Fireworks Frighten Animals. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

Here’s how to take care of your pets on July 4 and party like its Independence Day too

By Jill L. Ferguson

July 2, 2023

Photo by Firn/iStock

On the Fourth of July a few years ago, I came home from a friend’s picnic to find my otherwise brave cattle dog—the one who defended himself against four big raccoons simultaneously and had the facial scars to prove it—curled in the fetal position under a desk. Nacho’s back was against the wall. His ears were flattened against his head. His whole body shook, and he panted in distress due to fireworks noises coming from a neighbor’s backyard. Seeing Nacho like this broke my heart, and I promised to never leave him alone on the Fourth of July again. 

Why do some animals remain calm during loud noises while others go into fight-or-flight mode? Science provides many answers. For example, mothers who experience high levels of stress during pregnancy may pass the stress hormone cortisol (and a propensity for anxiety) onto their offspring. An animal’s breed, sex, reproductive status, length of time with their human companion, and prior exposure to loud noises may all determine how an animal reacts or doesn’t. 

Many animals hear better than humans. For example, a study done by researchers at Louisiana State University showed that dogs hear at almost twice as high a frequency range than humans, and cats are almost triple that. But as animals age, they may lose the ability to detect higher frequencies, which give important location cues, and this may increase an animal’s stress level.  

Also, loud sounds can cause animals physical pain and may be even more damaging to animals’ hearing than they are to humans. Decibels at 85 or above are damage-causing to both human and nonhuman animals, and fireworks often range from 150 to 175 decibels, which is one reason why animals react so forcefully.

Domesticated animals aren’t the only ones affected by the noise of fireworks. Wildlife can be terrified too. Deer and coyotes have been known to run to escape the sounds and cause traffic accidents, and birds have abandoned nests and flown into buildings and other obstacles, according to Huntington Beach’s Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, as reported by NBC Los Angeles. In 2011, thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell dead from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas, after being startled by fireworks. 

Stress signs in pets

The loudness and unpredictability of fireworks can cause in dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, and even horses a range of anxiety and stress behaviors, including acting passive or aggressive; making audible sounds like barking or neighing, whining, howling, or whimpering; pawing; chewing or biting; drooling; shaking; hiding; or stiffening. 

The pawing and biting can cause self-harm, as can other behaviors. A horse in Wales caused his owner and himself lots of grief when he became so spooked by fireworks that he ran round and round his field and ended up twisting his gut so he had to be put down, according to the Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals.

If a pet tries to escape from a kennel or the house to find a safer place from the noise, they can do unintended damage to their paws, teeth, or other body parts. Audrey Cook at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences said, “The most common problems we see reflect the pet’s desperate efforts to escape from perceived danger. Cats may hide and run away and be injured in the process. Dogs may also hurt themselves trying to get away from the noise.” The ASPCA warns that nearly one in five lost pets go missing due to loud noises like fireworks.

In 2020, retired Southern California pharmacist Gary Ostrowski and his husband adopted a chowchow that they named Jen-Kway. They didn’t know she was terrified of loud noises but discovered she was after they returned from a dinner during Independence Day weekend and found the inside of their doors scratched raw. Someone in the neighborhood had set off fireworks, and Jen-Kway tried desperately to escape the noise. 

Ways to help your pet

Ostrowski tried his best to calm his dog. But eventually he had to seek veterinary advice. Now Ostrowski gives Jen-Kway the prescription drug gabapentin to help soothe her. He said the vet first suggested ondansetron, but that did not have any effect. (Similar to drug effects in humans, some drugs work for some pets and not others.) Ostrowski said the gabapentin makes their dog “a little sleepy so she doesn’t react as severely to the noises." She still freaks out, but they keep her curled up with them in a closed room with the television on. Over time, Jen-Kway has become more tolerant of the noise and seeks out her humans for comfort.  

Some online advice tells pet guardians that the best approach to dealing with the intermittent lights and loud explosions of fireworks is to desensitize your animal. This means to expose them to loud, sporadic sounds regularly to get them to overcome their fears. But Cook said that’s not a very effective approach. “It is probably more effective to protect your pet from the noise or to train it to focus on you when any loud noises occur.” 

You can do this by playing with your pet or engaging them in a game or a training exercise. These types of activities—where you remain calm and cheerful—help your pet deduce that there is no cause for anxiety. You can also, or simultaneously with the play, create a space with white noise of either ambient sounds or soothing music or put on a television show or movie as a way to help block out the noise. White noise can include running the air conditioning or fans or even a white noise machine.

If you’ve tried the above and still need additional ways to calm you pet, you could invest in products like Mutt Muffs, which is hearing protection for dogs, or a Happy Hoodie Calming Cap, or even a Thundershirt. Both are clothing that claim to reduce anxiety and make your pet feel more secure. 

Do we really need all that noise to celebrate July 4?

Another, obvious way we can help our pets is to stop making all that racket in the first place. Many people take it for granted that on July 4, there must be fireworks. Loud fireworks. Otherwise, it’s not a celebration of Independence Day, is it?

Not necessarily. Some cities have formally recognized the potential for widespread trauma in wildlife, pets, and people—including veterans and gun violence survivors—caused by the sound of pyrotechnics. Those cities have banned loud fireworks and successfully replaced them with quiet alternatives, such as silent fireworks or drone light shows. 

In 2015, Collecchio, a town in the Italian province of Parma, banned everything but silent fireworks, which are still pyrotechnics but much quieter (like the comet tail, which shoots into the air with sparkles before fizzling out, or the flying fish, which sends tadpole-like embers flying from a silent burst). Other places around the world, such as Banff, in Alberta, Canada, and Jamestown, Rhode Island, and Costa Mesa, California, have adopted similar policies and practices. 

Advocacy group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is trying to increase the places that use animal-friendly ways to celebrate the Fourth of July. Yearly since 2017, PETA has offered numerous US cities and towns money to use either silent fireworks or drone light shows to “increase the quality of life for animals, wildlife, kids, and those who suffer from PTSD,” said PETA spokesperson Colin Henstock

The best things we can do for our animal friends is to advocate for their well-being and show them love and care when they are afraid. That principle need not throw a wet blanket over July 4 festivities. We can have our cake and eat it too.