Over the last few weeks, we have been presented with an unusually high number of stray animals at both of our clinics. The lovely warm Queensland weather that we have all become accustomed to, also brings with it, some rip-roaring thunderstorms!
Although we cannot be sure, it seems highly coincidental that an influx of stray pets has been preceded by a big storm! It makes sense – when an animal is afraid, it is likely to display a fight or flight response – with the flight response often resulting in anxious pets running away from home!
Also during the summer months, and especially towards the end of the year, various parties are thrown in honour of Halloween, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and Australia Day, when fireworks are used during celebrations. These ‘big-bangs’ are unfamiliar and scary for many animals and noise-phobic pets adopt self-management strategies in order to cope with their anxieties. These strategies may include:
- Attempting to escape the home
- Digging into carpets
- Seeking out dark den-like spaces to hide in
- Pacing back and forth
- Becoming highly destructive
- Becoming unable to focus
- Excessive panting
- Pupil dilation
- Sweating paws
- Raised heartbeat
- Loss of appetite
- An inability to settle
- Lip licking
- Frantic behaviours
Here are some of our top tips on reducing anxiety for your pet this summer season:
In preparation for a night of fireworks or a big storm, a good burst of exercise may help your pet be more relaxed. For dogs, in particular, mild anxiety and excitability may be reduced if they have had a long walk earlier in the day. NEVER walk your dog during the actual noisy occurrence, and if storm phobic, avoid going out as the dark clouds start to roll in! Dogs can be very sensitive to atmospheric pressure and can often detect when the weather is changing before we do!
Keeping your pet indoors can help it to feel safer, as well as provide it with shelter, reduce it’s exposure to the elements, and allow it to be closer to you. Don’t forget to lock the cat flap and check windows! If you cannot be at home with your pet, ensure there is nothing for your pet to injure itself on while left alone. If you cannot bring your pet indoors, you must provide an area that will attract it to seek out a safe shelter within your property boundaries.
Secure den or ‘cubby’
Prepare a ‘den’ for your pet before the expected event. Research shows that animals tend to run away from danger so you may want to try securing them inside a ‘safe zone’.
Collapsible crates can be purchased through our clinic or online, but these are always best used under supervision, and practice makes perfect! Offering your pet a yummy meal, some treats, chews and toys in the ‘den’ over a period of time running up to firework or storm nights can make the den a safer, more appealing place to visit, and when you pet is comfortable with it, can be used for many purposes.
The den must be available to your pet at all times so it becomes a permanent fixture that your furry friend can actually choose to seek out when feeling afraid, tired, or seek solitude in. It should never be an unfamiliar structure that is set up and used in correlation with ‘scary events’. Try draping a large blanket over the top so your pet can hide.
Reduce visionary and aural stimuli
If your pet is indoors, close the blinds or curtains and leave the lights on so that any flashing lights (such as lightning or fireworks) from outside are less obvious.
If your pet is kept indoors during a firework display, turning the radio or television on may help to mask the noise from outside. Make sure the TV channel you select doesn’t relay the fireworks! Select your channel carefully!
Fluffy cotton wool balls can be used as makeshift earplugs for some pets. Apply one, to two balls in both ears (without pushing them in too far). Always remember to count how many you apply, and carefully remove them after the event.
You can also train your dog with positive rewards to wear pet specific noise-canceling headphones, such as ‘Mutt Muffs’, which you can buy from www.safeandsoundpets.com.
Recent research suggests that many pets actually benefit from close contact with their owners when they are highly stressed. It can be absolutely heartbreaking to watch a petrified pet that starts trembling, panting or running in fear when loud noises start. Many leading behavioural experts say it’s totally fine to soothe them. Never punish or become angry at a fearful dog. This will often increase the anxiety because your dog is not sure what it is doing wrong!
The recent opinion of specialised veterinary behavioural specialists suggests that you will not reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog, and you won’t make the fear worse. Ignoring a fearful, panicky dog deprives him of whatever comfort and psychological support you can give him. It also leaves him without any information about what he should be doing instead.
If there is an activity your dog or cat can’t get enough of, then this might be something to try during a noisy event. This can include playing fetch, chase games, offering treats, cuddling and petting, or holding your pet close to you if you can see that it provides comfort.
If your dog tends to run around wildly inside, secure a harness and keep it close to you until it has calmed down.
Installing a calming pheromone product such as an Adaptil (https://www.adaptil.com/au) plug-in diffuser for dogs, a or Feliway (https://www.feliway.com/au) diffuser for cats may help in reducing anxiety. The longer your pet is exposed to the pheromone prior to the noisy event, the better prepared they will be to cope with the challenge.
These products work by diffusing a synthetic version of a ‘well-being’ pheromone, giving your pet the message that it is in a safe, stress-free environment. This product can be purchased from either of our clinics, over the counter.
Many people come into our clinics and ask for an over the counter ‘sedative’ for stressful events. Unfortunately, sedative medications only work to reduce the frantic actions of your pet and are completely pointless in reducing the anxiety (causing their frantic behaviours!). Under the effects of a sedative, your pet will still be very anxious – just sedate and anxious!
If required, one of our veterinarians can prescribe a very specific anti-anxiety medication, but if a vet has not seen your pet in some months, you will need to book an appointment to have your pet re-checked before this can be dispensed. Medication may not suit all pets due to age, physical condition, or pre-existing medical ailments.
A desensitisation program may be considered, however, the exposure to this type of therapy must be graded and should only be done under the guidance of a professional. The idea behind it is to desensitise your pet to certain noises by playing a CD containing those to which it is afraid.
These tight t-shirts are anecdotally reported to help calm anxious dogs, by providing an experience similar to a ‘big hug’ ( www.thundershirt.com.au). Think of swaddling a baby…..
However, you need to be aware that in an Australian summer heat, such garments could be a major concern. If your dog is wearing such a shirt, then you need to be around to assist in case the dog becomes entangled or over-heated.
It is important that your dog or cat is permanently identifiable. It is a legal requirement to chip your dog or cat (if born after the 10th of April, 2009) in the state of Queensland. Any pet wandering at large may become injured, lost or stolen and you may incur a fine from your local council if it is picked up and taken to the pound.
A microchip will ensure that your pet can be identified and returned to you as your details will be linked to the microchip number and retained at a pet registry that is accessible 24 hours a day.
I can’t tell you how many lost pets we see, who have been chipped but whose owner details are not up to date! Unfortunately, these pets must go through the correct channels such as a pound or shelter to be reunited with their families, or rehomed completely if the family cannot be found.
In summary, noise phobia’s in domestic pets can be difficult to manage, and trying a variety of therapies and techniques can improve your pet’s ability to cope. Being prepared is one of the best things you can do to help.
For further information on any of the above information or products, call Greater Springfield Veterinary Staff on (07) 3288 1574.