How A Natural Response To Fear Can Worsen To Become A Severe Problem
By Julie Moss BSc. Hons, AdvCertVPhys, Dip.APhys.
This blog examines how an unnatural fear response to fireworks occurs. Ways you can help your pet overcome these problems are to be found here.
What causes fear of fireworks?
It is probably fairly obvious that it is the noise which causes the fear in some cats and dogs, as well as horses, livestock and wildlife. Loud bangs are something which most animals and people are programmed to react to. It is a natural response to be startled by a loud bang and this type of inbuilt reaction is to enable the avoidance of danger. People often duck or flinch when surprised by a bang and animals crouch low and make themselves smaller and may also run for cover.
If the noise is an isolated event and there proves to be no immediate danger to avoid, the animal will usually recover fairly quickly and carry on with their previous actions.
If the noises continue, they remain on alert and then try to determine where the safest place to go is to avoid the danger. The way individuals cope with this varies according to previous experience, individual personality and genetic heritage.
Fear is a learned response to something which makes us feel uncertain or unsafe. A loud noise startles an animal and causes them to react to avoid potential danger – that is the physical response to danger. Fear is the emotion attached to the event and serves to enable avoidance of the startling event in the future. This is a sensible strategy to help you stay safe. If you never feared anything you would not learn to avoid potential danger and that would not be a helpful strategy for survival.
The fight or flight response is initiated in reaction to danger, even when there is no actual danger but it simply feels like there is. The response is the same and an animal makes the decision to take flight and escape or go forward and fight off the danger. This is why some dogs may bark at a loud noise and others may run and hide depending on their natural inclination or experience. Others may freeze, become overwhelmed and unable to make a decision.
Previous experience and genetic heritage
Some animals are naturally more fearful than others due to factors like past experience, poor socialisation early in life or due to a genetic predisposition. Others are naturally more confident and less easily startled.
For example, a dog which has been bred from a line of working gundogs is less likely to be frightened by the sound of a gunshot than a dog not bred from working dog lines, because their parents should have been chosen for their ability to respond positively to the sound of gunshot. These dogs are also exposed to the sound of gunshot very early in life and it is part of their daily experience. If they are trained using positive reinforcement, a gunshot signals to them that they need to go off and find whatever has fallen from the sky. This is a fun event for them because they naturally enjoy it as a fundamental part of their life. As a consequence, it has a positive association to them and is remembered that way on an emotional level.
A dog which is not a working gundog (like most of our pet dogs), is genetically of a nervous disposition or which has not been exposed to loud noises in a positive way early in life is much more likely to respond to them in a nervous and fearful way. They have no positive emotion attached to the event and are more likely to want to avoid it rather than see it as heralding a fun event as a gundog might. If the first time they heard a loud noise they ran and hid, then this is likely what they will remember the next time. The positively trained gundog hears a bang and knows it leads to work and enjoyment so they have a ‘let me at it’ approach. The nervous dog hears a bang and knows it leads to feeling unsafe and has a ‘let me get away from it’ approach.
Fear and pain
There is also a link between fear and pain and at its most basic level, this is easy to understand. For instance, if your dog has arthritis, hip dysplasia or any other condition which compromises their mobility, it is likely they will feel pain if they suddenly have to move quickly. They will do this without thinking as they panic and then the pain becomes linked with the thing that frightened them, such as the noise of a firework. If they then try to climb over or under things, this will also cause pain and strengthen the idea that the noise caused the pain. So, fear can make you more sensitive to pain and pain can make you more fearful – a vicious circle.
So, it is well worth getting your dog checked over by your vet and a Veterinary Physiotherapist to make sure there isn’t a hidden painful condition, even if they appear to be running and moving well and particularly if their fear seems to develop suddenly. They can hide painful conditions for a long time until they become more obvious and by then things are quite advanced. Have a look at the information about looking for behavioural or postural signs of hidden pain in dogs.
Specific problems posed by fireworks
The major problem with fireworks is that they are not isolated events. This means a nervous animal has no chance to recover between each one. Today’s fireworks are very loud and can go on for several minutes, which causes big problems for these animals. They hear the first bang and go into hiding because this strategy has worked in the past when they have felt scared. However, if the fireworks continue, they then panic because their strategy isn’t making the scary event go away. This means they don’t feel able to do anything to make the situation better and therefore the fear increases.
This is how phobias develop and phobic animals will react immediately with panic because they no longer have a strategy to make things better and therefore feel powerless and in constant danger. It is a bit like being locked in a room with your worst fear and not being able to find the door to get out. The only thing left to do is panic and this is when the natural fear safety response becomes abnormal and causes prolonged stress to an animal instead of helping them to escape and feel safe.
Another problem with the nature of fireworks is that the sound seems to come from everywhere. As it is only a noise, there is nothing visible to enable an animal to locate the source of the threat. They cannot determine how to run away from something they cannot locate. Fireworks are also travelling through the air as they make a noise and so the source of the noise swirls around, especially if lots of people are setting them off in different locations. Animals this scared don’t know how to get away from something that appears to be everywhere and so they panic even more and feel helpless in their inability to get to safety. They cannot resolve the situation in a way which results in relief and this is terrifying for them.
Generalisation of fear
Your pet may be afraid of fireworks only. Or they may be afraid of lots of things – and not just noises - such as thunder, rain and darkness. Fear can begin in response to a specific event such as a firework going off as your cat is about to use the litter tray one evening in winter. This may result in the cat simply responding to the noise of fireworks in future. However, they may also begin to avoid using the litter tray in the evening when it’s dark. Or worse still, avoid it all the time. This is called generalisation of fear when a specific event triggers a fearful memory, but other factors connected with the event also can cause fear. Another example would be a dog going for a walk in winter when a loud firework goes off on the other side of a fence. The dog may never want to go near that fence again or it may not even go down the road that the fence is on. This may only happen in the dark or they may even feel the same during the day depending how traumatic it was for them.
It depends on the nature of your pet as to whether they generalise easily, but it is also influenced by how long the fear response goes on, how often and how severely frightening the event was. The first year your pet is exposed to fireworks they may develop a fear of them and certain loud banging noises throughout the following year, such as thunder. After bonfire night in the second year, you may find they are even more sensitive to any banging noises, even quiet ones, throughout the following year. If there are then several thunderstorms in a week accompanied by rain, then rain may be added to their list of things to be scared of, because it happened at the same time as the thunder. This list can extend to car doors banging, any whistling sounds or loud rumbly car engines and many other similar noises resulting in the world being filled with scary things every day. Fear that has generalised to this degree can threaten quality of life as the animal gets very little respite from fearful events.
Having a fearful pet may feel overwhelming and be distressing for you. However, there are many things you can try to help your animal – see here for ideas.