The Big Balloon Fiesta is Not Always Fun for Our Dogs

Albuquerque is home to the largest ballooning event in the world. From October 6, 2018 to October 14, 2018 our city will be hosting people from all over the world to witness this event and balloons will be filling the sky on most mornings.

Most of us find this to be a wonderful time with cool weather and the smell of roasting chili in the air. However, many of our canine companions experience significant stress due to this. The response that they exhibit is similar to that seen with thunderstorm and firework phobias. Although the reaction is not logical, the sense of dread is real, and these pets are very distressed by the sights and sounds of these strange things filling the sky.

It is important to remember that the goal of addressing this problem in your dog is to reduce the stress reaction to a reasonable level (no harm done to self or property, rapid recovery from the event and decreased intensity of reaction). It is often difficult to completely abolish the behavior, but we want to give you tools to keep things manageable for you, your dog and your family.

If balloons are scary, avoiding them as much as possible should be a goal. It can be helpful to take your dog out to do their business early before the sun comes up and the balloons come out. Also, try keeping them inside until the evening when the skies have “cleared up.”

Your dog’s main motivation during these events is to increase their sense of safety. If your dog wants to go to the closet, into the bathroom or to hide under the bed, it is best to let them go there. If there is not yet an established “safe space,” set one up for your dog. This can involve a crate but does not have to.

Add background noise to help decrease the impact of the sound of the burners going off if the balloons are close enough to be heard. The use of “white noise” is helpful for some dogs. This type of noise works best when turned up fairly loudly to distract from the outside noise. A good website for obtaining such soundtracks is simplynoise.com. You can download the tracks or get them as an app for mobile devices. Using a loud fan or turning up the TV are also very simple ways to lessen the impact of the event on your pet.

A good tip is to offer distractive activities in the safe space BEFORE the balloons are visible/audible. KONGS with frozen peanut butter, cream cheese or Cheese Whiz can be prepared in advance so that you can offer them before the balloons arrive. Other high-value chewing or treat toys such as compressed rawhide with peanut butter coating can be used with observation.

Be sure that you are not reinforcing any anxious behavior by giving your pet extra attention such as petting, stroking or talking to him/her. All such behavior should be ignored! The only behavior that should be rewarded with vocal cues and treats/toys is settling into the safe spot. By giving your dog any attention for pacing, hovering, etc. we are confirming that their behavior is appropriate. Get a space set up, walk them to it and only reward them for settling in and staying there.

Adaptil collars or infusers can be very helpful. The infusers can be set up near the safe space while the collars can be worn full time during “balloon season.” These products release a pheromone that is naturally produced by glands located between the mammary chains of lactating female dogs. This pheromone has been shown to have a calming/comforting effect on puppies and adult dogs and can increase the sense of comfort during the storms. We have these products here at Aztec or they can be purchased at local pet stores and online.

The Thunder shirt may decrease anxiety in some dogs. This product is intended to calm your pet through constant gentle pressure (hugging). It is available online at thundershirt.com.

Medications and supplements for phobias can also help. Short-term anti-anxiety medications such as clonazepam and trazadone are very helpful and are given as needed for actual events. These medications each have pluses and minuses (time to onset, duration of effect, side effects) that will be discussed by your veterinarian when they are prescribed. In general, we strongly encourage the use of these medications as soon as you know that there is anticipated need.

Please let us know if you have any questions about these recommendations. We also would like to know what ends up being the most helpful techniques for you and your dog. Our hope is that with a good plan in place, we can all enjoy Albuquerque’s Balloon fiesta!