Fireworks and pets: How to keep dogs and cats safe on New Year's Eve

Vets share advice on best ways to ensure safety and comfort

Dogs and cats can get spooked by fireworks and loud noises because of their heightened sensitivity to sound. Getty Images
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As New Year’s Eve approaches, many places around the world will celebrate with fireworks, including the UAE. While the vibrant displays often symbolise new beginnings, not everyone enjoys them.

This is especially true for animals that have a heightened sensitivity to sound and can be adversely impacted when exposed to sudden, loud noises that seemingly come out of nowhere.

A 2022 impact survey by the RSPCA found that 76 per cent of respondents reported their dogs experiencing distress because of fireworks, while the ASPCA reports that one in five pets go missing after being scared by loud noises.

When fireworks go wrong

Dubai resident Kiera Doherty has had her rescue dog Pepsi since he was five months old. He was never considered a “nervous” dog until a recent incident near her home where children were playing with balloons and firecrackers. Doherty believes the exposure traumatised Pepsi.

“He is a pretty confident dog,” she says. “I acclimatised him to fireworks when he was young by putting on YouTube videos of big firework displays in the background and I normally put them on again each year before New Year’s Eve.

“But now he won’t eat his favourite snacks; his tail goes between his legs; he runs to the front door to get far away from the windows or hides; he stops eating dinner for a few days; he whines and cries and just keeps looking at me for help.”

Becca Jessop, who also lives in Dubai, had a similar issue when she was walking her two dogs, Lexi and Bruno, during Ramadan a couple of years ago. She recalls it was around iftar, when, unexpectedly, a single firework rose out of a garden and exploded above them.

While Bruno was OK, a frightened Lexi began running back towards their home. When Jessop finally caught up to her, she realised the damage that had been done, saying the dog has “never been the same again”.

She explains: “Every time we left the house, she would stand and shake with fear. Eventually, I could walk her in different areas, areas that she had no memories of. But if she heard children playing, she would be reduced to a frozen, shaking, crying dog.

“All of this is because of one lone firework, let off in the daylight.”

Early preparedness

Dr Martin Wyness, of the British Veterinary Centre in Abu Dhabi, says it is important to be prepared to avoid this type of incident and to know which clinics may be open in case an emergency occurs, such as if a pet gets injured because it is scared.

“Be aware of when fireworks are likely to occur and prepare accordingly,” advises Wyness, who also suggests creating a safe space for pets, somewhere they can easily access if they are feeling scared.

“This could be a quiet room, a crate or any area where your pet feels secure. Use blankets to muffle sound and close curtains to block out flashing lights. Encourage pets to retreat to this safe place during stressful events,” he says.

Dr Katrin Jahn, owner and head doctor at German Vet in Abu Dhabi, agrees that adjusting a pet’s environment can be helpful.

“This can be achieved by keeping curtains or blinds closed, playing calming music, occupying the pet by giving them a tasty and long-lasting treat such as a stuffed Kong or a chew toy, and giving them physical comfort, such as petting them or embracing them, but only if they like this, of course,” she says.

Pets should also be properly identified, whether it means putting on an ID tag or collar or getting them microchipped, in case they run off.

Physical and mental signs of distress

When an animal is scared, there tend to be obvious physical signs, says Dr Wyness. If a dog is mildly frightened, they may shake, tuck their tail in between their legs, hide or be less active.

If a dog is in a heightened sense of panic, however, they will also show physical symptoms such as breathing heavily or walking back and forth trying to get away. They may also be trembling or panting.

Dr Jahn says pets may also show more subtle signs of anxiety and stress, such as licking their lips or yawning. “Some may lick or chew on their paws and some may have classic body postures of anxiety such as ears pointing back.”

Signs in cats can be harder to recognise. If a feline is scared or anxious, they will stay still or crouch to the ground to appear smaller. They will also look for places to hide, go outside of their litter box, or become more aggressive by spitting and hissing. They may also start overeating or sleeping more.

Physically, their eyes will widen and pupils will be dilated. They’ll arch their back and their fur may stand up. Similarly to dogs, cats too tuck their tails underneath them when distressed.

What to do afterwards

Getting pets to calm down after a shock can be a difficult task. While most fireworks displays only last between five to 10 minutes, an animal's panic and anxiety can last much longer.

If you have a frightened pet, Dr Wyness suggests maintaining routine as much as possible, meaning stick to regular feeding, walking and playtime schedules. “Consistency and predictability help reduce anxiety,” he says.

In extreme cases, behavioural therapy and medications may be used for a limited time. It is also advisable to consult a vet for help.

“Pets can have real panic attacks during these events and that has an impact on brain health,” adds Dr Jahn. “If we don’t help them through these events, it is likely that their experience and behaviours become worse the next time they are exposed to fireworks. Therefore, it is important to seek professional help and advice for pets suffering from fear of fireworks.”

Both vets say an owner should never discipline a pet because of the behaviour displayed when they are scared.

“If they bark, whine or destroy things, they are doing this out of fear, not because they are being naughty or destructive,” says Dr Jahn. “They need help, empathy and support in this moment, and owners need to have strategies and tools they can use to help their pets through these events.”

Jessop says it took eight months and two force-free trainers (dog trainers who do not use any type of force or intimidation) to get Lexi back on track to being her normal self. However, even now, years later, there are still some signs of post-trauma.

“If we are out for a walk and she hears something that even sounds like a firework, such as a car backfiring or a door banging, she will pull on her leash and bolt for home,” she says.

Doherty, who is still trying to help Pepsi ease her apprehension, urges those who want to celebrate during the holidays to do so safely.

“Go to organised events and be considerate of nature, pets and people who live around you who can suffer from anxiety when hearing loud bangs, pops and startling noises.”

Updated: December 29, 2023, 3:58 AM