Dr. Rachel Geller
Cats & Fireworks: 4th of July Safety Guide
Cats find fireworks, with their loud noises and bright lights, stressful. Fireworks loudly go off at irregular intervals, and your cat has no way of knowing when the next loud bang will happen or how long the noise will go on for. As you can imagine, all of this causes fear, anxiety and stress!
The good news is that we can get our cats to tolerate the loud noises and bangs from fireworks. Note: I said tolerate, not joyfully embrace! You will need to be patient and proceed gradually. It will be worth it to have a cat who can handle the sound of fireworks since there are many 4th of July celebrations leading up to the holiday and then on the holiday itself.
Gradual Exposure is Key
Start with exposing your cat to an audio recording of fireworks, very quietly at first and then gradually increasing the volume. This is called systematic desensitization. This is an active process where the cat learns that a situation is neither important or meaningful. When the situation doesn't harm your cat or have any consequences, the cat will stop reacting over time. With this type of learning, cats don't forget about a situation; instead they actively learn not to react to it over time. In other words, they get used to it! Systematic desensitization is a very controlled approach to presenting the cat with the thing they are afraid or nervous about (the sound of fireworks) and by doing it gradually and carefully, we can decrease the fear, anxiety and stress.
It's best to start this process when your cat is in one of her favorite napping spots. Choose a location she views as positive. Play the fireworks audio for about 30 seconds at a low level, purposely start with the level low enough that your cat doesn’t react at all or, if she does, it is just to turn toward the source of the noise. After 1-2 days consisting of a few sessions at that noise level, you can gradually increase the volume for another few days with multiple sessions during the day. Incrementally bring the volume up every few days. To further make this a positive experience, you can give your cat some yummy treats while the audio is playing.
Once the fireworks start going off…
There are also some things you can do the night of July 4th, or if you hear people/parties setting off their own fireworks. Create a safe hiding place for your cat, such as a box, or a covered cat bed. Cover your windows and draw the curtains. This muffles the noise and stops your cat from seeing the bright flashes of light. Turn on the radio softly. Try to resist the urge to overly comfort your cat because you don’t want to reassure her that she should be scared. Rather, act normal; keep it light and casual like this is no big deal. Don’t pick her up if she is terrified because some cats feel restricted when they are held as this reduces their ability to flee, even if the fleeing is just under the bed. Your cat will feel safer knowing she has that option.
There are many over-the-counter products for calming cats such as sprays and plug-ins. Calming pheromones can help relieve stressed cats. These products are a synthetic version of a cat’s own friendly, “feel good” pheromones. They come in many forms, including sprays and plug-in diffusers. For cats, it works by imitating the facial pheromones they deposit when rubbing their face against surfaces. That means when your cat rubs her face on your leg or on furniture, she’s saying this is my territory and letting herself know this is a safe spot. When she smells pheromones around the apartment, she is calmed because it reassures her that it’s her safe space.
Make sure your apartment is safe and secure. Cats can squeeze into incredibly tight spots, so make sure to block off any unsuitable areas they could get into. Cats associate loud noises with danger, and the noise and flashes can cause your cat to run off in panic. Plan ahead and check in advance that your doors and windows are secure and if you have a cat flap, block that off.
While Independence Day can be fun for us humans, it’s the one holiday most of our pets can certainly do without. These techniques will help your cat get through this year’s fireworks calms and safely, and hopefully help desensitize her to be less tense around future firework-focused holidays!