Scaredy Cats and Frightened Fidos
A heartbreakingly large number of cats and dogs suffer terrible fear and anxiety from fireworks displays and thunderstorms.
Unfortunately, many of these pets are still given a medication called acepromazine (or as it’s more commonly called… “Ace”) in an effort to help them through these terrifying events.
Truth is though, while acepromazine, a very powerful and effective tranquilizer, may make it look like your dog or cat is handling the fireworks or thunderstorm well, they are actually suffering just as much, if not more (because acepromazine prevents them from showing you or doing anything about it!).
Why Acepromazine Alone Isn’t Ideal for Fireworks or Thunderstorm Anxieties
Acepromazine definitely has its place in veterinary medicine, just not as a single therapy to help cats or dogs through fearful or anxiety-inducing experiences. This is because acepromazine does little to nothing to help lessen or relieve the fear and anxiety that these suffering pets experience from fireworks and thunderstorms. What it does do though, and do well, is make them unable to move and/or exhibit any of the other outward signs of their fear and anxiety. Ace is kind of like a “chemical straightjacket” in these instances.
And as if that wouldn’t be bad enough, Ace can actually increase a pet’s sensitivity to noises! Given that fireworks and thunderstorm phobias are, at their core, noise aversions and phobias, you can see where this would definitely not be a desirable effect for the drug being used presumably to treat these conditions.
This Is What It Is Like For Your Noise-Phobic Pet On “Ace”Imagine you’re on the surgical table getting ready to have one of your kidneys removed — a procedure you’re not likely excited about to begin with. Your anesthesiologist has given you a medication to make you groggy and unable to move, but hasn’t given you anything that will prevent you from feeling or experiencing the pain. In fact, the medications they’ve administered may actually make you more sensitive to the pain!
Is this a procedure you want to go forward with? And, assuming that you had an unlimited supply of kidneys, if this surgical procedure were to be repeated year after year (as is the case with 4th of July, Canada Day, Guy Fawkes Day, and New Years Eve fireworks) or periodically throughout the summer (as is often the case with thunderstorms), how excited do you suppose you’d be for it the next time it occurred?
Is it any wonder then that pets who receive Ace for their noise phobias tend to keep needing it?
Fireworks Are Coming!!
What You Can Do Now For Your Dogs & Cats
Fortunately, we know more now about helping pets with the fear and anxiety that drives the signs that you often see during fireworks and other such events — the panting, pacing, “clinginess”, hiding, shaking, etc. And thankfully there are now far better alternatives — such as alprazolam and/or trazodone — that your vet or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist can prescribe. But they’ll need time to determine and dispense the best medication(s) for your pets, and you’ll need time to do “test doses” to determine the safest and most effective dose of the medication(s), too. And depending on when your vet or behaviorist last examined your pets, or any pre-existing medical conditions your pets may have or chronic medications they may be on, your vet or behaviorist may also need to do a current physical exam or blood/urine monitoring tests.
There's even a medication specifically developed and FDA-licensed to help dogs who suffer from noise phobias and anxiety from fireworks - it's called Sileo. Since being launched in 2016, Sileo has helped thousands of dogs (and their people, by extension) get through fireworks and thunderstorms more calmly and with less distress. Sileo is a fast-acting, non-sedating gel that you put on your dog's gums to help prevent or treat their noise aversion to fireworks or thunder. As with alprazolam and trazodone, Sileo is available by prescription only, and it's not appropriate for every dog.
To best help your pets with their noise phobias you really need to speak with your veterinarian or behaviorist as early as possible, and especially well in advance of any expected fireworks displays or thunderstorm seasons. The 3rd of July is a horrible (and extremely busy) time to contact your vet with a “firework meds” request!
And it should go without saying, but it’s important enough to say anyway… never give your pets any medication or supplement without first speaking with your veterinarian. As with other drug classes, when dealing with behavior modification medications, there can be significant undesirable side effects when drugs are inappropriately used together or when they’re given at inappropriate dosages — including Serotonin Syndrome.
“Drug-Free” Tools To Help Pets With Fireworks or Thunderstorm PhobiasOf course some pets don’t respond fully to medications, and others might not be able to take them because of existing medical conditions or the possibility of interactions with the drugs they’re currently on. Some cats and dogs have such mild noise phobias that they may not even need anti-anxiety drugs to help them through their fireworks or thunderstorm phobias. Fortunately there are many “non-drug” aids and tricks that can be useful — either alone or in combination with each other or even with some of the prescribed anti-anxiety drugs. Here are a few…
Solliquin - These chewables help support normal behavior and facilitate a calming effect.
- Zylkene - This non-drowsy nutritional supplement helps promote sense of calm for pets stressed over fireworks or thunderstorms.
- Composure - Available for both cats and dogs, this calming supplement chew promotes relaxed behavior during stressful events.
*Note: Always check with your veterinarian first before starting or adding a behavior-modifying supplement to your pet's treatment protocol. Certain supplement or supplement and medication combinations can be dangerous for your pets.
- Anti-anxiety wraps: The Thundershirt applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over excitement. It is available for both cats and dogs.
- White noise: You can simply play music on the radio, or use a dedicated music player to help mask the sounds of fireworks or thunderstorms.
- Habituation and Desensitization CDs: This Canine Noise Phobia Series from Through A Dog’s Ear merges classical music with common household and outside sounds to help desensitize your pet to noises they encounter.
Since a tired and distracted pet is less likely to be disturbed by the sounds of fireworks, it's often helpful to play with or exercise them in advance of the fireworks going off and then to provide them with a good good chew toy or food puzzle to keep their brain otherwise engaged during the fireworks. Here's an article on choosing the right chew toy for your dog (some can actually be quite dangerous, especially depending on your dog's "chewsonality"), an article on choosing the best food puzzles and interactive toys for dogs, and some helpful interactive feeder tips for cats (half-way down the linked article).
A PARTING NOTE OF CAUTION: Please be aware and careful with any off-leash exercise or play you might do with your dog prior to the fireworks, as one never knows exactly when the neighbor's fireworks displays will happen and you don't want your unleashed dog getting spooked and running off.
Everybody and every pet can have different experiences though. Please share your experiences, so we can best help dogs and dog lovers everywhere.
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