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Old June 29th, 2003, 06:45 PM
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Protect pets from terrors of fireworks

Tips to keep them safe and sane
Conditioning, medication useful

DR. MARTY BECKER
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

While the human family is oohing and aahing over Canada Day fireworks, many family pets are frightened out of their wits and spend this time of year under the bed, in the basement, cowering, shaking, drooling and seeking safety and comfort even if it means running through a plate glass window to find it.

Dog's senses are much more acute than ours. They hear, smell and sense things only imaginable to humans. Because their hearing is more sensitive at both ends of the spectrum, a benign bottle rocket to us may seem like the first salvo of Armageddon to them. There are also strange smells of gunpowder, objects streaking across the sky, blinding flashes of light and darting children, all of which can trigger a flight or flight response.

Such sheer terror keeps veterinary emergency rooms very busy. Veterinarians may see cases of traumatic fireworks injuries, injuries from pets running through windows, escaping from the house or yard and being hit by cars, not to mention diarrhea and colitis from severe stress.

"Leave your dog at home when you go to the fireworks displays," said Suzanne Hetts, an animal behaviourist in Littleton, Colo. "Dogs do not enjoy fireworks, and you run the significant risk of your dog developing a severe noise phobia that will make summertime unpleasant for you both in the future.

Keep your dog inside more in the days preceding the fireworks season, Hetts continues. "Sounds from fireworks are much more intense when the dog is outside as compared to inside. Keeping him in will not only offer some degree of dampening of the loudness, but he will have more places to hide inside than outside. Lastly, should he become panicked enough to try to escape, he won't be able to get out of the yard if he's inside."

"Phobias don't get better with age," said Amy Shojai, author of Complete Care For Your Aging Dog. She suggests giving your dog a job to do during the fireworks, like retrieving a tennis ball, practising heel or gnawing on a rawhide chew.

Although we try to comfort our pets, Dr. Rolan Tripp, a veterinary behaviourist said, "don't reward the fear." What has a calming effect is for them to see that you aren't freaking out. If you remain calm and don't baby them, they'll be closer to leaning how to handle loud noises.

For some dogs, whatever their owners try to do for them just doesn't work, said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of If Only They Could Speak. "For those poor, sensitive creatures, medical treatment, including the oral administration of the neurohormone, melatonin, often provides much needed relief."

Dr. Linda Aronson of PetShrink in Norfolk, Mass., said that melatonin works for about 80 per cent of her patients and can turn their fears into acceptance or indifference in 10 to 15 minutes. Aronson said that melatonin is safe to use as long as necessary as there appears to be no habituation.

Aronson cautions people to use plain melatonin tablets not sublingual, time release or capsule forms. Dodman says that while melatonin may be available over-the-counter at pharmacies and health food stores, you should always consult your veterinarian for an exact dosage.

Some dogs do well with melatonin in their system before the noises begin. The experts advise giving the first dose at least 30 minutes before you expect fireworks to begin.

Unlike people on melatonin, most dogs don't sleep.

A technique called progressive desensitization can help noise phobic dogs. However, it may be too late to begin to desensitize him before the fireworks start this year, Hetts said. Make a commitment to work with a behaviourist as soon as firework season is over so you'll be prepared for next year.

Knight Ridder Newspapers
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