Things that go bang: 7 tips on helping your pet cope this storm and firework season

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Leave the swimmers away, because the Bureau of Meteorology called it: Australia’s wet and windy summer.

Those bleak forecasts that are set to see us during the holidays—due to seasonal weather events, La Niña—may leave you feeling drained of all the lost beach days.

But it’s also possible that your pet will be frustrated by the stormy transition, whether it’s out of a bit of stress or outright horror.

Dogs may show you that they are not coping by shaking, panting, freezing, or even running away. Fear signals can be more subtle in cats, but they often involve hiding until the storm has passed.

But it’s important not to feel helpless with all of these triggers guiding your pet’s path this summer – with a little patience and care, there are ways you can help them overcome them.

Read more: La Niña has been announced. Why should we care?

Animal ecologist Dr Joy Tribovich, a University of New South Wales Science Research Fellow with an interest in animal behavior, well-being and sensory ecology, says these panicked reactions can be perfectly normal.

“Storms are very loud, explosive and can happen unexpectedly. For an animal, this is very scary.”

However, storms are not the only things that trigger fear in our pets. Fireworks also include explosive noises and bright lights, and Dr. Trepović says they are one of the most reported causes of fear in our pets.

Either one of these two events is scary enough on its own. But with La Nina summer and New Year’s Eve fast approaching, these holidays are set to be – ahem – the perfect storm for our stressed pets.

A kitten with its head in its folded paws, hiding under a chair

Who is the scared cat? Photo: Unsplash.

weather the storm

Dr. Trebovich says the fear response that many animals experience makes sense in nature.

“If you’re out in the wild, you could get hit by lightning, get caught in a flash flood or crash into a falling tree,” she says.

“Wild animals often respond to loud thunder and sounds in similar ways to domestic animals, but it can be difficult for us to see that many of them are fleeing or hiding.”

But while a fear of storms and fireworks may be normal for your pet, it doesn’t have to be the norm. In fact, Dr. Trebovich says there is a good reason why we should support our pets as much as possible during these episodes.

“Long-term stress can be dangerous for our pets,” she says.

“It can lead to conditions such as skin infections, upset stomachs, and can ultimately shorten the animal’s life.”

Read more: Moving into an apartment building. Can I keep my pet?

There is one main thing for pet owners should not be Do when their pets are nervous.

“We definitely shouldn’t yell at our pets or punish them when they have a strong reaction,” she says. “Fear is a very primitive emotion, and our pets can’t help it.

“Your focus should always be on the ways you can support your pet.”

Pug with sad eyes lying on his stomach

Dr. Trepovich says our pets should never be punished for fear reactions – fear is an initial response, and they can’t help it. Photo: Unsplash.

Tips for helping your pet cope

1. Make sure they can’t escape

Pets often try to escape during storms and fireworks, but this does not mean that they do not like you – in fact, it can be a normal reaction to perceived danger.

But escaping can be dangerous for the animal, so Dr. Trepović says it’s important to make sure he can’t get out.

“You don’t want them to go out into the road, so make sure the fence or gate is secure,” she says. “If they escape somehow, you want to make sure they can safely go home, so make sure they wear a white collar and keep your contact details updated on their microchip.”

2. Provide a safe space for your pet

The next step is to give your pet a safe place in the house.

“Providing a safe place for your pet is very important,” says Dr. Tribovich. “This could be a room or a chest in which you trained them.”

Whatever space you choose, you can make it safer by blocking out the noise in some way, for example by turning on the TV or soft music.

“Having a dark space without many windows can also be beneficial,” she says.

A frightened French bulldog puppy with his owner patting his back

Dr. Trebovich says closing the curtains and playing soothing music can help distract your pet from the scary noises and lights outside. Photo: Unsplash.

3. Try to tire them out beforehand

If you know fireworks or storms are coming, it can help first of all to tire your pet out with exercise.

“Exercise can help your pet expend their energy before the storm comes,” says Dr. Trebovich. “Mentally and physically exhausting a dog may make the dog calmer.”

Read more: Who gets the dog? From “pet marriage” agreements to co-parenting

4. keep calm

Pets tend to feed our cues. But if we are present and calm during a storm or fireworks episode, we can help them reassure them that there is nothing to worry about.

“The animals will get used to our behavior,” says Dr. Trebovich. “We can help relieve their stress by not responding to loud noises in a frightening way ourselves.”

5. Desensitizing them

Desensitizing your pet to triggers can be another helpful stress management technique.

You can do this by playing thunder/fireworks sounds when your pet is in a good mood – perhaps while enjoying a bone or treat – and in a safe and comfortable environment.

“Desensitization can be a way to reassure your pet that nothing bad will happen to them when they hear that sound,” says Dr. Trebovich. “Although you just want to try this technique away from the Storm Ring.”

Kitten throws her head from behind a pillow

If you have a puppy or kitten, you have an extra opportunity to help prepare them for a stress-free future. Photo: Unsplash.

6. Train them young, if you can

Not all pets get stressed during storms – for example, you might have one dog napping happily in his bed while another panicked and hid in a corner of the house.

While it’s not fully understood why individual animals respond in certain ways, Dr. Trepović says it may be related to animals that were early exposed to these loud sounds. So if you have a puppy or kitten, you have one more opportunity now to help prepare them for a stress-free future.

“Early exposure with no negative association is good training for our pets,” says Dr. Trebovich. “The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life is the most important time to introduce them to these things. For cats, even older than that – about seven to eight weeks.”

Read more: Pets: the voiceless victims of the COVID-19 crisis

7. If their fear is strong, see a vet

Finally, Dr. Trepović says to never forget your first port of call when it comes to your pet’s health: your vet.

“Long-term stress is unhealthy, so if your pet has a strong reaction to these events, I suggest talking to your vet,” she says.

“There are a number of other measures your vet might suggest, for example, pheromones, anti-anxiety medications, or thunderstorm jackets.”

Getting rid of your pet’s anxiety is not something that can happen overnight.

But with a little patience and various management techniques, you may be able to help your furry friend—and yourself—have a more relaxing vacation.

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