Veterinarians in central Maine say the use of consumer fireworks is having a profound effect on some household pets, particularly dogs.
The sound of fireworks can cause anxiety in pets — symptoms that include uncontrollable shaking, panting, barking, hiding and more. In areas where fireworks are a nightly event, the chronic anxiety can lead to personality changes, veterinarians say.
Also, although fireworks use has decreased in the area since the Fourth of July, many pets are still affected.
Marie Barengo, a veterinarian with Pine Tree Veterinary Hospital in Augusta, estimates she has treated six patients — dogs — with anxiety since Memorial Day. Fireworks use is banned in Augusta.
“In the past, I wouldn’t have six (cases) in a year,” she said. “People would complain about thunderstorms, but they would rarely complain about fireworks.
“Before, when we had fireworks once or twice a year, it was something dog owners could manage. Now some people say there’s fireworks almost every night in their neighborhoods. It sends their dogs into panic attacks.”
Dr. Karen Curtis, of the Garland Road Small Animal Hospital in Winslow, said her office has been getting several calls about the issue.
“Their pets are scared of fireworks.” she said. “We probably talk to two or three people a day about it.”
Curtis estimated she has about 10 patient dogs that receive regular doses of an anti-anxiety medication similar to Prozac. For many other dogs, Curtis recommends alternative treatments.
“If it’s a mild fear, we try to get people to do things to distract them, or to mask the sound with white noise — like a fan, a radio or things like that. But for a lot of pets, or if the fireworks are close by, that doesn’t work,” she said.
One treatment that is sometimes effective is a product called Thundershirt, which was developed by a North Carolina-based company of the same name. The Thundershirt is a vest with Velcro closures that fits snugly around a dog’s midsection, Curtis said.
“They were developed for dogs who have a fear of thunderstorms, but we have several clients using them for fireworks as well,” she said. “For some reason, that seems to calm the pets down. The pressure is calming.”
Veterinarian Christine Calder, of At Home Veterinary Care in West Gardiner, also has recommended Thundershirt to clients.
“I do think that, with some dogs, it makes them feel calmer. They feel more secure wrapped in that,” Calder said. “Some dogs just need that, and it helps them settle down.”
Use of fireworks is banned in Gardiner, and Calder said she hasn’t seen an increase of cases at her practice since consumer fireworks became legal elsewhere in Maine on Jan. 1. She estimated she has seen about two patients per week this summer who have been affected by fireworks.
“That’s pretty representative of what we see each year,” she said.
At her home in Waldoboro, however, Calder’s own pet has been affected by a neighbor’s use of fireworks.
“I have a dog who wasn’t previously concerned about fireworks, but she is now,” Calder said. “She was at the point where she didn’t want to go outside at night for three nights in a row.”
Barengo said a dog’s personality can change from long-term exposure to fireworks noise.
“It can make dogs more phobic about other things, other noises,” she said. “They can develop more generalized anxiety disorder, so instead of this happening once a month or once a year, every day the dog is getting panicked about something new. That can create behavior problems that the owner might find intolerable.”
If a dog is panicked, Barengo advises against consoling it.
“One of the behaviors that we all do with frightened animals is we tell them, ‘It’s OK.’ But most behaviorists say that we’re actually telling them that it’s OK to be afraid, so we’re re-enforcing their fear,” she said. “Act like everything in the world is great. That can sometimes help them get over their fear.”
Curtis agreed and said pet owners should reward calm behavior with treats or attention.
Curtis, who lives in Winslow, said her dog, who has hearing issues, isn’t affected by fireworks; but her cats hide whenever they start.
“I hear them every night. As soon as it gets dark, I can hear fireworks. My neighborhood used to be very quiet, but I hear them every night,” she said.
At a recent Winslow Town Council meeting, several residents spoke out against fireworks and their effects on pets.
Kyle Price, of Clinton Avenue, said his three dogs start barking whenever they hear fireworks.
Councilor Jerry Quirion asked him how his dogs react to thunderstorms.
“The same way,” Price said, “but that’s an act of nature. It doesn’t happen every night. It doesn’t happen multiple times a night.”