Sun, fireworks, and festivals with food and music: Sounds like the making of a great Fourth of July weekend for many of us. Not so much for our pets.
The very ingredients of summertime fun for people often cause anxiety, fear and illness in pets. It’s important for owners to understand summertime hazards for pets and to take steps that will help keep companion animals safe, healthy and happy.
Noise anxiety is common
Loud noise commonly provokes panic and phobia in dogs; sources include storms with clapping thunder and lightning, and the same music and fireworks that delight people. One study reports that about half of dog owners notice some level of noise-based fear response in their pups. In some cases, terrified dogs escape their homes and leashes, becoming hurt or lost.
There are varying reasons for noise-related anxiety in dogs, including lack of socialization, changes in sensory perceptions that occur with age, and possibly genetic factors.
When a dog is overcome by noise anxiety, chemical changes in the body result in increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Symptoms of fear response include trembling, drooling, pacing, panting, clinging to owners, whining and barking, chewing and clawing, and panicky attempts to hide or escape.
In a nutshell, a dog in this fearful state is not thinking straight; instead of correction, a dog needs care to cope with noise anxiety.
Medication and behavior modification
Your veterinarian can determine whether medication is appropriate to help provide your pet with short-term or long-term relief. There are several options, including a new drug for canine noise aversion recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration; the active ingredient, dexmedetomidine, affects neuron activity tied to anxiety and fear response.
If you know your dog will respond fearfully to fireworks, make an appointment with your vet well before the Fourth of July to discuss medication and behavior modification.
During a noisy event, an owner also may manage a dog’s environment in an effort to reduce stress response:
- Provide the dog with a safe space.
- This could be the room to which the dog runs when he’s scared; even a closet will work.
- Reduce light and sound in the safe space.
- Provide bedding, toys and soft music for comfort and distraction.
A form of behavior modification, known as counter-conditioning or habituation, might help significantly calm dogs with noise phobia. This is a longer-term process: Over time, owners use treats and controlled exposure to stimulus, teaching a dog to associate noise with pleasure and relaxation. The goal is to reduce or even prevent anxiety.
Learn more about calming noise anxiety by watching our online “Paging Dr. Ram” presentation with CSU animal behavior expert Jennie Willis.
Noise isn’t the only summertime problem for pets. Below are other important health-related notes.
Overheating and heat stroke
Heat-related illness is a leading preventable cause of multiple organ failure in dogs and may result in death. How can you prevent it?
- Avoid rigorous exercise in the heat. Dogs must pant to dissipate heat and regulate body temperature; this system is impaired when a dog is overheated, leading to cellular damage and organ failure.
- Dogs are more prone to heat-related illness as they age; if they have heavy coats or are overweight; if they are sick or on certain medications; and if they are a brachycephalic breed, characterized by short noses and flatter faces, such as bulldogs, boxers, pugs and Boston terriers.
- Provide plenty of shade and cool, fresh water; keep dogs inside on hot days.
- Never leave a dog in the car during summertime – not even in the shade or with the windows rolled down. Temperatures spike to killer levels in a matter of minutes.
Crowded summer festivals
- Heat – and the potential for dehydration and heat-related illness – is a concern during summertime events and festivals. In addition to air temperature, pavement temps can rise above 130 degrees F, damaging a dog’s footpads.
- Rich, salty, spicy food draws many of us to summer events. But festival food, if scarfed from the ground or a well-meaning hand, can sicken your pooch.
- Noise and crowds may trigger anxiety, fear and aggression in many dogs, especially those wary of strangers. The strain of being on constant threat-alert can trigger aggressive canine behavior and dog bites, even if your dog is not usually aggressive.
- Best bet: Leave your dog at home for his safety and the safety of others. In fact, many summertime festivals do not allow dogs.
Exposure to harmful rays
It’s important for some dogs to stay out of the sun or to be out only with sunscreen.
- Pups in this category are those with short, light-colored or thin hair coats, as well as those with autoimmune diseases involving the skin.
- Owners may use child-safe sunscreens for dogs; do not use sunscreen containing zinc or salicylates.
We advise pet owners to discuss summertime health hazards with their veterinarians and to know the signs and symptoms of problems – as well as the best ways to prevent and respond to those problems. With these steps, you’ll keep the fun in summertime for your pet and your family.
Contributors to this column are: Jennie Willis, Colorado State University instructor in applied companion animal behavior; Dr. Timothy Hackett, director of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital and a specialist in veterinary emergency and critical care; Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, chief of Community Practice at the hospital; and Dr. Jennifer Schissler, a CSU specialist in veterinary dermatology.