May 17 2012

Thunderstorms, Fireworks & Things That Go Boom

Dr. Jacqueline Nicholson

With Fourth of July just around the corner, many of you are aware of significant changes in your pets’ behavior when exposed to sudden loud noises. Why do dogs fear fireworks and thunderstorms? Too many dogs are left outdoors during such times, sometimes with no shelter at all. Anyone would be scared with good reason. Even seemingly confident dogs may show a variety of signs during thunderstorms/fireworks including: panting, trembling, hiding, pacing, vocalizing, and being destructive. Humane societies and shelters take in more stray animals during the Fourth of July holiday because many pets are scared and run off during fireworks. The good news is that there are a few things you can do to help pets cope with outdoor noises.

If you have some time before the 4th of July, you can desensitize your dog in a few simple steps:

  • Play a recording/video of fireworks or thunderstorms at a low volume a few times during the day. Pair the sounds with things your dog likes such as treats or toys.
  • Begin to raise the volume of the recording/video over the course of several days, and continue to pair these sounds with things that your dog enjoys. If your dog begins to show signs of fear, turn the volume down to a point where they feel more comfortable.
  • Repeat this several times each day until your dog can hear these sounds without becoming fearful.

Regardless of your dog’s level of comfort with outdoor noises, please take these special precautions:

  • Make sure all pets are wearing collars with securely fastened ID tags. Microchips are great ID’s too. Even a backfiring car can be enough to make a dog run off.
  • Don’t take pets to events with fireworks.
  • If fireworks are being set off nearby, provide a quiet, sheltered space for your pet. Your dog may find the spot himself, leaving you to make sure it stays available to him. Dogs often prefer bathrooms (sometimes the bathtub), closets, and crates that are in quieter parts of the house. Make sure you put chew toys in the crate to occupy the pet during the event. Darkening the room can help.
  • Some dogs find it comforting to get under a blanket. Don’t leave a dog alone with the covering if the dog is likely to chew and swallow pieces of it.
  • Do not leave pets outside, even in a fenced yard, when fireworks might be set off nearby.
  • Scolding or coddling a scared dog will not help. Scolding will scare your pet, and coddling serves to reinforce fearful behaviors.
  • If you’re going out of town for the holidays, place the care of your pets with a friend or a trusted boarding facility.

If you don’t have time to prepare for the fireworks, or if desensitization hasn’t worked as well as you hoped, there are still things your can do to help.

Don’t push your pets past their comfort zone. Allow them to hide if they feel more comfortable in their crate or under a bed. Don’t force them closer to the fireworks in an attempt to get them used to the sounds. This may result in an increase in fear, and frightened dogs may become aggressive.

In severe cases, nothing may work to ease your dog’s fear. If you think there’s a chance your dog will exhibit a very high level of fear, talk to your veterinarian about medication. They may be able to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication or sedative to keep your dog calm during the fireworks.

Medication may be the only answer to get through the fireworks this year. You and your veterinarian may decide to medicate your dog with an anti-anxiety drug year-round. Many of these medications generally do not work until your dog has been on them for weeks. Due to the unpredictability of storms, it may not be possible to administer a sedative when it’s needed.

Fireworks can turn holidays such as the Fourth of July into miserable nights for dogs. Don’t take firework and thunderstorm phobia lightly, even if the problem seems minor in your dog. If you handle it poorly, it will get worse, and dogs have been known to jump through glass windows during storms. Some dogs will throw up. Others will flee fenced yards. Preventative measures are important. Speak with your veterinarian if you have a fearful dog. If handled appropriately, your family, your friends, and your pets will have a more enjoyable Fourth of July!

Jacqueline A. Nicholson, DVM




Dr. Nicholson graduated from the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. She was born in New York City and raised in northern New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Alfred University and completed a post-Baccalaureate / Pre-Veterinary Program at Rutgers University.


Over the last nine years, Dr. Nicholson has gained an extensive amount of experience at emergency and specialist hospitals in both New York and New Jersey – including The Animal Medical Center in New York City. After graduation, she completed a one year rotating internship program at Garden State Veterinary Specialists where she was exposed to a wide range of specialty fields including Emergency Medicine, Surgery, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Ophthalmology, Dermatology and Neurology. This experience will be invaluable to both our team and our clients.

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