As we approach the end of the year, summer holidays and various feasts and festivities, we need to remember the impending increase in loud noises such as thunderstorms, fireworks and gunshots.

A dog’s hearing is five times more sensitive than that of a human, while a cat’s hearing is even more sensitive than that of a dog.  It has been said that a firecracker sounds like a bomb to a dog or cat and that animals often sense impending thunderstorms before they arrive.

Fear of an unknown noise is a normal behaviour pattern, but should this fear become excessive, it may lead to abnormal or unacceptable behaviour. Animals, when exposed to these noises, will often act unpredictably as they cannot place and comprehend the sound.  They appear terrified, tremble, pant and have dilated pupils.  In addition, they may appear skittish, nervous, try to hide away and may bite.  Their reactions may result in physical injury to themselves and others.  This may occur as a result of direct trauma, e.g. by the fireworks themselves.  It may occur indirectly when the animal in fear, tries to flee the noise and runs into a window pane.

Psychological harm from the noise of especially firecrackers, can cause animals to attack each other and even their owners.  Animals with a fear of thunder, suffer from similar physical and psychological trauma.

So what are the options:

Breeding and socialization:  A basic element of the canine temperament is a ‘steadiness to noise’.  It has nothing to do with size or breed, but is in the genes of the animal and can be influenced to a certain extent, by training and socialization.  Breeders need to ensure that they only breed with animals showing a steadiness to loud noises and exclude those that are fearful.  They should also socialize the offspring correctly and ensure that the new owner continues to do likewise.  Remember that firecrackers and/or thunder are not part of everyday life.

Punishment has little effect on these pets and paying attention to them during this time, often leads to negative reinforcement.

Tranquillisers:  These may be prescribed through your veterinarian in the form of tablets or syrup.  Care needs to be taken in certain breeds and older pets.

Homeopathy:  The word is derived from the Greek work ‘homios’ meaning similar or like, and ‘pathos’, suggesting pain or suffering.  Homeopathy is the medical practice of treating like with like, using a similar method.  Medications in homeopathy would thus produce similar symptoms to the ones being suffered, if they were given to a healthy animal.  Conventional medicine normally uses the opposite method, where the medicines are given to stop something happening.

Homeopathic remedies do not cause chemical action in the animal’s body, and thus work differently to nutrients or drugs.  For example Eco-Fear (Eco-Vet range of products).

Herbal remedies:  These differ from homeopathic remedies in the method of preparation and mode of action.  Herbal remedies use full strength preparations and have been safely used for centuries before the advent of modern drugs.  The remedies are usually in either liquid or dried form and have a specific action on organs such as the kidney or liver.  For example, Serenity formula with 5-HTP (The Herbal Pet Range).

Pheromones:  Pheromones are naturally occurring chemicals that animals release in certain situations.  In dogs they mimic the mother dog’s pheromones which she produces to calm her puppies.  These pheromones are recognized even by adult dogs and helps them to cope with stressful or new situations.  Wall diffusers, sprays and collars impregnated with pheromones are becoming more widely used.  E.g.  DAP range (CEVA Sante Animale) and Nurture CALM collar (Afrivet).

Other:  Many natural feed ingredients such as amino acids and vitamins have a natural calming effect on the nervous system and help to relieve stress.  L-Theanine is an anti-stress amino acid working to increase production of alpha waves in the brain helping with physical and mental relaxation.  E.g. Anxitane (Virbac Animal Health, and CalmEze from Cipla Vet Animal Health.

Practical Advice:

  • Be aware of when festivals such as Divali, Guy Fawkes and the Chinese New Year take place.
  • Try to remain at home during these times.
  • Ensure pets are securely locked away in a place that they are comfortable in.
  • Ensure that they are wearing collars and discs, have microchips and that the details are up to date.
  • Close the curtains and play a radio as background music to help mask the unusual noises.
  • Try to remain calm and not show fear yourself when the crackers go off.
  • Medication needs to be administered correctly and in sufficient time (usually a week in advance for supplements), so that the animal receives the full benefit.

The source of the problem should always be identified first;  then by paying attention  to the times of the year and weather conditions as supplied by the weather bureau on TV, radio, and the print media, adequate preparations can be made ahead of time.  Remember that each animal is an individual and should be treated as such.  While each option has its own benefits, not all will work for that individual or its problem.  Many options may need to be tried before the right one has been found for the pet and this can be time consuming and expensive.  The pet will often need to be on these remedies for the rest of his/her life, for the problems to be kept under control.  Ultimately, however, the pet and owner will benefit.

(References available on request)