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Firework therapy
– vets launch new noise treatment for dogs


AS THE Firework ‘season’ begins to get into full swing, with loud airbomb-type fireworks going off at all times of the day and night, hopeful pet owners look towards the newly-enacted Firework Bill to control such antisocial measures when the new law takes effect in 2004 – assuming, of course, that the Government will use all the powers available to it within the Act.

In the meantime, many dogs and other pets will continue to be stressed by the lout-induced cacophony, their owners doing their best to try to minimise their distress.

However, help is at hand thanks to new research being conducted by a firm of Cheshire vets into sound desensitisation treatment for firework phobias in dogs.

Pete Coleshaw, the senior partner at Wright & Morton veterinary surgery in Congleton and his colleagues are seeking the help of OUR DOGS readers. Pete Colshaw said: "We very much hope that, through the pages of OUR DOGS we will be able to draw the attention of dog owners to this serious problem and to recruit their help in further developing an effective solution that will help thousands of pets, on time for this year’s firework season – which now runs from early November right through to January – and in the future."

As a pet owner and a practicing vet, Pete became only too aware of the distress caused to pets every year by fireworks when one of his own dogs, "Raab C" changed from a happy-go-lucky mutt who attended bonfire parties to a shivering wreck – triggered by a cannon-type firework exploding just next door. A straw poll of clients coming through the door of Pete’s practice in Congleton last November showed more than 60% of households to have one or more pet that is afraid of fireworks.

Unhappy with the traditional solutions of sedative and tranquillising drugs, the practice sought a more long-term solution with sound desensitisation therapy. Pete made a CD recording of a bonfire party as it happened, with all the bangs, whizzes, pops and squeaks, some distant, some closer to.

"The idea is to play the CD on a regular basis, starting at a very low intensity, increasing the volume over a period of time," says Pete. "You aim to never upset your pet. Over a number of weeks, your pet will become less responsive to these sounds. Play the CD in the evening when the fireworks are going off and it will also mask the sounds outside."

In conjunction with behaviourists, a questionnaire was developed and circulated to 200 users of the CD last year, assessing the efficacy of the programme. The results of this study confirmed the effectiveness of sound of the Fear of Fireworks programme and are awaiting publication in a professional paper.

Using this feedback from owners, the original protocols been modified and improved by the vets and now include a four stage programme: creating a safe environment for your pet, desensitisation, coping with the fireworks season and longer term care for firework phobic pets.

The Fear of Fireworks team are keen to evaluate the improved protocol and have developed their website to include a simple feedback form, which they hope dog owners will use to help them further their research. They would also like to hear from owners who have tried any other methods of dealing with this distressing problem and invite comments via the practice website at: www.fearoffireworks.com

As a thank you for the time and trouble involved, the Fear of Fireworks team has 100 ‘gentle controller’ head collars, worth £10.95 for owners who return the questionnaire. The gentle controller provides gentle control to stop your dog pulling and does not look like a muzzle. It is made of soft, rolled nylon webbing which does not pull up into dogs’ eyes or cause any rubbing on the skin.

Every case is different but, broadly speaking animals which are afraid of fireworks fall into one of two groups:

l Those which are afraid of all sorts of loud noises – Noise phobia

l Those which have had a bad experience with fireworks in the past (such as a rocket going off close to them) and associate the sounds with being frightened – Learned behaviour

The treatment protocol can be used in all cases, but it is more likely to be successful for pets which are generally confident about loud noises, but which have developed a specific firework phobia over time. Noise phobic animals often have high levels of anxiety in general and may need additional behaviour therapy.

How does the programme work?

The programme aims to help your pet learn to cope with fireworks by gradually desensitising him to the noises associated with fireworks. It is not a ‘quick fix’ and it will require a lot of time and commitment from you to work through the programme in full.

The CD with the sounds of fireworks is just one part of the programme and it has been designed to recreate the noises associated with fireworks in a random pattern so that it sounds as realistic as possible to your pet, but remains entirely under your control. You should never use it to frighten or punish the pet, but should gradually build up his experience of firework noises and teach him to relax when he can hear these sounds. The vets strongly recommend you use this CD in conjunction with a DAP Pheromone vaporiser, as this gives the greatest chances of success.

Our programme is divided into 3 important stages

l Creating a safe haven for your pet
l Using the desensitising CD
l Coping with the firework season.
l What next: the long term plan

If you would like to discuss the project further and/or to take part in the trials, please contact Pete Coleshaw by ‘phone at Wright & Morten Veterinary Surgery – 01260 273222 or by e-mail : vets@congletoncheshire.fsnet.co.uk.

Full details may also be found at the official website: www.fearoffireworks.com

Nick Mays comments: One of my dogs, ‘Fanta’, a 2 and half year-old Labrador/Collie cross is petrified of the loud bangs caused by airbomb fireworks. I am therefore going to try the vets’ programme and see if I can control her fear. My findings will be reported in a subsequent issue of OUR DOGS. In the meantime, if you have a nervous dog that is afraid of firework noise, why not contact Pete Coleshaw and his team and give their programme a try?