ABSTRACT: Fear of fireworks in pets is very common and can impact on the animals' welfare, as well as leading to more severe problems. Management in itself is not adequate and drugs do not cure the problem. Changing the fear response can be successful, but needs to be done carefully and gradually, using desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Veterinary staff are in a good position to help prevent fear of fireworks developing in the first place, by discussing habituation from an early age. Although most pets are unlikely ever to enjoy fireworks, owners should do their best to make it tolerable for them.

Some pet owners believe it is normal for their animal to be scared of fireworks and that they just need to live with it; and to a certain extent, fear of fireworks is normal, as it is a natural response to a threat. Such responses, in general, enable survival.

Problems occur when the fear response becomes extreme, and impacts on the animal’s welfare. Often owners don’t understand how the fear of fireworks may affect the quality of life of their pets, and how it may lead to other more severe problems, if not handled and treated appropriately (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Fireworks – fun for people, not for pets

As firework activity usually only occurs at certain times of the year, owners often treat the problem symptomatically while they have to do so, and forget about it for the rest of the year – until it starts again.

Management in itself is not adequate, as it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem.

Research suggests fear of noises does not resolve itself, and can generalise and develop into more serious widespread fear of other noises and subsequent behaviour problems.1

Not just a problem in dogs

Most information available on fear of fireworks is based on experience with dogs – often cats and other pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and other ‘small furries’, are overlooked. Why should this be the case? Can they not feel fear of loud noises and fireworks to the same extent as dogs?

The answer is, most likely, ‘Yes’. But their behaviour seems to impact less on owners of these animals, because rabbits and ‘small furries’ are prey species, and will often hide or ‘freeze’ and not show many outward signs of anxiety. Cats will often hide too, if fearful. This does not mean that they are not suffering or feeling fearful, so the impact of fireworks on them should also be considered.

Fear of fireworks and other loud noises is, unfortunately, a very common problem. Blackwell et al. (2005) found that 49 per cent of dogs experience fear of loud noises, and 45 per cent of owners interviewed reported that their dog showed fearful behaviour to noises.1 Dale et al. (2010) found that 46 per cent of dogs and cats experienced a level of fear recognisable by their owners.2

No data are available on rabbits or other small pets, but considering the threat that loud noises present to smaller animals, we could reasonably assume that cats, as well as rabbits and other small furries’, are affected to the same extent as dogs.

Evidence-based recommendations

Research has revealed that dogs are more likely to show an active fear response, whereas cats tend to hide.2 Studies have also found that shaking and trembling is the most common behaviour displayed when a dog is startled by a loud noise or fireworks.1'3

Other common signs of fear in cats and dogs include: avoidance/hiding, ‘flattened’ ears, cowering body position, defensive aggression, ‘freezing’, pacing, dilated pupils, vocalisation, panting and not wanting to eat or drink (Figure 2).4

Figure 2: Cat, with dilated pupils, hiding

Recently, the BSAVA published guidelines on management and treatment of firework phobias in dogs.5 They contain summaries of recommendations for both short-term and long-term management of firework phobias. They also highlight which pharmaceutical agents are appropriate and the reasons why some others are not.

Across much of the UK, fireworks are only used on certain dates of the year. In some areas, however, the release of fireworks is more widespread and it is not always possible to predict when they will go off. On the dates when firework activity can be predicted, there are many behavioural short-term measures that owners can employ in order to make their pets more comfortable.

Short-term behavioural measures

Be sure to keep animals indoors. Walk dogs before dark and keep cats inside, if possible; close/block the cat flap. Provide a litter tray for the cats so they have somewhere to toilet indoors.

If you have rabbits or guinea pigs kept outdoors, bring the hutches inside. If the hutches are too big, consider bringing the pets inside in smaller cages, or cover up the outside hutches with blankets in order to muffle the sound and block out the flashes of light.

Give all animals the opportunity to hide. Create a den in a place where they like spending time. Make sure it is a dark, secure place; away from any objects on which the animals can harm themselves should they panic.

You can create a den for dogs and cats by giving them a cardboard box placed on its side, with blankets or an old duvet inside. Cover the box with a blanket to muffle the sound (Figure 3). For rabbits and ‘small furries’, make sure you give them plenty of bedding so they can hide and muffle the sound. Cover the cage if necessary.

Figure 3: A secure hiding space for a small dog or cat

Pull the blinds or draw the curtains in the room in which the pets are kept, in order to hide the flashes of light from the fireworks. Play music to mask the sound of the fireworks (as long as the animal is used to this and not fearful of the music!).

