To many Americans, Fourth of July evenings mean hot dogs, Lee Greenwood tunes and sparklers.
For Americans of the four-legged kind, Independence Day night is closer in tone to director Roland Emmerich’s visions of alien invasion. And, like the new sequel, it’s full of explosions and terror but light on fun.
“Loud bangs and whistles can not only cause pain in their ears but can also make the bravest of pets frightened,” David Neck, a small animal specialist with the Australian Veterinary Association, said in a statement.
July 5 is, in fact, widely reported to be the busiest day for animal shelters in the United States. As dog owners may know, roughly a third of dogs are susceptible to what veterinarians call noise aversion. When exposed to loud sounds, the pooches may shake, whine or, worse, scamper free from their leashes and homes in search of safer havens. Fireworks are a powerful trigger. On a typical weekend in San Diego, for instance, the county shelter takes in roughly three dozen dogs. In the days after the Fourth, the number of lost dogs increases to 70 or 80 animals.
With training, like the techniques used to turn gun-shy pups into hunting dogs, pets can learn to stop fearing fireworks. There are a number of temporary solutions, too, recommended by groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Some owners transform a tub or closet into a pup-friendly refuge. Or they try to tucker their pets out in the hours before the festivities begin so the animals snooze through the blasts. (The ASPCA also has an app to track lost pets.)
The massive pet industry has taken note, and now hawks products to mollify stressed dogs. Dogs that take low-dose melatonin supplements, PETA says, can stay calm even when facing Fourth of July firecrackers. A jacket designed for dogs, the ThunderShirt, is meant to bring peace through gentle constriction. There is limited research into how the ThunderShirt works, although one study found little change in behavior for anxious dogs wearing the wrapping. Actually holding your dog in a prolonged embrace, however, is not recommended by experts.
And if Fido is not appropriately mellowed out despite being confined in a tub, secured in a ThunderShirt or spiked with melatonin, there is now a drug specifically meant to treat dogs with noise aversion. Approved by the FDA in November under the trade name Sileo, the drug is an oral gel containing a pinch of a chemical called dexmedetomidine. Squeeze a bit of the gel onto a dog’s gums before fireworks, and as the drug is absorbed it dulls the effects of norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter with similar effects to adrenaline, and when suppressed it curbs the flight-or-fight response. Dexmedetomidine works a similar way in us, too, as doctors have used the drug to relax humans undergoing colonoscopies. The goal, according to Zoetis, the animal health company marketing Sileo in the United States, is to calm spooked dogs without stupefying them.
In a field study prior to FDA approval, European dog owners dosed 144 pets afraid of fireworks on New Year’s Eve, using either dexmedetomidine or a placebo gel. The owners did not know if their pet belonged to the control or study condition, but were asked to rate the efficacy of the substance. In 74 percent of the dogs on dexmedetomidine, the owners rated the drug as “excellent” or “good” at preventing anxiety. Owners in the control group rated the placebo as effective about 33 percent of the time. Side effects were limited but not absent: In one small study of 24 dogs, two vomited after taking the drug.
New Jersey veterinary behaviorist Emily Levine cautioned to the New York Times that although the drug certainly can be useful, it is no “miracle cure.” (It must also be prescribed by a veterinarian.)
A few other tips from the American Kennel Club: Play calming music to mask the sounds of fireworks, cover a crate with a blanket to shield any strange bursts of light, make sure your pet is microchipped in case of an escape — and if your dog is anxious, the presence of an owner close at hand can be soothing.