Heather Poncelow remembers about 10 years ago when a dog, terrified by fireworks and determined to flee, smashed through a sliding glass door.
Shards of glass sliced the dog’s stomach open, lacerated its spleen and disemboweled the frightened canine.
Poncelow, a veterinarian at Vancouver’s Columbia River VetERinary Specialists, a clinic that provides 24-hour emergency care, said the dog survived after extensive surgeries and extended hospitalization at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“A lot of dogs are afraid of noises and fireworks,” she said. “Those that are really afraid of them try to escape.”
On Thursday, the nation will celebrate its 243rd birthday. For many of Clark County’s more than 100,000 dogs, there will be no celebration, only a night full of fear. The cornucopia of bangs, booms and flashes that delights children and adults can terrorize the family’s beloved pet.
For a dog, a fireworks boom seems to come out of nowhere and can trigger an instinctive “flight or fight” response. Faced with repeated explosions, fleeing is the natural reaction.
Dogs have dragged themselves over fences or dug under them. Once free, they have been hit by cars or run for miles, to the point that all four paws become raw and bloody.
“They’re sudden, they’re loud, they’re unpredictable,” said Valli Parthasarathy, a Portland veterinarian and co-founder of Synergy Behavior Solutions, which seeks to combine veterinary medicine with pet training to address problem behaviors. “It’s very difficult for a dog to learn they are safe.”
Thursday’s holiday can be stressful for dog owners as well.
“They don’t want to see their dogs in distress,” Parthasarathy said. “So they in turn become very stressed about the Fourth of July.”
Dogs frightened by fireworks often are rattled by thunderstorms, gunshots and loud sneezes or piercing whistles. Although dogs have more acute hearing than humans, there is little evidence to suggest they react to anything more than an abrupt boom.
“I jump when I hear a loud, sudden noise,” said Melissa Bain, a veterinarian and professor of clinical animal behavior at University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
Estimates of how many dogs suffer from some level of noise-induced anxiety vary from less than 25 percent to 50 percent or more. Studies from around the world, which are typically based on questionnaires and interviews with dog owners, have reached different numbers.
A 2012 study at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences at Oslo, Norway, used a web-based survey to collect data from nearly 5,300 dog owners. The study found:
• Dogs afraid of loud noises were most fearful of fireworks, followed by gunshots, thunderstorms and heavy traffic.
• Dogs tended to become more scared of fireworks and other loud noises as they age.
• Neutered and spayed dogs were 73 percent more likely to be afraid of loud noises than unaltered dogs.
• Females were 30 percent more likely to alarmed by fireworks and other loud noises than males.
The study also found that dogs scared by loud noises were more likely to have separation anxiety — being panicked or upset when left at home — and were more likely to be fearful when presented with unfamiliar situations. They also needed more time to calm down after a stressful event.
Not all dogs are afraid of loud noises. Hunting dogs are accustomed to shotgun blasts. Hunters start training retrievers when they are puppies so they become acclimated to the very noises that terrify other dogs.
Dogs with noise sensitivity or anxiety show their distress by barking, whining, trembling, panting, pacing, freezing, drooling, yawning, hiding, urinating and defecating. They have broken through doors and windows, chewed through walls and even gnawed on themselves to the point of self-mutilation.
“It’s really sad,” said Bain, who teaches at UC Davis, one the nation’s biggest and highest-ranked veterinary schools. “That’s why these dogs need medication.”
A variety of sedatives and anxiety drugs are available, including Federal Drug Administration-approved medications for treating noise phobia in dogs.
“If an animal is panicky, they need it,” Bain sad. “It’s unfair to an animal, or a human, who is suffering panic not to give them everything they need.”
Poncelow said dog owners need to purchase medication in advance so they can do a trial run before the holiday, when consumer fireworks can be legally used across most of Clark County.
“I do see people who are philosophically opposed to drugging their dog,” Poncelow said. “For those folks, I think it’s really about having a ‘quality of life’ talk. Would you prefer to be terrified or take a drug and not be terrified?”
Abel Gonzalez, a veterinarian at WellHaven Pet Health Downtown Vancouver, agreed that dog owners should discuss medications with their veterinarians.
“There is always a risk to providing a medication,” he said. “Which is I why always recommend having your pet routinely seen and having their baseline blood work done once a year.”
Dog owners can take other steps so the Fourth of July isn’t so traumatic. Try confining your dog to a small room in the interior of the house and play music or use a fan or air conditioner as calming white noise.
