Vegan Life examines the impact of fireworks on our companions and wildlife
Remember, remember the 5th of November may be one of the best known English rhymes and it has stood the test of time, remaining intact for over three centuries. The rhyme relates, of course, to Guy Fawkes who was the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where Fawkes and his companions plotted to kill King James the First. His murderous plan famously failed and to celebrate his demise it became traditional to burn an effigy on Bonfire Night — hence you may see a stuffed ‘Guy’ on a bonfire on the 5th November. Over time, fireworks have also been introduced to represent the explosives which would have blown up The Houses of Parliament.
While fireworks can be marvellous to watch for us, they’re often nightmarish for our companion animals. Excruciatingly loud bangs, whizzes and fizzles are accompanied by bright flashes of light which illuminate the sky with unnatural colours and light; if you, as a child, were ever scared by thunder and lightning, you may be able to begin to understand how animals feel on fireworks night. The problem is that animals don’t know why all this noise is being created; is it a threat? It seems to be coming from every direction and with no discernible source, it is impossible to know which way to run.
It is estimated that nearly 50 per cent of dogs develop symptoms of anxiety around fireworks night and the older the dog, the more fearful they tend to be. This problem is made worse by the fact that fireworks are not just let off on fireworks night. Fireworks are now set off all year round at all sorts of events including birthdays, religious festivals and celebrations. As a result, people are not always able to ensure that their companions are prepared for the display and this can result in animals becoming petrified.
Many websites recommend contacting your vet to try to acquire drugs, pheromone products, sedatives or tranquillizers to help reduce the stress of animals in your home during fireworks events. These drugs/pheromones work by replicating natural chemicals synthetically to help treat behavioural problems. In cats, the pheromones reproduced are most commonly those produced from the face, as this is how cats greet each other and for dogs, the pheromone used is that produced by nursing mothers, which is believed to calm puppies.
A review of current research evidence for the use of pheromones to reduce companion anxiety concluded that none provided convincing evidence of a significant benefit to using pheromones to reduce anxiety. In dogs, one study found some evidence that pheromone therapy could improve anxious behaviours but no other studies supported this conclusion, according to the review.
Companions can also be prescribed Valium, Xanax, Buspirone or Anafranil which are used in humans to treat anxiety, panic disorders and depression. But aren’t we the route of the problem?
Why should dogs, cats or any other companion animals consume behaviour altering substances so that we can coo and clap at bright lights for half an hour? Isn’t this just another example of humans meeting our wants without considering the full consequences to the animals and how they could potentially be affected?
Furthermore, a 2003 study explained that, although signs of fear may be supressed, the underlying emotional response — the fear itself — would not be dampened by prescribed drugs.
Animals can react in any number of ways to these loud noises. Typical behaviours that animals may exhibit include cowering and hiding — often behind sofas or under the bed — pacing, panting, trembling and shaking, whining, refusal to eat, destructive behaviours or urination/defecation. It is truly upsetting to see your beloved companion in terror with no way to soothe them.
One of our readers called Barbara, who lives in North Yorkshire, got in touch to tell us about how fireworks affect her Border Collie.
“We live with Wren, a Border Collie who is terrified of fireworks. We try to do all we can to mask the noise, but she still hears it. The bangs begin in October and go through to New Year and beyond.
“Wren runs from room to room trying to hide, so we get prepared around peak firework time and we build a little den with a blanket hanging from a wall shelf for her to hide in, she looks very frightened and cannot be calmed,” explains Barbara. “She pants, and freezes. We try to remain calm for her. We put the TV on and background music loud and sit and play guitar too to try to block out the bangs, but her ears pick it up.
“Fireworks noise causes so much misery to animals and people suffering from PTSD, yet the misery for the most vulnerable continues.”
Responses like this are completely natural; it is the animal’s evolutionary reaction to a threat. Fight or flight kicks in and sometimes animals can become aggressive when they become scared.
