My American readers are likely well-aware that tomorrow is the Fourth of July, more commonly known as “The Day Terror Rains from the Sky” for many of our dogs. Because so many dogs experience fear at the sound of nearby exploding fireworks, it’s unfortunately quite common for panic-stricken dogs to escape their house or yard in a rush to flee from the perceived threat, ultimately ending up lost and far from home. In fact, more pets get lost around the 4th of July than any other time of year, so it’s a serious issue all responsible dog owners should take time to address.
I’ve seen a number of great posts floating around on what to do if your dog gets lost and how to recover him, but haven’t seen any specifically on how to help prevent your dog from getting lost and what steps you can take before your dog gets lost to facilitate the recovery process. Hence, I’m writing this post now, as someone who sees many lost dogs at work in the days following July 4th. Some of these recommendations are more relevant to the Fourth of July, but many of them are general and can be applied in any situation.
1 in 3 pets will get lost in their lifetime, and 90% of lost pets with no ID never return home. Being prepared for the worst by ensuring your dog always has some form of ID is essential.
1. Keep a collar (preferably one with up-to-date tags) on your dog whenever he goes outside, and at all times during 7/4 and other stressful events.
Even if you’re not planning to go anywhere or let your dog outside the house, it’s still a good idea to keep a collar on him for the day. Many of the lost dogs that get reported to our clinic following the 4th first escaped by dashing through a cracked door or window when people were coming in and out of the house.
Do NOT use a martingale collar for this, because there is a considerable risk of accidental suffocation if the collar gets caught on something while you aren’t there to supervise.
This is true for any kind of collar which has a slip loop (i.e. a small extra loop of chain or fabric which can grow or shrink in size to increase or decrease the tightness of the collar respectively). These kind of collars should only be used when you’re directly supervising your dog to prevent accidental injury.
The best type of collar to use as an ID collar is a flat collar, ideally one with a quick release buckle or a break-away mechanism which will help prevent strangulation if your dog’s collar gets snagged by something. Make sure that the collar is properly fitted: snug but loose enough that you can get two fingers underneath it. Collars made with reflective material are especially helpful, as they increase your dog’s visibility in low light and could help prevent him from getting hit by a car in some situations.
Your dog’s collar should have a metal plate or tag(s) for identification and contact information. At the very least, a current phone number should be on the tag (an address is not necessary and may be a privacy concern for some people). If your dog takes daily medication, you may want a tag with “Needs Medication” written on it somewhere, so whoever finds your dog will understand the importance of getting in contact with you to return your dog as quickly as possible. If your dog looks especially old or ill, this should hopefully discourage people from assuming that your dog has been neglected (and therefore hesitating to return him to you) but rather has a medical condition and is being properly cared for.
Though using tags or a name plate on your dog’s collar for identification is ideal, it’s still better for him to wear a plain collar rather than none at all to signify that he’s lost and not a stray.
2. Attach your dog’s rabies tag to his collar.
In the US, it’s the law that all dogs must be vaccinated for rabies by a licensed veterinarian, and proof of rabies vaccination is required when you license your dog with your local government. After registration, you should be issued rabies tags which record your dog’s vaccination status and license information. It’s important to attach a rabies tag to your dog’s collar because it’s the fastest, most reliable means of identification and contact info if your dog gets picked up by animal control or a government-funded shelter.
If you haven’t licensed your dog with your local government yet, you should do so as soon as possible. Not only is licensing legally required, but attempting to recover a non-licensed dog from animal control is far more expensive and difficult than recovering a licensed dog. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run by keeping up with local pet laws.
3. Make sure that the contact info associated with your dog’s microchip is up-to-date.
Microchips are arguably the most important tool for lost pet recovery and proof of ownership, but if the contact information associated with your dog’s microchip is incorrect, the chip may be virtually useless.
