Originally published December 30, 2020; updated July 2022
Holidays are times for celebration. Whether it’s Christmas, New Year’s, or the 4th of July, we all have different ways of making them memorable.
However, one person’s gala can be another person’s nightmare. If you are a dedicated horse or pet owner, you already know the apprehension that builds when certain holiday traditions involve fireworks.
I believe that one person’s right should not override the safety of others. You may have the right to fire off explosives…but I have the right to peace, tranquility, and safety – for myself and the animals in my care.
Since I originally wrote this article in December 2020, my circumstances have changed. I inherited a 30-year-old horse from a friend who passed. I believe Amigo to be biologically older than his chronological age as I have seen 30-year-old horses look better…but just like humans, every horse is different. Gray-faced and wrinkled on his hind end, Amigo suffers from Cushing’s Disease as well as a bad hip joint, probably from a previous injury. While supplements and medications help support his needs, he is still at a tipping point. However, he eats, drinks, and can move freely though he has a noticeable drag in one hind leg. He rolls and gets up with little issue.
So those who suggested I put him down were ignored. No, he is not rideable, and yes, his cost has increased the cost of my household…but he deserves to live out his life without financial decisions determining his exit.
Last New Year’s eve, when the neighbors began shooting off cannons late in the afternoon, I discovered something new about Amigo: he was terrified of extreme noise, and was intent on finding an escape. He would bang the gate with his chest trying to flee somewhere, anywhere.
After much cursing, I texted my neighbor and asked if they were shooting guns, as what I was hearing sounded more like artillery than fireworks. I received no response. I dialed 911, but suddenly the barrage of what sounded like war ceased. I canceled the call. Because it stopped, I assumed it was out of respect for their neighbor. But I was wrong. At about 11:30 PM the racket started all over again – and so did my cursing as I spent the next hour trying to remain calm and to keep the horses calm. While apprehension and anxiety were visibly apparent in Amigo’s pasture pals, they weren’t trying to tear down the fence or the stall. Amigo, on the other hand…
Previously a friend of mine endured something similar, only it was his elderly dog, who also had age-related issues. Much of that particular holiday evening was spent trying to calm this usually sedate canine. When I questioned my friend about the neighbors, he stated though he would have liked the evening to have been different, he did not want to start a war with them.
While I agree good fences make good neighbors, it doesn’t cover all issues, including sound. It was hard to concede his point. I decided to research the issue to see if I was the only person who felt the same regarding fireworks.
Of course, I wasn’t. There are articles (1, 2, 3) regarding this problem, many from various organizations as well as the scientific community here in the US and across the pond. With the pandemic setting the stage for even more people celebrating at home, the universal fear was that there would be increasingly widespread trauma amongst our four-legged friends. While I knew that fireworks and animals do not mix, I was shocked after researching what effect our celebrations have on our equine friends and other pets, as well as livestock.
Sound is measured by decibels, with the range for humans being 0db to 140db for adults, with discomfort starting at 120db and 140db considered the threshold for pain (120 db in children). The length and intensity are crucial as well, as a sustained level of noise rated around 80 to 85db can cause hearing loss.
Fireworks show the maximum level of decibels rated at 140db.
A horse’s range of decibels starts at 5 to 15db, which is higher than a human’s starting point. I found no scale of maximum tolerance, but their hearing is said to be similar to humans. Also, with horses being flight animals – evolved physically and mentally to escape danger by running rather than fighting – a sudden burst of noise and light such as fireworks can send them over the edge. Law enforcement receives testimonies of injury and death every year after holiday celebrations.
One such testimony told of a horse that ran itself to its death in its pasture, twisting its intestine. The owner was unaware that fireworks were taking place a week after New Year’s Eve. The horse had to be euthanized. Another horse impaled himself on a fence post.
Livestock can be just as susceptible to noise levels, and in some species, even more so. In an article written by the RSPCA for their #BangOutOfOrder campaign, it is noted that noise levels from 80 to 89db increase the heart rate of pigs; noise levels above 100db increase respiration in lambs. (I also recommend reading Scared to death: Why we’re campaigning for change.)
The Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations in both England and Wales state that pigs must not be exposed to constant or sudden noise levels above 85db. Doing so can result in their death. While the repercussions of leaving a dog unattended during fireworks are realized, every year brings new stories of dogs escaping their confines due to being traumatized by fireworks.
The answer? Laws and regulations differ depending on your country, state, county, and even city, but usually, there is no legal recourse. One law center recommended having third-party insurance because you can be liable if someone is injured or property damaged due to horses or cattle escaping, no matter the reason for the mayhem. Cause and effect don’t mean justice.
The best defense is being prepared. Keep your dogs and other small pets inside your home or barn. Play music. Science says music tends to relax dogs, and recent data shows the music genre Reggae seems to be the best for doing so. (Who knew? Maybe our dog friends dream of island vacations, digging sandcastles, and romping in the surf.)
Horses are not as easy to prepare – and while moving them may seem like a good idea, many advise keeping them where they are most familiar. If you move them and someone unexpectedly decides to make noise, it can be even more disastrous.
There are hoods you can purchase to cover a horse’s ears. While it may soften the explosive noise, it has been advised by many to accustom your horse in advance; waiting till the day of anticipated events may create more confusion and frustration. Mounted shooters use earplugs made for their horses, but again, it is best to familiarize your horse with the plugs several days in advance. Music is recommended for its calming effects on horses as well as dogs, and keeping the barn lights on if stabled. The lights soften the impact of sudden bursts of light.
Lord Nelson posted steps to take regarding fireworks on the Rutgers University site, one of which suggested a fireworks desensitization cd. Of course, this must be done in advance. Most of the CDs I found online were created for dogs, but horses respond as well. One such CD was found on Amazon.com.
Whether you keep your horses stabled or pastured, make sure that fences are secure and no objects protrude to injure the animal. While good advice, it is easy to overlook the obvious at times.
Sedation may be recommended. Carissa Wickens Ph.D., Extension Equine Specialist at the University of Florida’s Department of Animal Science, directed me to a pilot study by Dai and colleagues regarding the use of Detomidine Oromucosal gel to alleviate acute anxiety and fear in horses specifically caused by fireworks. Detomidine is an alpha-2 adrenoceptor agonist drug used in the sedation of large animals. The double-blind study was held between December 2018 and January 2019 in Finland and performed in 16 different publicly owned stables.
They concluded that Detomidine was useful for keeping a horse calm during extreme noise levels. The FDA has since approved the use of Detomidine for sedation.
Unfortunately, anytime you need a veterinarian to assist, you are going to spend money. Detomidine is not an over-the-counter drug and you must have a prescription to obtain it. ValleyVet.com has several variations of the drug, with prescription.
Again, good fences make good neighbors, but it doesn’t shield you from the noise and lights of an over-the-top celebration, no matter the holiday. While I believe my rights to peace, safety and tranquility should not be superseded by someone else’s right to celebrate, we are not always in control of our circumstances.
Ask your neighbors to notify you in advance of any plans to celebrate with fireworks. It should be common courtesy if you live in a close neighborhood or amongst small acreage communities. You may want to contact your local law enforcement to know what your legal rights are regarding the use of fireworks or any kind of artillery.