While many people love the spectacle of fireworks, dog owners typically dread them. The loud, chest-pounding booms send quivering pups under the bed or into dark corners of the house looking for a place to escape the noise. These dogs often have a similar experience during thunderstorms.
Some studies estimate at least 40 percent of dogs suffer from noise anxiety, which is worse during the summer months. And according to the American Humane Association, July 5 is the busiest day of the year at animal shelters, as pets often run away from home trying to flee the noise. They're often found miles away, disoriented and exhausted.
There's now a medication specifically meant to treat noise aversion in dogs. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November under the name Pexion, the oral medication contains imepitoin — an anticonvulsant drug traditionally used to treat epilepsy in dogs.
The drug is given to dogs twice a day starting two days before an expected event (i.e. New Year's Eve or Fourth of July) and continuing through the event. It's available in 100mg and 400mg tablets depending on the dog's weight.
In a clinical trial, dogs were given either Pexion or a placebo two days before New Year's Eve. The owners rated their dogs' responses at different intervals and 16 different behaviors. The results showed that 66 percent of owners rated their dog's behavior as excellent or good while on Pexion compared to 25 percent of owners whose dogs took a placebo.
Pexion is only available through a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. The most common side effects are difficulty standing and walking, increased appetite, lethargy and vomiting.
An oral gel alternative
In 2016, the FDA also approved another medication to treat anxiety in dogs. Sileo is an oral gel that contains the active ingredient dexmedtomidine. Dexmedtomidine is a light to moderate sedative often used in humans for procedures such as colonoscopies.
The gel is applied directly to a dog's gums. The drug works, according to manufacturer Zoetis, by blocking the release of norepinepherine, the stress hormone in the brain that triggers the "fight or flight" response. The goal is to calm dogs without sedating them, according to a Zoetis release, which says the drug works within 30-60 minutes of application. Studies have been limited, but the most common side effect is vomiting.
According to the New York Times, a syringe of the medication costs about $30 and holds several doses, depending on your dog's weight.
“I’m not naïve enough to think this is the miracle cure,” Dr. Emily Levine, a veterinary behaviorist in Fairfield, New Jersey, told the Times. But she considers it a viable option.
Other treatments some vets suggests to combat noise anxiety include the ThunderShirt, a jacket designed to comfort dogs through calming restriction, as well as medications including tranquilizers, antidepressants and melatonin supplements. (And if you're curious about the ThunderShirt's effectiveness, read MNN's review.)
While some dogs shake and pant when they are anxious due to fireworks or thunderstorms, others will go to extremes to try to escape the flashing lights and booming noises.
The New York Times tells stories of dogs that found safety in hiding places, but then got stuck, and others that crashed through windows, vaulted fences, chewed door handles or raced into traffic.
“It’s very serious,” says Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a true panic disorder with a complete flight response.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2016.