People who have experienced a distressed animal at Halloween may be familiar with the panting, pacing, diarrhea, ripped nails and broken teeth that can accompany a pet’s panic attack.
At this time of year, veterinary clinics see a spike in cases where dogs have got into the kids’ candy stash. The telephones at animal shelters ring off the hook, inundated with calls about panicked pets that have bolted. And personally, almost every noise phobia case I see started at some point with Halloween firecrackers and fireworks.
Free flowing candy, scary costumes and startling bangs may be fun for us, but they can cause fear and alarm for our less festive pets. What can pet owners do to make sure that they don’t get more than their fair share of horror this week? Here are some tips for keeping pets safe. If there is a Grinch equivalent of Halloween, this might be it.
Panic-proof your house
Forget the party. Noise-sensitive pets need their homes to be an audio-visual fortress on Halloween. Keep doors and windows closed, and blinds drawn. Playing soothing music can help to calm fractious dogs. Classical music in particular will mask the sound of the neighbourhood firecrackers, and is also shown scientifically to settle a restless pet. Think Brahms, not Wagner, as heavy metal and similarly pounding scores have a counterproductive effect, making agitated pets even more distressed.
Next, consider getting your pet some ear defenders. Mutt-muffs are ear protectors designed specifically for dogs and available online — there is just about enough time to order them. They are surprisingly well tolerated by most dogs that wear them, and hey, your dog gets to dress up like a DJ for Halloween.
In general, pets also tend to cope better when they have the ability to escape from frightening situations. Some pets enjoy being crated, but many feel even more distressed when confined to a crate throughout a noisy event. I have seen many dogs (even tiny ones) bend metal to escape their crates during a firework display, sometimes breaking teeth and bloodying paws in the process.
If you don’t have a closet, bath or bed that your scared pet can hide in, then try a suitably sized cardboard box filled with blankets or other materials. This will attenuate the noise while giving your pet something to burrow into.
Medicate your pet
If you already anticipate that your cat or dog will have a tough time coping with big bangs and scary visitors this Halloween, then make an appointment to see your veterinarian. There is a plethora of FDA approved “event drugs” for fear-stricken pets. Their effects range from “taking the edge off” to full sedation, depending on what your pet needs.
Calming pet products will be flying off the pharmacist shelves over the next two weeks, so make sure you have yours on hand just in case. Not only will they help your pet rest easy, but they may also create amnesia around the entire distressing event. Crucially, this helps to prevent your pet from generalizing a noise phobia to other loud and sudden noises after Halloween has passed.
If your veterinarian has prescribed acepromazine for previous stressful events, inquire if they have a different recommendation this year. Many behaviourists and veterinarians consider that “Ace” keeps your fractious pet still in the same way that putting a distressed person in a straight jacket stops them from causing damage. Your pet may do less physical harm and destruction, but their anxiety and distress are probably still sky high.
Choose your pet’s costume wisely
When dogs wear costumes that obscure their eyes, mouth, hackles and body posture, their ability to signal their mood is impeded. Yes, they look cute. But, are they anxious, afraid or aggressive? And, what would another dog make of your pup’s werewolf costume? Consider how your pet’s costume could be affecting what they communicate to others, and the type of attention they might attract.
Ignore the ‘trick or treaters’ when they come knocking
Every time the front door opens is an opportunity for your traumatized pet to escape. Even if your pet generally likes visitors, being roared at by a grown man wearing a grizzly bear costume, or a teenager in a clown outfit might just tip your pet over the edge. Yes, this has happened to my clients. And, no, it never ended well.
If you suspect your pet might be traumatized by trick-or-treaters, consider bringing in the carved pumpkins, turning off the lights and pretending “no one’s home.” Or, simply keep your pet in a separate room without access to exterior doors. If your pet is inclined to slip through an open door, attach a leash to them when they are supervised, and ensure that identification is securely attached.
Be careful where you leave the candy
Many types of candy are hazardous to our pets. Chocolate can be highly toxic because it contains both theobromine and caffeine. Theobromine causes vomiting, diarrhea, excessive water intake, heart problems and even seizures, and the caffeine exacerbates these effects. If the pet ingests sufficient amounts of chocolate and is not swiftly treated by a veterinarian, this toxicity can eventually lead to death.
Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that is added to some gums and candies. While it is deemed safe for humans, xylitol is extremely damaging to dogs. Signs of toxicity include vomiting, weakness, a lack of muscle control (ataxia), seizures, coma, liver damage and eventually death. If your opportunist pet sneaks something from the contraband sweet list, call your veterinarian immediately with a description of the ingredients and quantities consumed.
At the end of the day, most pets get through Halloween in one piece. But, taking some prudent measures to limit the risk of your pet getting sick, fear-stricken or lost over the coming week can save your pet a great deal of therapy down the road. And just to be sure, have your veterinarian’s phone number at hand in case of emergencies.
Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland. Read her blog at vancouversun.com/pets