Try to keep your dog occupied with toys and treats, including puzzle toys where the dog must work to get at the treat. Just be aware that a dog highly stressed by fireworks probably won’t show much interest, even in a rare filet mignon.
“During the fireworks, no food, don’t bother,” Bain advised. “Stick them in a room, play some music and give them medication.”
And don’t forget what your dog needs most during fireworks: you.
Poncelow said she has heard some people say you shouldn’t pet or comfort a dog scared by fireworks because that will reinforce the dog being scared.
“That’s utter nonsense,” she said. “Please reassure your dog.”
At the same time, it’s important to project a calm, comforting demeanor. If you are upset, your dog will pick up on that and become even more unsettled.
“It’s important for you, as the pet parent, to stay confidence and secure,” Gonzalez said. “If the pet parent is stressed and anxious about it, chances are the pet is going to be stressed and anxious as well.”
Parthasarathy said her company, Synergy Behavior Solutions, offers a “Fourth of July Hideaway” for four hours Thursday night at its offices, 2127 N.W. York St., Portland. The company sets up stations for dogs and tries to shield them from fireworks noise.
“And then we play a movie, nice and loud,” she said.
Local governments continue to tighten when fireworks can be used.
In 2018, Clark County approved restrictions that take effect this year, paring Independence Day pyrotechnic revelry to a single 15-hour period, from 9 a.m. to midnight July 4. This will be the third year that Vancouver hasn’t allowed consumer fireworks in its city limits. Only Woodland and Yacolt have not enacted restrictions and default to the times and dates in the state law.
All of which means that for nearly 95 percent of county residents — and presumably 95 percent of dogs — there shouldn’t be a single boom, bang or pop, except on the holiday itself.
So far, tighter time restrictions and outright bans haven’t made a noticeable difference on the number of stray dogs and cats that end up at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. The Humane Society usually receives twice as many stray pets during the Fourth of July week than it does on other summer weeks.
During the first week in July 2018, the Humane Society took in 35 dogs. That was a decrease from the 48 it received in 2017, the first year Vancouver did not allow discharge of fireworks within its city limits. The number of dogs that ended up at the Humane Society actually increased from the 38 it received during the same period in 2016.
Denise Barr, vice president of marketing at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, said dog owners increasingly are using Craigslist, social media and other online resources to locate lost pets that flee because of fireworks.
These sites include:
“When our staff arrive for work, they also check these pages to see (if) they can match our stay animals with ‘lost’ animals,” Barr said.
The Humane Society, 1100 N.E. 192nd Ave., is closed Thursday for the holiday but will open at 9:30 a.m. Friday for anyone looking for a lost pet.
“Sometimes it takes a couple of days for these scared animals to come out of the darkness,” Barr said.
Don’t forget about cats on the Fourth of July
Cats might be as scared of fireworks as dogs. They just do a better job of concealing it.
A dog terrified by fireworks will tremble, pant, whine and pace to show its distress and seek human comfort.
A cat likely will find a secluded place to hunker down until the booms subside.
“Both species can be equally affected,” said Abel Gonzalez, a veterinarian at WellHaven Pet Health Downtown Vancouver. “It can be even a little more dangerous for cats because they can start experiencing urinary issues.”
Gonzalez said cats will “do whatever they can to pretend they’re OK,” an instinctive response to discourage predators from seeing them as easy pickings.
A cat freaked out by fireworks likely will spend the night hiding under a bed. For many of their owners, out of sight means out of mind.
“People don’t tend to bring their cats to me for fireworks phobia,” said Valli Parthasarathy, a Portland veterinarian and co-founder of Synergy Behavior Solutions, a company that helps owners work out their pet’s problems.
Veterinarians can provide medication to help your cat get through the night. Even if you don’t take that step, be sure your cat is safely inside before the neighborhood erupts.
“Don’t leave your dog — or your cat for that matter — unsupervised outdoors,” Parthasarathy said.
— Jeffrey Mize
Legal discharge times, dates for consumer fireworks
Unincorporated Clark County (includes Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek, Felida): 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
Battle Ground: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 3, 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
Camas: 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
La Center: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 3, 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
Ridgefield: 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
Vancouver: Complete ban on all dates
Washougal: 9 a.m. to midnight July 4
Woodland: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 29-July 3, 9 a.m. to midnight July 4, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 5
Yacolt: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 29-July 3, 9 a.m. to midnight July 4, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 5
Fireworks also can be used from 6 p.m. Dec. 31 to 1 a.m. Jan. 1 in unincorporated Clark County, Battle Ground, Camas, Washougal, Woodland and Yacolt.
SOURCE: Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office