Date Published: September 6, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Stefanie Riemer, Carolyn J Walsh.
Noise fears represent a highly prevalent welfare problem in dogs. An online survey was performed to explore severity and progression of firework fears in dogs, and relationships with demographics, health, behaviour problems and owners’ training efforts to prevent or alleviate firework fears. Fifty-two percent of dogs in the sample (N = 1225) were at least partially affected by firework fears, and the majority developed a fear of fireworks in the first year of life, with a decreasing frequency of new occurrences up until seven years, and only few newly affected dogs beyond this age. While almost three-quarters of fearful dogs had recovered by the next morning following firework exposure, recovery took up to one day in 10%, up to one week in 12%, and several weeks or even months in >3%. Univariate analyses indicated a significant effect of breed group, age, sex, neuter status, origin and age at acquisition on severity of firework fears in dogs. However, binomial models including multiple predictors of presence/ absence of firework fears identified only age, breed group (mixed breeds being most affected), health problems, and an interaction between health problems and age as significant predictors. This discrepancy might be explained by collinearities of predictors and underlying differences between mixed-breed dogs and purebreds, such as mixed breeds being acquired from shelters more often and being neutered more often. Firework fears are highly correlated with fears of gunshots and thunder, and to a low extent with fears of other noises, but not with any other behavioural problems. Both improvement and deterioration of firework fears were frequently reported. While an early age of onset and breed differences point to a strong genetic contribution to firework fears, the data indicate that training puppies or non-fearful adults to associate the noise with positive stimuli is highly effective in preventing later development of firework fears.
Fear of noises is highly prevalent in dogs and represents a significant welfare concern, with up to half of the pet dog population affected [1–3]. Yet, only a minority of pet owners seem to seek professional advice regarding this issue [2,4], and while some studies investigated treatment options (e.g. [5–10], there is a lack of research on preventive measures.
In line with past studies, the results indicate that fear of fireworks is highly prevalent in the pet dog population, with 52.16% in the sample at least partly affected, and almost one-third of dogs receiving the highest possible severity score. Previous studies found a prevalence of noise fears ranging from 23% to 49% [1–3]. While the advertisement for the current survey explicitly stated that dogs both with and without noise fears were of interest, it is conceivable that owners with affected dogs might have a higher motivation to participate. Still, even if prevalence was somewhat over-estimated, the reported prevalence is consistently high also in previous studies [1–3]. The majority of fearful dogs (almost 75%) had recovered by the next morning after experiencing a firework; nevertheless it took between three days to a week for full recovery in 12% of dogs, and a small proportion of dogs even took several weeks or even months to recover, with one dog’s behaviour reported to never normalise. Thus, fear of fireworks is a significant factor affecting canine welfare, both in absolute number of affected animals and duration of symptoms.
Older age and being a mixed breed appear to constitute the most important risk factors for firework fears in dogs. The latter might be explained by underlying differences between mixed-breed dogs and purebreds, such as in their socialisation experiences. Similarly, while severity of firework fears appears higher in neutered dogs in univariate analyses, this effect might be driven by other underlying factors, and it was no longer significant when controlling for other factors. Firework fears are highly correlated with fears of gunshots and thunder, and to a low extent with fears of other noises, but not with any other behavioural problems. Both improvement and deterioration of firework fears were frequently reported. While an early age of onset and breed differences in firework fears point to a strong genetic contribution, prevention is nonetheless possible, and training puppies as well as adult dogs to associate the noise with positive stimuli appears to be highly effective in preventing a later development of firework fears.