Fear of fireworks can affect cats as well as dogs: how do we know, and what can we do to help them?

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In the veterinary blogging world, there are key seasonal topics that come up every year: hazards around the home at Christmas, chocolate poisoning at Easter, heat stroke in summer and, of course, the fear of fireworks at Halloween/ Guy Fawkes Day. It can be a challenge to come up with a new angle every year: it could be tempting to find an old article, re-jig it and re-phrase it, and the job is done. After all if you plagiarise yourself, is there anything wrong with that?

A better answer, however, is to seek out a completely new angle. So with the help of the Wikivet archives, instead of writing a repeat blog of what to do with dogs that are terrified of fireworks, here’s an alternative: how to help cats cope with fear of fireworks.

In general, fireworks phobia is not nearly as big an issue for cat owners as for dog owners. But it’s very likely that it may be just as big an issue for the animals themselves. Cats, being independent creatures, are far more likely to run away in terror and hide, leaving their owners entirely unaware of their distress. Cats don’t pace around, whining and barking. If they are terrified, they’re far less likely than dogs to bother their owners in any way.

So at this time of year, it makes sense for cat owners to be proactive about this subject: take a careful look at your cats, and make sure that they are definitely not distressed by the sounds of bangers and other fireworks outside. The signs of distress can be subtle enough: they may indulge in intensive bouts of over-grooming (which can be likened to an anxious human chewing their nails). Or they may dart around the house, rushing upstairs and hiding under beds. Perhaps the best way of assessing this is to ask yourself if your cat is behaving in a normal relaxed manner. If not, then they may be suffering from fear of fireworks noises, and you may be able to make them feel more comfortable with some simple steps.

So what can you do?

As with dogs, prevention is the best answer. Ideally, avoid taking kittens that come from aggressive or fearful parents, or that have been reared in an isolated, unsocial environment. Make sure that kittens have proper habituation to a wide range of events and stimuli during the sensitive period before 7 weeks of age. Deliberate exposure to sound stimuli using recordings is helpful, but kittens should not be habituated to traffic sounds: cats need to be frightened of oncoming cars. After kittens have grown older, new noises should be introduced gradually and slowly, again using recordings, so that they are less likely to terrify the cat. Pheromone diffusers may help to enable adult cats to adjust to episodes of loud noise, such as parties or firework displays. And it helps to have a “cat friendly home”, with snug beds hidden in low-down places, and high-up perching posts for cats to survey the world below them.

For cats with an established severe fear reaction, consulting with a feline behavioural expert can be helpful: a simple phone consultation may be enough to allow you to cover some specific aspects of your own cat’s behaviour. A general process of “desensitisation and counter-conditioning” is the general aim: this means exposing the cat to a low level of the noise which causes a bad reaction, while rewarding the cat for staying calm and playful. As long as the cat remains contented, the noise can gradually be increased in volume: hopefully the cat will become “desensitised” to it. Feline pheromones help this process, and in some cases, your vet or behavioural expert may suggest psychoactive medication.

If your cat has a fear of fireworks, don’t let them suffer in silence. Observe them carefully, and with some simple, thoughtful steps, you should be able to help them enjoy this time of year.

By the way, keep all cats inside during the hours of darkness around Guy Fawkes night: it isn’t a safe time for cats to be out on their own.

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