Many microchip companies have websites where you can manage your pet’s microchip info yourself, and you should take advantage of this. Try to keep your contact info, your veterinarian’s contact info, and your dog’s profile up to date. Upload a current, clear photo of your pet if that’s an option provided by the microchip company. Adding alternate contacts with phone numbers and e-mails is a good idea, in case you’re unable to be reached for some reason when your pet is found.
Be sure to check that the contact info that your vet has for your file is updated as well. If direct contact can’t be made with the owner when a microchipped pet is found, they will contact the animal’s veterinarian.
If you’re not sure what company registered your pet’s microchip or you’ve forgotten their microchip number, you should be able to find out by either contacting the vet or shelter that microchipped your pet or contacting your pet’s previous owner (or vet) if applicable.
If you’ve adopted a dog who was microchipped under a previous owner, be aware that changing the name associated with the microchip is a tedious process that usually requires documented proof of a transfer of ownership or the previous owner directly authorizing the change with the company. Even if you’re just changing the name associated with a microchip because your own name has legally changed, you’ll need to call the microchip company directly to change it (and I can say from personal experience that it’s a pretty annoying process).
This should go without saying but, you should get your pet microchipped as soon as possible if they aren’t chipped already! It’s a priceless tool for recovering a lost pet or definitively proving ownership if someone stole your pet or if a shelter adopted your pet out to another person instead of returning him to you (yes, scary as it is, this does happen both accidentally and intentionally!). It’s inexpensive and many low-cost clinics offer dirt cheap microchipping services if money is especially tight for you.
4. Consider buying or renewing membership with the microchip company’s lost pet service.
When a microchip is registered, the chip number and its associated contact information will remain in the company’s database indefinitely for no cost beyond the initial payment for registering the microchip. You don’t have to worry about the chip’s listing expiring or being removed.
However, some microchip companies also offer optional subscription-based services which provide additional tools and features for you to recover your pet more easily if he gets lost. These are typically fairly inexpensive and utilize an annual payment system. It’s worth checking out what features are available to determine if a subscription would be worth the extra cost.
Personally, my dogs are registered with HomeAgain and I pay for their subscription service. It comes with a lot of different features including the company covering travel fees if my dogs are found far from home and access to several 24 hour hotlines staffed by vets and pet recovery specialists. However, the primary reason I buy the subscription is for the Pet Recovery Network feature: if I report one of my dogs as missing, HomeAgain will immediately fax and email lost pet posters to all shelters, rescues, vets, groomers, kennels, and pet stores in the area. Additionally, all local pet owners who have a pet registered with HomeAgain will receive an email and/or text alerting them that my dog is missing and providing identification and contact info. It would save me a lot of time and effort since I wouldn’t have to contact all those places individually, so I could focus on looking for my lost dog instead of making phone calls and driving around to put up posters in those places.
To keep your dog from becoming a statistic, careful prevention of escape opportunities and easing a fearful dog’s underlying anxiety are essential during the Fourth of July holiday and any similarly stressful event.
1. Keep your dog indoors during the fireworks festivities at night. Keep him on leash if you do have to go outside. Do NOT leave him outside unsupervised, even if he’s tethered or in a fenced-in yard.
This should be fairly obvious, but some owners still bring their fearful dogs to festivals on the night of 7/4 or even to actual fireworks displays! Even if the dog doesn’t escape, it’s still unkind to unnecessarily expose him to overwhelming, fear-inducing stimuli like fireworks instead of keeping him at home where he’ll feel safer.
Try to get in your dog’s exercise and potty breaks earlier in the day so he can stay indoors for the evening. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, keeping him on leash even during daylight hours is a good idea because people will be shooting off firecrackers throughout the day.
Though the fence or tethering system in your backyard may usually be secure enough to keep your dog in, if he panics due to the noise, there’s a chance he could wriggle free and find a way to escape. Your best bet is to just keep him inside until the coast is clear.
