How Bonfire Night and Fireworks can affect our Dogs

Posted by Angela Pinder on

As the dark nights sweep in, we are vastly approaching the 5th November. Recent years have seen a sharp rise in fireworks being set off, not only on the momentous day, but in the week's leading up to Bonfire Night and afterwards. This prolonged period of celebration can have a severe impact on some of the pets that you work with, and even our own dogs too.

Pets and other wildlife do not understand the concept of fires and fireworks, the loud, unnatural and unexpected noises are hard for them to interpret. This period can be very frightening and can increase anxiety, changes in behaviour, affect eating habits and increase reactivity to certain situations.

When we as humans are uncomfortable about something, it can be a rational fear or an irrational fear, and dogs express themselves in the same way. It's well known that some pets really struggle to cope during this period, and dogs are more likely to be anxious and jumpy, which can lead to increased stress. Anxiety stems from thoughts about an event that has happened or is going to happen, and this can include previously learned experiences.

When the body experiences stress it releases a chemical called Cortisol, this is known as the stress hormone. Prolonged periods of anxiety contribute to a increased levels of Cortisol in the bloodstream. Interestingly, people who suffer from anxiety or depression will have high levels of Cortisol, and this is the same with some dogs. The Cortisol works in conjunction with Adrenaline, another hormone that is released when the body goes past the point of being able to cope and fluctuates into survival mode, and this is when your brain sends a signal to your body to say that it feels your life is under threat. For humans and for dogs this can be triggered by something rational or irrational. 

Adrenaline causes the body to react more quickly and increases the blood flow to circulate more oxygen in order to fuel the most important areas of the body such as the hear, brain and the lungs. Whilst the body is in this state, things like digestions, repair/renewal and regeneration of vital cells in the body get put on hold.

Signs of an adrenaline rush in dogs include:

  • Rapid Heart Rate
  • Sweating (dogs can only sweat via the pads on their feet)
  • Heightened Senses - hyper-vigilance, scanning for danger and pre-empting situations
  • Rapid Breathing, which goes hand in hand with a rapid heart rate
  • Increased Strength (for survival)
  • Dilated Pupils

It takes time for Adrenaline and Cortisol levels to drop and exit the body, even once a dog starts to calm down by resting and relaxing. Unfortunately for dogs, we can't explain to them the history of the 5th November, the prolonged stress periods or that it is going to stop. It must be even harder for our pets to deal with as they are repeatedly exposed to the same stressful event, rather unexpectedly, which heightens their reactivity.

As a dog groomer, having a dog that is a pleasure to groom makes the job enjoyable and rewarding. Even the most well behaved pooch can easily turn into a difficult groom if they are stressed. 

This period of stress for some dogs caused by fireworks can genuinely cause the dog to make for a difficult groom, give less calming signals and be more stressed than usual.  When dogs have already reached the threshold of what they can take emotionally rational thinking is out of the way when the hormones are surging around the body.  This is why it’s dangerous to force a dog through a groom.  Dogs will always be talking to you via body language, when body language is ignored and the stress threshold is hit, a dog is basically forced into fight or flight.  Most dog groomers work with a dog with a restraint on the table to keep the dog there. i.e. a loop or noose.  Because a dog can’t escape as such, it pretty much leaves one option which is to fight.

In my experience I tend to find the more noise sensitive breeds more likely to be the worst offenders around this time of year.  I also find the dogs that are more sensitive to air pressure and thunderstorms also included in this group.  If I have a nervy dog that needs grooming I tend to avoid booking them in during this period as it’s not fair for both the dog or me, as the dog groomer.  I don’t like to see dogs stressed, it’s uncomfortable for me and them, it creates a bad experience, which can be remembered on the next groom.  You might also want to ensure you finish grooming before it starts going dark.

Dogs see the world differently to us, they have an amazing sense of smell, and hearing.  They can hear things that we as humans can’t.  They can also hear noises further afield from us, if you’re a mobile groomer you might find that the dogs can already predict your arrival as they learn the association of your vehicle noise, just like they can tell when the post man is due.  Sometimes you might find the dog a bit dancy towards the end of the groom, it could be because they know the owners car is nearby.  The hertz frequency range of hearing for dogs is perceived to be from 47 up to 60,000 hz.  Humans hear from 20 to 20,000 hz.

The best way to manage cortisol levels is rest! Removing stressors. Endorphins helps to reduce cortisol and adrenaline hormones.  Endorphins can be created by exercise and things that make the dog happy.  It’s the best mood elevator.   The most kind thing to do during this time is let the dog rest and create a safe place indoors where they feel most comfortable, and avoid booking them in the salon. 

Other alternatives to help dogs are the conventional treatment route via a veterinary surgeon.  You would need to consult your local practise for more information.  As with dog foods and treats, medications are changing and improving all the time along with other natural more holistic approaches.

You might want to consider a treatment available by consultation with a veterinary surgeon who will asses each dog on its own merit and health condition.  These are some treatments available:  Sileo, Zylkene, Kalmaid, Adaptil diffusers, collars, sprays. Pet Remedy sprays. Please don’t leave it too late to obtain medication, research the suggestions in detail before committing for your dog or for your customers dogs.  It’s still frightening to hear that dogs are still being prescribed ACP (Acepromazine) for fireworks phobia.  This is a common drug in a veterinary practise that is used as a pre med before commencing the next steps of surgery.  It basically stops the dog from being able to move its body, the dog can still hear and still experience the mental anguish, but can’t move.  It has been described as an equivalent to the date rape drug.  The last 10 years has seen a move away from this treatment to help dogs with fireworks as it doesn’t help as they can still hear and feel and be very very frightened and traumatised, it just means their body cant function to save themselves.

You may have heard of sound CD’s with scary noise and fireworks on, you would play at a very low volume and slowly increase exposure as a way of getting a dog used to them.  This is known as desensitisation and counter conditioning a training method used to work with dogs that show emotional issues.  As we rapidly approach this period, the chances of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning as a method of training most likely is a bit last minute.  This process can take as much as 9 months.  January is the best time to start with this training.

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