Animal expert calls for four-day firework window

Dr Rachael Stratton says the fear, distress and injury caused to animals by fireworks outweighs their fun.

A veterinarian who specialises in animal welfare and behaviour wants restrictions to be placed on the use of fireworks in New Zealand outside the four-day annual window from November 2-5.

Massey University veterinary behaviourist Rachael Stratton says the fear, distress and injuries caused to animals, damage to property and the anguish pet owners experience outweighs the enjoyment people get from letting off fireworks.

Dr Stratton says since 2007, when the Government restricted the annual sale of fireworks to four days, fewer people are using them outside that period but some still stockpile and there is invariably a build-up to Guy Fawkes that starts weeks beforehand and continues afterwards.

“It is the unpredictability of when fireworks will be encountered that makes safe management of animals and treating phobias extremely difficult,” she says.

"I'm not advocating a nanny state but the Government or local councils need to consider making it an offence to let off fireworks, particularly in urban areas, outside a defined Guy Fawkes period without a special permit.

“It is possible for animal owners to manage the situation for four days and nights a year with a series of precautions to protect their pets. It's not fair on the animals or realistic to do that all year round.”

Dr Stratton is part of Massey's Veterinary Emergency Response Team that is activated for emergency rescue and in disasters such as the Canterbury earthquakes where domestic pets or livestock need rescuing or management and treatment in the field on a large scale.

“Noise phobias can be a serious welfare issue that severely interferes with the lives of animals. Not only that, it’s often really upsetting for the owners to see their pets distressed."

She says animals don't become used to the explosions either. Usually the issue compounds.

“Instead of becoming desensitised to the noise and light, most animals actually become more sensitised and their responses become worse as the stimulus is unpredictable, uncontrollable and ubiquitous. Pets may generalise and become fearful of other loud noises – not just fireworks. They may even start to become anxious when it gets dark as they are anticipating fireworks.”

"While I have a lot of sympathy for those who want a total ban on the use of fireworks outside public demonstrations, I think this is more likely to get wider public acceptance and provide some relief for pets and their owners."

Dr Stratton says preparation is the key to easing animal’s fear and the predictability of when fireworks will be let off is crucial to managing that.

Symptoms of fear and tips to prepare

All animals can be affected – cats, dogs, horses, birds and livestock such as cattle, sheep, deer, goats, alpacas and wildlife.

Symptoms of anxiety include trembling, pacing, barking, whining or self-mutilation in dogs. Cats and dogs may stop eating, seek out their owner, destroy things through chewing, urinate, defecate, cower, hide or try to run away. Horses often react by vocalising, pacing up and down and may panic and injure themselves.

Tips to protect animals:

  • Stock up and trial these suggestions first
  • Provide a comfortable box, crate, cage (for birds) or bed preferably indoors. Encourage your pet to enjoy using it by feeding meals, treats and providing toys in it well beforehand
  • Close windows, curtains, doors and cat flaps during fireworks nights to reduce chance of escape, muffle noise and block light – you can even buy ear muffs (Mutt Muffs) or tinted goggles (Doggles) for dogs but get them used to it prior, a blanket over the crate/cage can help (monitor temperature) as can masking the sound with music or television noise
  • Distract pets using food puzzles (like Kong for dogs or hay nets for horses).
  • Find out when and where local displays are
  • Talk to neighbours and see if you can agree on reasonable time periods of firework use
  • Maintain daily routine and consistency in the household, but walk dogs in the daytime. Remain calm yourself.
  • Avoid leaving your pets alone
  • Microchip and register pets with the New Zealand Companion Animal Register and local council in case they run away. Many pets including birds, cows, deer, emu, goats, horses, llamas, alpacas, ostriches, rabbits, guinea pigs, sheep as well as cats and dogs can be registered.
  • Move horses to a farm or paddock away from likely source of fireworks sight and sound. Monitor your horse but do not attempt to control a panicked horse.

She says there are also a number of calming aids available for moderate to serious cases including compression gear like the Thundershirt, pheromones like Adaptil or Feliway, Calmex, or medication for anxiety.

For further advice contact your usual veterinarian or the Massey University Veterinary Teaching Hospital Behaviour Service on +64 6 350 5329.

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