An international group of researchers recently published data showing that low doses of detomidine gel—already used to sedate horses during minor medical, dental, hoof care, and grooming procedures—can safely drop anxiety levels in horses who show fear behaviors, such as sweating, bolting, and running, during fireworks displays.
“Our results suggest a beneficial effect of detomidine on horses’ signs of acute anxiety and fear associated with fireworks,” said Michela Minero, DVM, PhD, ECVBM-CA, of the University of Milan, in Italy.
By dropping the dose below the recommended amount for sedation, the researchers determined the medication worked as an anxiolytic—meaning it reduced signs of anxiety—without making the horses droopy, the scientists reported in their academic paper. Because they were less anxious but still alert, the study horses could move around the stable safely and continue eating and drinking despite the having been administered medication.
Pilot Study: 16 Horses Treated With Detomidine or Placebo
In their clinical study, the researchers selected 16 horses known for their high levels of fear and stress behavior during nearby fireworks displays. They randomly chose half the horses to receive a low dose of detomidine gel and the other half a placebo (a gel with no medication in it) during a scheduled fireworks display. They then asked the owners to describe how their horse’s behavior changed—if at all—compared to during previous fireworks displays. (The owners didn’t know whether their horse’s gel contained medication.)
Six out of the eight horses treated with low-dose detomidine gel showed marked improvement, with clearly less fear and anxiety during the fireworks display, their owners reported. In the placebo group, 50% of the owners said their horses’ behavior had improved (which might have been related to the owners being hopeful or expecting a response), according to the study results.
“Although no statistically significant differences were found, owners tended to assess the treatment effect to be good,” Minero said.
An Anxiolytic, Rather Than Sedative, Dose
Expert observations of the treated horses revealed they had good appetites, were actively eating, and showed no signs of being tired or sleepy, the researchers said.
Detomidine is an alpha-2 agonist, which means it inhibits the brain’s release of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that increases during stressful events. At low doses, it appears to allow the horse to remain aware of his surroundings while feeling less alarmed, without fully sedating him, the researchers reported.
Some management techniques can also help reduce stressors such as fireworks, including moving horses indoors or far away from the property, covering windows, using earplugs, giving free-access hay, and playing music, the scientists said. When those steps are insufficient in keeping the horse calm, pharmacological intervention might be necessary. However, that’s a decision that must be made with the help of a professional, added Minero.
“It is crucial that owners should consult their veterinarian or horse behaviorist to identify the best management strategy for their horses,” she said.