2. If you’re hosting an event at your house, consider confining your dog to a particular room or part of the house.
If you have a lot of people going in and out of your house, there’s much more opportunity for your dog to run out the door. The presence of many unfamiliar people may also be an additional stressor for some fearful dogs, which could heighten his anxiety more than just the sound of fireworks alone and give him more motivation to escape. By confining your dog to a quiet room away from the center of activity, you can prevent both these scenarios from occurring. You can provide him with toys or puzzles for an entertaining distraction.
3. Crate or confine your dog if you’re leaving him alone during the night.
The crate is a safe little den for most dogs, and inside it they will be more comfortable, and less able to escape, damage your house or belongings, or hurt themselves in fear. Ideally, the crate should be situated in a quiet room away from windows, with the curtains drawn on any visible windows. Again, you can provide him with toys or puzzles for an entertaining distraction while you’re away.
4. Attempt to minimize the stress your dog experiences during the event to prevent potentially dangerous behavior.
The most effective way to encourage your dog to remain calm and relaxed during fireworks, thunderstorms, or other noisy events is to countercondition him to these unpleasant stimuli. Counterconditioning is a type of training which creates positive attitudes and behaviors toward stimuli that typically provoke a negative response via introducing controlled, incremental exposures to those stimuli in a manner that builds a positive association with them. The downside is that counterconditioning takes a long time and a lot of work to be effective, so you must start training your dog long before you expect him to encounter those stimuli in a non-controlled environment. Though it may be too late to effectively countercondition your dog to the fireworks tomorrow, you can certainly start soon afterward in preparation for next year.
One thing that you can do last minute is prepare a place for your dog to hide if he feels overwhelmed. Covering his crate with a blanket and situating it in a quiet room works well. Some dogs respond positively to music played to obscure the noise of fireworks, but others may be overstimulated by this. It’s important to pay attention to your dog’s body language to determine how best to make him feel safe.
For some dogs, using a Thundershirt or similar product can help keep him calm, though others don’t respond to it. Another option is using Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) via a collar, spray, or diffuser. This is also pretty hit or miss, with some dogs responding well and others very little or not at all.
Finally, it’s a common misconception that comforting a fearful dog rewards his fear and therefore should be avoided. This is simply NOT true. You can comfort your dog as much as you’d like if you think it will help him persevere through a stressful situation.
5. If you decide to give your dog medication to help calm him, be informed on what medications are effective and appropriate.
Medication can make a world of difference for some anxious dogs, but not all sedatives are a good choice for calming a fearful dog during a stressful event.
Acepromazine is a prescription tranquilizer which is useful for anesthesia and sedation during medical procedures, but it’s usually inappropriate for calming an anxious dog during fireworks or a thunderstorm. While it will sedate an animal, it does nothing to ease anxiety and can cause dysphoria which makes fear more intense.
Benadryl is an OTC antihistamine which is sometimes given for its sedating side effects. Benadryl will make most dogs sleepy, but it can also cause a paradoxical effect of excitement in some dogs which will make anxiety worse.
Another OTC option is Melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone given as a supplement which can help reduce anxiety and promote sleep.
Xanax and Trazodone are both prescription drugs which can reduce anxiety soon after they’re administered, and both generally cause sedation although Xanax can produce paradoxical effects of excitement in some dogs similar to Benadryl. Dogs which take Xanax regularly will develop a tolerance which decreases its effectiveness, so it’s best used sparingly as needed.
Most other anxiety medications for dogs need sufficient time, usually several weeks, to build up in a dog’s system before they’re effective. Prozac and amitriptyline are two examples. Clomicalm is another such drug which also has the benefit of generally being less sedating than other anxiety medications (which can result in unwanted personality changes). Since these drugs take a long time to work and must be taken daily to be effective, they’re better suited for dogs who are generally anxious rather than those who only suffer from limited situational anxiety.
Whatever medication you choose, ideally you should do a trial run during a non-stressful time to observe how your dog tolerates the medication before using it during a stressful event in case your dog happens to have an adverse or paradoxical reaction to the drug. Always check with your vet for the correct dosage for OTC medications and never give your dog medication he’s not been prescribed.