Why the Fourth of July Sucks For Dogs (And How To Fix It)

The Fourth of July is undeniably the most harrowing holiday … for our dogs. 

The degree to which dogs experience anxiety due to the pervasive sounds and smells of fiery explosives may not impress us humans, culturally acclimated to this celebratory experience as we’ve become. But our pets are another matter. 

Dogs in particular experience these sensory inputs as immediate threats to their security. In fact, it’s not too extreme to say that many dogs fear for their very lives when exposed to the advancing din of incendiary devices. That’s why every fifth, I do my best to stay off the highways. 

The highways? What do the highways have to do with it? Let me explain: 

The perils:

Every fifth of July I dread the roads. The carcasses of dogs are inevitably littered there, their brightly-colored collars a miserable testament to their status as beloved pets. A couple of my local highways seem especially prone to this travesty as a result of their proximity to densely populated residential districts. (Though I tried hard not to look I still saw six last year!)

These animals are beyond a doubt the victims of a double-headed crime against dogs: the obliviousness of their owners to their own pets’ severe suffering along with a failure to keep them safely contained. After all, these dogs were driven into the streets, whipped to a froth over fences and under gates as a result of their abject fear of the “festivities.” And it could have been prevented –– at least the escape part. 

“He never did that before” is the all-too ubiquitous dog owner response to this kind of tragedy. Which, I guess, is a thoughtless way of shifting blame to the victim, disinclined as some are to take responsibility for the cluelessness that attends these crimes. 

The stats:

Think I’m overreacting? That my neighborhood is different from yours? While I’ll allow that both may well be the case, consider these national statistics before you pass judgment: During the 4th and the 6th of July, animal control officials see a 30-60% annual increase in lost dogs. And those are just the dogs that actually make it to the shelters. (What happens to the rest?) 

It’s true. Shelters absolutely teem during these days. As you might imagine, their workers quickly get overwhelmed, what with caring for their new charges and getting them back home again. And these are the lucky ones I didn’t see on the highway this year. 

The solution:

But enough about the wrongs perpetrated against dogdom. Let’s get to the meat of the matter, instead: the solution. 

That’s the real story here, right? Because this post (or this blog, for that matter) isn’t really for those who don’t know or care enough to accomplish the simplest of dog duties. This post is for the more advanced dog POG (parent/owner/guardian). Because even if you’re the most responsible, hyper-educated POG out there, you have to continually hone your canine skill set to keep pace with veterinary science.  

To wit, the newest recommendations with respect to general noise phobias –– which includes both firework and thunderstorm phobia –– are the result of a greater understanding of these phobias in general. 

For example, it’s now widely understood that the phobia begins in response to the noise of fireworks or storms but gradually evolves into a specific anxiety disorder related to the particular stimulus associated with either of these events. 

Over time, these dogs become highly sensitized to all kinds of related stimulus (the smell of burning sulfur and the vivid sight of faraway fireworks in the sky, for example). Eventually, dogs come to relate all these things to the feeling of panic, which worsens over time as the uncontrollable and noxious stimulus bombards them mercilessly, Fourth after miserable Fourth.

Things to know:

Here are some other things we know about this condition:

  • Owners tend to recognize the severity of the problem when dogs are young adults or even when they’re already middle-aged. 
  • Most firework-phobic dogs experienced milder forms of the phobia when they were younger.
  • Attention-seeking, panting, pacing, hiding and/or whining eventually gives way to destruction, escape attempts, self-trauma and other signs of extreme panic. 
  • Dogs who are genetically predisposed to other anxiety disorders are also predisposed to fireworks-related phobia.
  • Prevention typically involves early socialization (before 14 weeks of age), which involves exposing pups to a wide variety of sounds and other stimuli.
  • Early treatment is key. Staring early means you can step in before the condition progresses to a more difficult level of manageability.
  • Behavior modification is the standard preach to treatment. This is where veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists come in. We can teach you how to do this safely and effectively at home.