Make sure that you don’t react to the pet’s fearful behaviour – responding to it by trying to reassure them may just make the problem worse. It is best to leave your pet to cope, and let them come out of their own accord once the fireworks have passed.

Additional steps

In addition to behavioural measures, dogs with extreme fear responses may benefit from the administration of anxiolytic drugs. Guidance on these can be found in the BSAVA statement.5 It is, however, important to remember that anxiolytic drugs do not cure the problem and should not be used on a long-term basis.

It is imperative for the dog’s welfare, therefore, that long-term behaviour therapy is put in place, with the help of a qualified behaviourist to change the underlying emotion that the dog is feeling.

The BSAVA statement does also address the use of pheromones, homoeopathy and nutraceuticals, and evidence for the efficacy of these is variable. So it is important that the use of these products should not delay appropriate behavioural treatment or drug therapy.

The BSAVA policy statement suggests – based on a study by Levine et al. (2007) – that it is possible for owners to proceed with desensitisation and counter¬conditioning using appropriate products.6 It is important, however, that before owners embark on this process, they understand the principles behind this approach and are able to recognise signs of fear in their dog.

When carrying out desensitisation and counter-conditioning, it is vital that the animal remains relaxed at all times. If the animal reacts to the noise during the desensitisation process it is likely to become more fearful.

In the cases presented to behaviour clinics, it is far too common to see dogs with fear of noises that has become worse when owners have attempted desensitisation without proper support. It is, therefore, best to refer cases to a qualified behaviourist who can develop an individualised treatment plan for the animal in question, and provide the necessary support for the clients. For a list of certified clinical animal behaviourists, visit http://asab.nottingham.ac.uk/accred/reg.php 


Prevention is better than cure

Veterinary staff are in a great position to discuss prevention of fear of fireworks and other loud noises when they have first contact with new puppy and kitten owners. During the early weeks of life – known as the socialisation period – the brain is developing rapidly and a ‘template for normality’ is formed.

By exposing young animals to sounds – fireworks and thunder, for example – very gradually at a low volume, it is possible to habituate them to these noises, so that they are less likely to develop fears later in life.

Habituation to noises can be achieved using a high-quality recording, such as the ‘Sounds Sociable’ CD (http://www.soundtherapy4pets.com/sound-phobias/sociable/0/), starting at very low levels as soon as their ears open.

It is important, when trying to habituate any animal to something, that the individual does not show any fear response. If animals do become fearful in these situations, they are likely to develop an adverse reaction to the sounds, rather than learn something positive about the noises.

Fireworks can be fun for us humans; and even if they are unlikely to ever be fun for our pets, we can help make them more tolerable for them. 


Christine Bolster BSC MSC

Christine has an undergraduate Degree in Psychology and an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare. She is currently working at Bristol University at the department of Clinical Veterinary Science. She is part of the clinical behaviour team, working towards accreditation as a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00224.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 387-390.


1. BLACKWELL. E.. CASEY. R. and BRADSHAW. J. [2005] Firework Fears and Phobias in the Domestic Dog. RSPCA website. Available: http://www.rspca.org.uk/servlet/Satellite?blobcol=urlblob&blobheader=application%2Fpdf&blobkey=id&blo btable=RSPCABlob&blobwhere=1131368232338&ssbinary=true

2.   DALE. A. R.. WALKER. J. K.. FARNWORTH. M. J. MORRISSEY, S.V and WARAN, N. K. (2010) A survey of owners' perceptions of lear of fireworks in a sample of dogs and cats in New Zealand' New Zealand Veterinary Journal 58[6]: 286-291

3.   BEERDA B., SCHILDER M. B. H„ VAN HOOF J. A. R. A. M.. DE VRIES H. W. and MOL J. A. [2000] Behavioural and hormonal indicators of enduring environmental stress in dogs'. Animal Welfare 9(1): 49 – 62.

4.   CASEY. R. (20021. Fear and stress' in Horwittz, D. F., Mills, D. S. & Heath, S. [Ed] BSAVA Manual for Canine & Feline Behavioural Medicine. British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Gloucester, England.

5.   BSAVA Policy statement on Management and Treatment of Firework Phobias in Dogs (2009) BSAVA website. Available: http://www.bsava.com/Advice/PolicyStatements/ManagementandTreatmentofFireworkPhobias/tabid/495/Default.aspx

6.   LEVINE. E. D., RAMOS, D.. and MILLS, D.S, (2007) A prospective study of two self-help CD based desensitisation and counter-conditioning programmes with the use of Dog Appeasing Pheromone for the treatment of fireworks fears in dogs [Canis familiarisl]. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 105[4]: 311-329.


• VOL 27 • October 2012 • Veterinary Nursing Journal