An eruption of noise on a June night startled Rajah as the dog played in her South Carolina backyard. It was fireworks.
Rajah eventually found her way back home, as documented in a now-viral late-night doorbell video, but the dog is far from alone in having a frantic reaction to fireworks. It’s a recurring problem for pets every Fourth of July, and this year is shaping up to be especially bad.
That’s because many Americans are looking forward to a more normal — and much louder — Fourth of July this year after pandemic restrictions canceled last year’s festivities. More than half of American adults plan to watch fireworks, according to a survey from The Vacationer, an online travel news hub.
But as the pandemic continues to recede across the U.S., this Fourth of July will likely be even more distressing for pets, according to animal-care experts.
Pets already “have an extremely difficult time dealing with the loud noises of fireworks,” Pia Silvani, who serves as behavior director at Asheville Humane Society in North Carolina, said. But the pent-up social energy of people celebrating the rollback of pandemic restrictions could raise pets’ stress levels even more.
“It might be worse also because there hasn’t been a lot of noise and I think people are ready to have a huge celebration, so I think there’s gonna be an increase in noises,” Silvani said. “We’re already hearing fireworks going [off].”
Why do fireworks stress out dogs, cats and other pets?
Pets don’t dislike fireworks because they’re unpatriotic — it’s a built-in feature of their advanced hearing.
Nadine Znajda, a veterinary dermatologist from BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa, Florida, said part of pets’ sensitivity to sound stems from their wide range of hearing, which allows them to process a litany of sounds. Znajda said dogs can hear about twice as many sound frequencies as people and four times the distance humans can hear. If a person hears a sound 20 feet away, a dog can hear the same sound 80 feet away.
And for dogs, hearing sound is not just an auditory perception: it’s a full-body sensory experience. Znajda said dogs’ ears, which “are designed to kind of funnel in sounds,” contribute to their sensitivity to loud noises. Since sound is also transmitted through vibrations, Znajda said dogs can perceive both audible and vibrational sounds – they can hear and feel sound.
Ben Williamson, programs director at the animal-rights group World Animal Protection, points out that in addition to the increased noise level, this Fourth of July will be the first one for pet owners who adopted animals earlier in the pandemic. Williamson said the short adjustment period for pets can introduce another stressor amid the holiday activity and require a heightened alertness from pet owners.
“For many people who fostered or adopted animals for the first time during the pandemic, this will be the first Fourth of July for the animals in their new settings, so guardians must take extra care to look out for their new companions during this stressful evening for animals,” Williamson wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
Williamson said although much of science’s dialogue on animals and loud noises tends to center on dogs because of canines’ sharp hearing, all kinds of pets can be adversely affected by loud noise: cats, small rodents such as rabbits and hamsters — even horses.
Lisa Radosta, a veterinary behaviorist from Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, said she’s worried people might get so caught up in the joy of holiday celebrations that they overlook the emotional well-being of their pets.
“My biggest concern is that people will be so excited to get out and experience gatherings and celebrations that they will not make sure that their pets are safe from traumatic experiences,” Radosta wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
Williamson said people should make the effort this Independence Day to accommodate the animals in their lives as much as possible.
“Our animals provide unconditional love and security for us throughout the year,” Williamson said. “So on this one night of the year, isn’t it right that we return the favor and provide them with extra love and attention?”
If there’s any good news for pets, it may be that fireworks this year are harder to come by than usual.
Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the fireworks trade group the American Pyrotechnics Association, said even though the APA anticipates “backyard celebrations will rise” this Fourth of July, a series of manufacturing and transportation issues may limit the number of fireworks available to consumers.
“Consumer fireworks, like many household consumer products, are caught up in the global supply chain disruption resulting from the pandemic,” Heckman said in an APA press release.
How to help pets stressed out by fireworks
Silvani, Williamson, Radosta and Courtney McWilliams, owner of the Louisiana-based pet daycare and spa boutique MaryMac’s Doggie Retreat, suggested a number of tips that can help reduce the overwhelmingness of the Fourth of July for the furry friends – especially dogs and cats – in your life.
- Create a “safe haven” for your pet: Find a quiet, insulated place in your home – it could be the bathroom, the basement or even under the covers of your bed – where your pet can retreat when things get too loud.
- Show some affection: Something as simple as petting an animal that’s seeking your attention can help ease some of its stress. And don’t worry — petting your scared pet won’t encourage fearful behavior in the future, Silvani said.
- Get some lavender oil for your dog: Lavender oil, which has been shown to reduce anxiety, can be very useful in keeping dogs calm by dabbing it under a dog’s nose or collar.
- If you’re traveling, consider a pet hotel: A small pet hotel or boarding facility can be ideal for anxiety-prone dogs; the small space allows for a more home-like atmosphere, as well as one-on-one attention from staff. Take your dog to visit a few days before, so it can familiarize itself with the place.
- Take your dog(s) out early for physical activity: You’ll avoid the nighttime fireworks, and the exercise will help tire your dog out sooner.
- Put on some white noise at home: Leaving the TV on in the background or putting on some music can help mask some of the louder, harsher sounds your pet might hear throughout the night.
- Microchip your pet(s): The injectable implant, which gives your pet a unique identification number, will improve your chances of being reunited, in the event your pet ends up fleeing the home in fear.
- Stay on the lookout: Many pets run away from home in the midst of fireworks going off. Even people who aren’t pet owners can help pets stay safe by remaining vigilant.
- Coordinate a fireworks schedule: Reach out to your neighbors who are pet owners; let them know when you plan on setting off fireworks, so they can take the appropriate measures to keep their pets safe.
Things to avoid when your pet is stressed by fireworks
The negative impacts of the Fourth of July on pets can be far-reaching. Radosta said that while certain symptoms of distress in dogs, such as drooling, trembling, destructive behavior, self-harm and hiding might be temporary in scope, the overall physical impact of loud noise can significantly alter a dog’s behavior.
“What is especially heartbreaking is that some of these dogs are so traumatized that it may take months before they are able to walk outside again without fear,” Radosta said.
Here are some missteps you should avoid during a noisy holiday, according to experts.
- Medicating your pet should be a last resort: Explore other relaxation techniques for your pet before opting for a medicinal remedy. A veterinarian should be consulted before administering any anti-anxiety medication to a pet.
- Don’t ignore your dog or expect its distress to naturally subside: Noise phobias gradually worsen for dogs, which means the sensory trauma of the holiday can become compacted over time, making each Fourth of July more unbearable than the last.
- Be cautious of who you let around your pet: Although there’s a low risk of transmission for pets, the recent emergence of the Delta variant of COVID-19 also presents a risk factor for animals brought to social events during the holiday. Use pet-friendly wipes or bathe your pet to reduce this risk.
- Leave your dog at home: The overstimulation of large crowds and the roar of nearby fireworks are too overwhelming for most dogs to handle.
And if you plan on setting off fireworks yourself, you may want to rethink that too.
“Silent fireworks are used in some towns and cities around the world, which produce even more of a spectacle,” Williamson said. “Lights and laser shows are also calmer affairs. You might just want to gather your friends and family around a big bonfire.
“The bigger picture is this, it’s 2021: it’s time to find another way to celebrate than by terrifying our most loyal of friends.”
Contributing: Marina Pitofsky