to running away.

When pets and fireworks don't mix

When the fireworks start you might see “shaking, pacing, panting, whining, shutting down emotionally, and trying to hide in a small, dark place similar to a den or cave like a closet or bathroom,” Pia Silvani, director of Behavior Rehabilitation at the ASPCA told NBC News BETTER. I've seen a 65 pound dog try to crawl into a litter box in a basement in response to a home fireworks show and it was heartbreaking — but not the worst that can happen.

Fearful dogs might also “cling to their owners, destroy property, soil the house or injure themselves when they hear a noise that upsets them,” Silvani went on. “Frantic attempts to escape may cause dogs to chew, scratch, dig and even jump out of windows.”

And if you're outside with them and they're not on a leash (even if they are!) they may be so startled or afraid as to bolt. A frightened dog may scale fences that they wouldn’t attempt under normal circumstances, Silvani said. A fun family occasion can turn into a nightmare in an instant if a dog gets lost or hit by a vehicle.

Take these steps to keep your pets safe

Afraid yet? There are steps you can take to minimize the fear and risk to your pets. For starters, keep them at home and make sure windows and doors are securely closed. “Loud, crowded fireworks displays are no fun for pets (in general, regardless of their level of fear), who can become frightened or disoriented by the sound,” Silvani said. “Please resist the urge to take them to Independence Day festivities and opt instead to keep them safe from the noise in a quiet, sheltered and escape-proof area at home. They will be safer and calmer in a quiet, comfortable, and familiar space.”

No matter where you're keeping your pet, make sure their ID collar is on and current, and there are no defects in the collar, or their leash if you do have them outside, Schenker said. And now's not the time to let your neighbor take your dog's leash, she added. Keep them with the person they trust the most.

An exploding bomb sound in the air is scary, and if you don't understand what it is it's even scarier.

Of course even if you're not setting off your own fireworks, there may still be plenty in earshot. Ideally you've prepared well in advance. “Behavior modification under the guidance of an animal behaviorist may help reduce anxiety by associating the fireworks with something positive,” like a treat, Silvani said. It's best to start early exposing young puppies and kittens to “many different environmental stimuli so that this is not scary later in life,” she said. “Recordings of thunderstorms are available that could be played at a low volume to 'normalize' the experience of hearing these noises and hopefully avoid future anxiety.”

I took it a step further leading up to a massive fireworks show in our hometown of Louisville and played YouTube videos of fireworks shows around my two dogs until they found them completely boring.

Even on the day-of, you can prepare by taking your dog on a walk or doing something to tire him out, Schenker said. “Just like us, exercise reduces stress.”

But if this is your first Fourth with a pet, or you didn't get a chance to implement preventative measures, “something as simple as turning on some soft music and moving your pet into an interior room with no windows can be helpful,” Silvani said. If they like to chew, Schenker added, “provide with something to chew on because anxiety increases the desire to chew.” (Better a new toy than your sofa!)

What about those “Thundershirts”? “An anxiety vest may work in some cases,” said Silvani, “but pet owners need to remain vigilant even if their dog has one on — it is not a panacea and dogs should not be left unattended while wearing one.”

Think your pup may require more drastic measures? Talk to your vet before deciding to try medication or any trendy supplements. “If you and your veterinarian do decide that anti-anxiety mediation is your pet’s best bet, there are a few things to remember,” Silvani said. Starting with don't wait till the fireworks show has started to try it out. “First and foremost, give a practice dose of the medication before the big night to see how your pet responds to the medication,”she said. And avoid the temptation to share amongst your furry household, or to give more than the recommended amount. “If you do, you may end up spending the holiday at your local veterinary emergency clinic,” she said.

Finally, let your pet know you're there to keep them safe. “A common suggestion that people still hear is to avoid petting the dog while the animal is frightened in order to avoid reinforcing the fear,” Silvani said. “There is scientific evidence that this is a myth and should not be adhered to. Your pet is in a vulnerable state and truly needs to know that ‘you have their back.’”

So that may mean foregoing the festivities yourself and sitting with your pup to pet and soothe them. But there are worse ways to spend a holiday than petting a dog!


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