These five treatments work for nearly every patient
Whether it’s a nationwide celebration or a backyard gathering in the midsummer, fireworks play an important role in the enjoyment of the summer months all around the world. Particularly in the United States, as we approach July 4th, fireworks begin to become ubiquitous. It would not be a normal late June without the telltale cracks and pops of fireworks being lit across the city each night. Teenagers, kids, and adults alike generally appreciate a good firework or two. Our furry friends; however, often do not. Fortunately, your pet does not need to suffer the whole time your city is celebrating. There are several ways to keep your animal calm. Here is a list of the five most successful means to help your pet feel comfortable during this problematic time of year.
1. Pressure garments
Pressure shirts and other compressing garment types are based on the idea that compression can alleviate anxiety, by providing a calming sensation to the patient. A notable study on this concept was done in the late 1990s evaluating the benefits of a “hug machine” on children with excessive sensory stimulation secondary to their autism. Thundershirts* are probably the most familiar example of this product for pets. It is important to note, that you must get your pet familiar with the article of clothing before trying it for a stressful event. Don’t make the mistake of rushing them into a compression shirt for the first time when they are already anxious. They would likely inadvertently fear the shirt itself too.
These shirts may be more effective if the rest of the environment is also altered to be more calming to the patient. For instance, darkening the room and putting on quiet background noise can aid your pet. Some animals prefer no additional noise at all and that the room is completely dark. Additionally, you, as the owner, are often a source of calm that your pet needs. If it is possible to be present with your pet throughout the stressful event, you may provide them some extra relief. Unfortunately, the data around pressure garments are mixed, and much of what we know is anecdotal. This is a decent review of some of the research out there.
2. Alprazolam (Xanax)
Alprazolam, or Xanax, is a benzodiazepine anti-depressant agent that many will recognize as being widely used in people. In both dogs and cats, it is used to alleviate day to day anxiety behaviors, inappropriate urination in cats, and general panic based fears like thunderstorms and fireworks. As with many treatments in veterinary medicine, large sample size studies focused on specific drugs are few and far between. However, when evaluated, at least as an adjunct therapy, dosing Alprazolam about 60 minutes before a fireworks show helps reduce anxiety-based behaviors.
Generally, one dose of Alprazolam is enough to get the patient through the stressful event. Many anxiety medications have the unlikely potential to induce instead an unwanted hyperexcitable state. Obviously, if you are trying to reduce your pet’s fear of fireworks, this would be an unwanted side effect. So, it is important to see how the drug is going to affect your pet before giving it for fireworks.
Trazodone is another anti-anxiety medication that works by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, a commonly targeted hormone for anxiety relief. Similar to Alprazolam, Trazodone has a variety of uses for pets in their day to day lives to alleviate more minor sources of anxiety. It is also commonly used for postoperative sedation following complex orthopedic surgeries. Trazodone improves pets’ willingness to rest during the most critical times of healing.
Trazodone, like Alprazolam, must be administered about 60 minutes prior to the fireworks or other stressful events to give the best chance of success. For longer-term use, it can be given twice per day, but this may not be sufficient to help with the stress of fireworks or thunderstorms. Your veterinarian will instruct you on how to dose this properly for more acute anxieties to help make sure your pet has stress relief for the entire event.
4. Dexmedetomidine Gel (Sileo)
Dexmedetomidine is a sedative that works by binding receptors involved in the excitement process called alpha 2 adrenergic receptors. The drug may cause significant sedation depending on how it is administered. Sileo is a product containing Dexmedotomidine that has been compounded into a gel for topical application on the gums. This prevents an owner from having to force a pill down their pet’s throat. I like this product as I have had fairly strong success with it over the years. The added benefit is that Sileo is specifically approved by the FDA for fireworks phobia in dogs.
Again, as with all the treatments we’ve discussed, it must be applied 30–60 minutes before the fireworks beginning. It can generally be reapplied once after a couple of hours if the effect is not as pronounced as desired; though, your veterinarian will instruct you on how to safely repeat dosing for your pet.
Gabapentin is a neuropathic pain medication which has a mechanism of action that is not thoroughly understood. Its efficacy for pain relief is largely anecdotal in the veterinary world; however, it often causes some level of sedation and anxiety relief for the patient as well. The sedation and anti-anxiety benefits at certain doses seem to apply more for cats. While it has not been specifically studied in cats for fireworks phobias, a study examining feral cats in cage-trapping scenarios showed that gabapentin given before the event significantly reduced fear and stress.
Gabapentin may prove useful for kitties that fear fireworks each year; though there is still much work to be done in determining all of the uses for Gabapentin in veterinary medicine. Additionally, this medication would need to be given at least 30 minutes before the stressor as with the other drugs discussed. One dose of Gabapentin will usually be enough to get your pet through the stressful event, do not repeat the dosage without instruction from your veterinarian.
These five treatments are not a comprehensive list of all the possible medications and behavioral modifications that can be used to alleviate your fur ball’s fireworks stress. However, these methods are some that I have found to be quite effective over the years. As the Fourth of July approaches every year, it is a nightmare for some owners whose pets cannot handle the noise. These medications and garments can help make for a less stressful holiday for the owner and pet alike.
All of the drugs that I discuss here are by prescription only, and Alprazolam is a federally controlled substance. So, if you have not been into your veterinarian within a year, they will not be legally allowed to prescribe you these medications.
It is worth noting that many behavioral modification techniques can be useful in addition to the options listed here. Counter-conditioning and positive reinforcement can go a long way towards reducing the stress of the multi-sensory overload that fireworks can create. I focused mostly on more immediate fixes, like pharmaceutical interventions, in this article as counter-conditioning can take months, or even years, to complete.
Finally, avoidance is a reasonable technique too. I have many clients that ‘head to the hills’, so to speak, as the Fourth of July approaches. Many people seek a camping trip in an area that does not allow fireworks as a means to avoid this stressful time. Obviously, this won’t be an option for all owners, but it is certainly worth considering. Thanks for reading!
*I have no affiliation with the Thunderworks Company (the creator of Thundershirt), and clicking this link does not profit me in any way.