ThunderShirts, dance parties and anxiety meds can help ease dogs' July Fourth dread

PHOENIX (AP) — Rori Chang will be spending Fourth of July watching action movies from the comfort of her Glendale, Arizona, home, perhaps something from Marvel or a John Wick flick. But it's not for her. It's for her golden retriever, Ava.

“Playing movies with gunshots to cover up the fireworks works for some reason,” said Chang, who stood outside in triple-digit temperatures last year to get Ava microchipped at a shelter in case she ran away from fireworks.

“Ava’s a scaredy-cat of any loud noises,” Chang said. “Her immediate reaction is to hide in corners, and after that she will literally paw at you wanting you to pet her the whole time.”

Much of the U.S. may be looking forward to Thursday for dazzling displays of fireworks or for setting off firecrackers and poppers with neighbors. Those with furry, four-legged family members — maybe not so much. They’re searching for solutions to the Fourth of July anxiety that fireworks bring.

Pets' behavior can range from cowering in corners to running away from home. Trying to figure out what will soothe a dog can practically feel like an annual tradition in itself.

Without fail, Dr. Kelley DeGroff, a veterinarian in Phoenix, gets requests for anxiety medication from some pet owners starting two weeks before July 4. This past week, there have been two to three requests daily.

“I think it has to do with certain breeds. Obviously, hunting dogs are bred for that purpose and they don’t typically have any issues with it. But a lot of other dogs, it seems to trigger a fight-or-flight response in them,” DeGroff said.

DeGroff prescribes either a gum gel that helps with noise phobia or anxiety pills. She is expecting numerous requests for meds as late as the day before the holiday. But dog owners shouldn’t be asking so close to the holiday. A week before is best.

“That way, when they give you medication you can do a trial dose beforehand so that you know what to expect and you know it’s going to do what you want it to do,” DeGroff said.

If you don’t have time to obtain veterinarian assistance, she suggests calming supplements or a ThunderShirt, a wrap that is supposed to feel like a gentle hug for the dog.

Doggy day cares are also trying to offer more resources. The franchise owners of several Phoenix-area locations of Dogtopia, a nationwide company, have brought in two to three additional staff over the past couple years, according to marketing manager David Duran.

On Thursday, they will be extending pickup hours by an hour, to 11 p.m., if pet parents want to enjoy festivities a little longer. Even though the playrooms are mostly soundproof, employees will be having “dance parties” as well as calming music to help block out the sound of fireworks.

One fireworks seller has found a way to be part of the solution.

Bille Jo Gonzales is now in her fifth year of selling CBD dog treats at Gonzo’s Fire of Mines fireworks in Butte, Montana. She saw the treats made by local baker Heidi Johnson on Facebook and reached out.

“It helps my business because my business is actually creating the problem,” Gonzales said.

It’s a win-win situation that she thinks more fireworks vendors should consider.

“I’d say it’s increased our business and it’s great for advertising,” Gonzales said.

Unfortunately, dogs inevitably go missing nationwide every July Fourth. That’s where shelters come in, picking up more strays than usual in the days following.

A city animal shelter in Great Falls, 155 miles (249 kilometers) north of Butte, last year installed a 24/7 microchip scanning device to help people find lost dogs’ owners even when the shelter is closed.

In Arizona, Maricopa County’s two shelters are currently over capacity with roughly 760 dogs — ideal capacity is 640 — so they will be hard-pressed to receive any more. Unfortunately, early celebrations have contributed to 50-60 canines coming in on some days, said Kim Powell, spokesperson for Maricopa County Animal Care and Control.

It has gotten to the point where the holiday is something the shelter world "dreads all year long,” Powell said.

The county usually starts planning for it in March. Now, the shelters are offering free microchipping for the rest of the year. If you don’t have time to get your pet microchipped, then at least write your contact information on their collar, Powell advises. Also, even if your property is enclosed, keep your dog on a leash.

“When they get spooked, they’re not thinking rationally, so it’s best to just be with them, keep an eye on them,” Powell said.

Seattle resident James Pelletier plans to make sure nothing happens to his 7-year-old papillon-Chihuahua mix, Lilly, by putting her in his home’s basement apartment, which is almost like a “soundproof bunker.” He will hang some blankets over the door. He foam-insulated a small window and will have a stereo playing “music that I probably can't stand for however many hours and/or days.”

“There have already been folks setting things off, so we'll probably be ready to retreat downstairs this weekend,” Pelletier said in a text last week.

For him, sanctioned fireworks shows aren’t as big a problem as residents who incessantly set off illegal fireworks or firecrackers.

“Hopefully, people will use common sense with this stuff,” Pelletier said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this story originally ran on July 3. 2023.