Dos and Don’ts:

Here’s an excerpt from a handout my local veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Lisa Radosta, authored on the subject:

“Do …

  1. Plan ahead. Contact your veterinarian in June to discuss medications which may help your pet be comfortable on July 4th. Most medications for this use require dosing trials with your pet (testing their effect on your pet at the prescribed dosage) before they can actually be used effectively on July 4th.
  2. Drown out the sound of the fireworks. Turn on the radio, TV, fan or “white noise” machine.
  3. Keep your pet occupied. Give your pet something fun to do like a food filled toy, or play their favorite game with them.
  4. Hand your pet 3 toys from the toy box that he or she hasn’t seen in a while.
  5. Change your attitude. Act excited and happy and your dog will often follow.
  6. Change the environment. Consider boarding at your veterinarian’s hospital or a boarding facility.
  7. Create a safe and soundproof place for your pet to go during the fireworks.

Don’t …

  1. Punish your dog for their destructive behavior. They are panicked. If you punish them, you will teach them to not only be afraid of the fireworks, but also to be afraid of you, too. This will not help their behavior to improve.
  2. Entice your pet to get in your lap or to cuddle with you. While cuddling may seem like the most loving thing to do, in the long run, it will actually worsen your pet’s behavior. First, it teaches your pet that you are the only way to stay safe when he or she is frightened. Unfortunately, you will not always be able to be with your pet when he or she is in a frightening situation. If you don’t teach him or her another way to stay safe, your pet will be lost and even more panicked without you. Second, cuddling doesn’t give your pet any instruction. It doesn’t tell him or her how they can stay safe. As a result, they never learn the tools that they need to feel calmer.
  3. Take your pet to fireworks displays.”

[To which I’ll add one more don’t: Don’t leave your dog outside unattended. I know she’s probably annoying the heck out of you as you try to watch America’s Top Housewife but that’s no excuse for giving her the fright of her life or worse –– sending her to her death.]

But when all else fails … yes, drugs:

Unfortunately, by the time most POGs get their pets to the veterinarian, it’s way too late for many of the simpler measures. Drugs, therefore, are an essential component of successful treatment, much though most of us wish it weren’t true. Remember, this is a serious issue that affects the quality of life of dogs in ways we can’t even begin to understand. What we see is likely just the very tip of the iceberg.  

So when are drugs appropriate? 

  • If the condition is deemed moderate to severe.
  • If the afflicted dogs behave in ways that risk injury (breaking teeth by biting the bars of their crates, fracturing toes and claws when clawing their way through doors, etc.).
  • When dogs become at all destructive (a risk factor for future injury and without a doubt a problem behavior).
  • Should they make concerted attempts to escape the house or yard (another risk factor for trauma and/or loss).
  • When all other measures have failed to ameliorate the condition. 

Meds typically used to treat these patients on an as-needed basis include diazepam (Valium®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), alprazolam (Xanax®), trazodone and antihistamines like hydroxyzine and diphenhydramine (Benadryl®). 

For longer term treatment (required for many as a precursor to the event or if a whole season of stimulus is expected), many veterinarians will prescribe fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®) or clomipramine (Clomicalm®). 

Note: Plenty of nutraceuticals and other measures may be of some assistance but they are typically no match for the efficacy of drugs. These products should be used early in the course of the condition’s progression (perhaps even in pups, before any obvious signs of distress are noted) and/or as an adjunct to treatment with drugs. Here are some examples:

Though none of these have proved any better than a placebo (to be fair, only the Storm Defender™ cape has been independently studied), plenty of dog POGs have reported improvement in their pets’ attitude when these consumer products were employed. Moreover, none have proved at all injurious, so if you're willing … feel free to try them out and let us know what you think in your comments below. 

And while you’re at it … let us know what you've done to contain your pets or otherwise offer them a “safe zone” inside your home to help minimize their suffering.

-Dr. Patty Khuly