Further, it is not uncommon for companions to run away when fireworks are let off and some poor animals are so distressed that they run into glass doors, seriously hurting themselves in the process.
Unfortunately, animal shelters report a distinct increase in the number of lost animal companions after fireworks events, due to companions running away in terror and dogs and cats are often found with injuries from scrambling over fences or sore paws from running.
So what can you do for your companion? Firstly, ensure that all companions, including those which normally live outside are inside and that curtains are drawn. Additionally, you can put on some music or your TV to help soften the sudden bangs. Make sure that animals have plenty of water as well as a safe place where they can hide, which will make them feel safe.
Sound therapy is another option. Barbara told us that she has started desensitisation with Wren to help her before the upcoming fireworks season. Sound therapy works by desensitising your companion to the loud noises in a safe environment so that they slowly become accustomed to the loud sounds. This type of training usually takes at least three months.
You can also write to your local MP or fireworks display and ask them to use quiet fireworks.
Barbara told us: “I joined the FB group, FAB fireworks abatement, and sent a letter they wrote for us last year to Tom Blenkinsop, who has now resigned as our MP.”
The letter called for a ban on the use of fireworks on random occasions saying: “Again the petition is not calling for a ban on domestic fireworks but for the use of them to be curtailed to the traditional dates of Bonfire Night and the weekend of, Chinese New Year, Diwali and New Years Eve. We as a campaign have no desire to impact on professionally organised firework displays as long as they are well advertised.”
If people cannot prepare for fireworks by ensuring companions are inside with the lights on and distracting noises then companions could end up outside hiding in inappropriate places or running in terror into the roads. Barbara was hopeful but was disappointed with the response she received.
“I got a reply on very posh paper with the House of Commons logo on. Basically, it was the same answer you always get. Also included was a paper on the government’s stand on fireworks and the various laws,” she explained. “He also added that if I wanted to send her some specific suggestions it would be put to the minister. Basically, there are no changes in the law as it stands planned.”
“I have also requested our local display use silent fireworks, to no avail. It’s dreadful that regular loud explosions in the street are socially acceptable and displays are lawful,” Barbara concluded.
Unfortunately, it is not only our companions who are affected by fireworks. Wild animals are also put in danger by explosive displays.
Research has found that the loud sounds of fireworks have an adverse effect on wild animals causing fear and anxiety. This often causes mammals, like rabbits and deer, to run into incoming traffic or to flee from their habitats. Birds have also been reported to leave their nests, leaving youngsters defenceless and without food or to fly directly into windows in disorientation. A study from the Netherlands found that birds took flight for up to 45 minutes following fireworks and the areas most affected were wetland areas and nature reserves, which are naturally quiet.
It is a sad fact that wildlife rehabilitators see a rise in baby birds and mammals which have lost their parents in the frantic confusion following loud noises caused by fireworks.
Fireworks are not the only threat and, as we all know, hedgehogs are also vulnerable on Bonfire Night. As temperatures drop, hedgehogs may be looking for hibernation sites and the shelter offered by a pile of woods and leaves is the perfect sleepy hollow for them. Therefore it is essential that all woodpiles are checked for hedgehogs before they are lit. You should also check your bonfire for other animals such as toads or slowworms which may have taken shelter there.
We are not saying that all Bonfire Night activites should be banned, but care needs to be taken to ensure that fireworks are let off in areas where animals will not be disturbed and that safety precautions have been taken to ensure that no little creatures or critters have made their way into your bonfire piles. Further, ensure that your neighbours and surrounding houses are made aware if you are going to be letting off fireworks close by.
You can still celebrate by choosing quieter alternatives to fireworks which do not create anxiety in wildlife and companion animals and focus on colours and effects instead of noise. Most retailers will be able to advise you about the quietest fireworks for your display. If you aren’t too worried about giving your guests a magnificent display but want to celebrate on Bonfire Night, why not buy some sparklers which are safe, fun and give out barely any noise at all?
However you celebrate this Bonfire Night, ensure that companion and wild animals are kept safe and sound.