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Fireworks season is once again with us, and many animals can become distressed at the level of noise throughout this time. Some may even flee in panic to reach a place of safety.
But what is the scientific basis behind the anxiety pets like cats and dogs feel in the fireworks season?
Why does the sound of fireworks lead to possible weeks of torment for them on nights like the celebration of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November?
This day of course is often a springboard to celebrations around the seasonal holidays at the end of the year.
This anxiety can lead to fearful escape tactics and can lead animals to scale high perimeter walls, get stuck in fences, and end up wandering the streets for weeks.
Dog researchers around the world have investigated what makes dogs react to loud or booming sounds with fear. Studies done by Professor Daniel Mills in the UK show dogs hear more than twice as many frequencies as humans, and they can also hear sounds roughly four times further away.
The loud volume of the fireworks, as well as the inability to locate the sounds, can increase the severity of stress for a dog in fireworks season. Mills says hearing the noise and not knowing where it is coming from is scary for a dog.
Cats and dogs can hear a wider range of sounds, and softer sounds than humans. The pitch of a sound is measured in Hertz (Hz) and kilohertz (KHz) the comparative hearing ranges of dogs, cats and humans are the following:
Humans: 20 Hz — 23 KHz
Dogs: 60 Hz — 45 KHz
Cats: 45 Hz — 64 KHz
Cats can hear sounds at least two and a half octaves higher than humans can. Dogs can hear five times more acutely than humans and cats about twice as acutely as dogs. This explains why dogs and cats are so scared by the sound of fireworks.
What might not seem so loud to us, are in fact at least five times louder to our pets.
1. How to comfort pets during the fireworks season
According to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, a tactic that can help pets and their owners to deal with fireworks fear is to prevent the fear of fireworks from developing.
Stefanie Riemer, who studies dogs and their emotions with the University of Bern’s Companion Animal Behaviour Group in Switzerland, says they found in the study at-home counterconditioning is an effective tool to combat fireworks fear.
With this technique when fireworks start, owners are instructed to play with the dog, give treats and express positive emotions. Riemer found dogs who received this counterconditioning were 70 percent less scared during fireworks than dogs who did not.
If you were unable to do counterconditioning in an impressionable stage of your dog’s life, like when he was a puppy, you can always try the following:
- Create comforting distractions like turning on the television or radio and shut the curtains to limit the noise and flashes from the fireworks. If your dogs need to go out after dark, keep them on a lead – reports of lost dogs increase in firework season.
- Block off cat flaps but be sure to provide an indoor litter tray.
- Stay at home to comfort your pet if he comes to you for reassurance and remain calm and relaxed.
- Create a safe place indoors for them with easy access but avoid constantly checking on them in their safe hide-away as this can heighten anxiety.
2. How to comfort birds in the fireworks season
Birdlife South Africa says they strongly oppose fireworks as it leads to heightened stress levels for birds due to the noise. The organisation also warns fireworks at night can lead to roosting birds taking flight and risk colliding with territorial infrastructure.
Birds can be helped by:
- Removing or covering bird feeders and bird baths before fireworks season. Hopefully this discourage birds from being in urban areas and ensures that no ash, debris or other firework residue land in the feeders or water source.
- Cleaning up all firework residue promptly as it could contain toxic chemicals and other poisons that can harm animals that may ingest them.
3. How to care for wild animals in the fireworks season
Wild animals on the edge of urban areas like caracals on a mountainside and wild animals in city parks like squirrels and rabbits, can easily be disorientated with bright flashes and hard sounds. It can cause them to run into roadways, resulting in more car accidents than normal and to injuries to the animals. This is often seen during the fireworks season, when wildlife rehabilitation centres fill up with injured and orphaned wild animals.
Another danger to wild animals is casings and heavy metals that are littered by fireworks and are often mistakenly consumed by wildlife or even fed to their young. These materials can be toxic and lead to choking.
Pollutants from fireworks often wash into waterways and contaminate drinking water for the animals that rely on it. In areas prone to wildfires, firework embers can start a blaze that kills many wildlife species.
When talking about fireworks and animal welfare, prevention is better than cure for all animals, but this is not always possible. In the case of wild animals, you can help by:
- Make up a volunteer group to clean beaches, a popular place to set off fireworks, the day afterwards as marine animals ingesting firework debris can also die from the toxic materials.
- Nests and dens are often abandoned by parents during fireworks season and the offspring of wildlife animals are abandoned to fend for themselves. If you know about such nests or dens, it is a good idea to check in the day after the fireworks if all is well. Take any injured animals or orphans to wildlife centres in your vicinity.