Do you worry about your horses, dogs and cats around times of the year when fireworks are usually let off? You may have an animal that’s a trembling wreck. Or you may have found a way to deal with the problem. Or be lucky enough to live a long way from any firework displays.
But the fact is that the period around November the 5th in the UK, 4th July in the USA and New Year pretty much everywhere in the world can be distressing for horses, dogs and cats. A large part of the reason animals may not appreciate the bangs associated with fireworks is that their hearing is more sensitive than ours. So what sounds loud to us sounds VERY LOUD to our animals! And they can also hear much higher frequencies than we can so the whistles that we can hear with some fireworks may contain frequencies that we can’t even hear. As well as the sound there are the bright flashes and the smell.
A few years ago we ran a poll on fireworks and of 2837 respondents, 1 in 5 said their horse or pony was SERIOUSLY AFFECTED and almost half said their horse or pony was MODERATELY OR SEVERELY affected by fireworks. Learn more about our firework survey of owners here.
When we ran this poll only a few people said they had tried DESENSITISATION (also sometimes referred to as habituation although these aren’t really equivalent). A study in New Zealand reported that 79% of horses were anxious or very anxious around the 5th of November.
It has also been estimated from one survey that 45% of dogs may have a firework PHOBIA! And the RSPCA has reported that 60% of dogs show marked signs of distress when exposed to firework displays. The impact of fireworks on cats has not been well studied, but one study found that 34% of owners reported that their cat was afraid of fireworks. Another study from 2019 of 1137 adults in the UK reported that 62% of dogs, 55% of horses and 54% of cats in the UK show signs of anxiety when they hear fireworks.
So how loud are fireworks?
How loud fireworks are depends on the type of firework and how far away you are standing. Interestingly, in the UK the upper limit for fireworks is set at 120dB. But some fireworks can easily reach 150-170dB. And bearing in mind that even if you are a long way away, to you animals it will sound more like you being very close to the source of the sound due to their more sensitive hearing.
How can you help your animals cope better?
We have previously shared some advice on this topic in our article Protect Your Horse From Fireworks. We have also asked horse owners what methods they have tried and how effective they found them. These included things such as playing music in the stable, using calmers or sedatives or ear bonnets/plugs. Unfortunately, none of these proved to be particularly effective. Whilst horse owners appear to have been slow to start using desensitisation as a means to helping horses and ponies cope better with firework noise, more and more dog owners have been using the technique and there are some good resources for this, follow this link to find out more.
How to desensitise your horse or pony to firework sounds
What you will need
- Something to play firework sounds
- An assistant
- Some treats
- The speed at which this works can vary from animal to animal and may take a few days or a few weeks or even months, so it requires patience.
- You will need a source of firework sounds and some way of playing them near your horse. A phone or ipad works well. There are many places you can find suitable firework sound recordings, such as…
- It is easier to initially start desensitisation with an assistant to operate the sound source.
- If you don’t have an assistant a remote control or even “Siri” or “Alexa” could be used to start the sound OUTSIDE the stable. BUT make sure you practice this well away from your horse to make sure that the right track plays at the correct volume!
- Before you go anywhere near your horse make sure you listen to the sound you have downloaded IN FULL. Some recordings start of quietly and may suddenly get louder! Make sure you set the sound to BARELY AUDIBLE! Remember that your horse has MUCH MORE SENSITIVE HEARING than you do.
- Go into the stable with your horse and make a fuss off them and give them a few treats. Your assistant with the sound source should be outside the stable but able to see your horse’s reactions to the sounds. The stable door should be closed.
- Once your horse is settled ask your assistant to play the sound. At the same time you can pat and talk to your horse and offer a treat. If your horse appears very distressed or reacts strongly then your assistant should immediately turn the sound off.
- If your horse appears no more than a little “aware” then you can continue to play the sounds for several minutes whilst reassuring your horse and offering treats.
- This can be repeated 4-5 times. If your horse becomes more anxious then you should stop. It may be better to try another day with the volume even lower.
- The aim here is to allow your horse to become acclimatised to the firework sounds slowly. Once your horse seems to have improved and be reacting less then you can slightly increase the sound. If you get a more severe reaction then you should stop and come back another day and revert to the lower sound level.
- BE PATIENT! If you rush this process its likely to not work and could make your horse even more anxious. If things go wrong then leave it for a few days before trying again.
If your horse or pony is extremely distressed by fireworks then you should consult your vet.
Blackwell, E., Bradshaw, J., & Casey, R. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 145, 15-25.
Blackwell, E., Casey, R., & Bradshaw, J. (2005). Firework Fears and Phobias in the Domestic Dog. Scientific Report for the RSPCA, University of Bristol, UK
PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2018 – link
RSPCA – link
Study in England and Wales via KantarOnLineBus, an Internet omnibus survey. A sample of 1,137 adults aged 16+ were interviewed in October 2019. Cited here.
More information and helpful guidance for dealing with fireworks
- Protect your horse from fireworks
- Prepare Your Horse For New Year’s Eve Fireworks
- Fireworks Night – what’s your plan?
- Prepare Your Horse For New Year’s Eve Fireworks
- Fireworks & Horses – A Survey of Owners