Dealing with Fireworks Fear in Cats

calm cat

Throughout evolution cats have associated loud bangs with danger.  Wild cats aim to escape anywhere with loud bangs.   They try to run as far from the noise as possible to make sure that they don’t get hurt.  This helps them to both survive and thrive in the wild.

Today we keep cats in relatively safe areas, either our homes or outside.  They don’t usually have to be worried about predators/ being shot (though cats sadly do still get shot in the UK).  Despite this, cats are still often afraid of loud bangs and try to run from them.  Their instincts still tell them loud bangs mean danger, the same as ours and other animals do.

We all know that fireworks, when set off correctly, are pretty safe.  They make loud bangs whilst in the air but these are nothing to be worried about.  Cats, like other animals, don’t know this.  Unlike us, they also don’t know when fireworks are likely to be set off whereas we expect them around Bonfire Night and New Years Eve.  As cats don’t expect these, and their hearing is much more sensitive than ours, the bangs can terrify them.

two fireworks
Cats and other animals can be scared of fireworks
So, as cat owners, what can you do to help your furry friend?

Before the firework season starts you can;

  1. Make sure you have an area where your cat feels safe to hide in which should be covered.  Everyone must understand to leave your cat alone when they are in there.  If you have more than one cat create a safe area for each and add a spare.  Providing a spare area means cats can go where they want a bit more and have more space so there is less fighting.  If you own some cats who prefer being high up and others low down make sure the safe areas reflect this.  Make sure you also put them in your cat’s favourite places too.  Finally, make sure these areas aren’t all right next to each other; cats are solitary animals so they need their own space.
  2. Look at investing in a pheromone diffuser such as Feliway. Pheromone diffusers/ sprays help to calm your cat down.  I will discuss this further below.
  3. Give your cat time to adjust to firework sounds so they no longer cause them stress.  This should be done slowly before the firework seasons using pre-recorded firework sounds such as Sounds Scary.  For more info read the part of my firework fear in dogs blog that covers this; the theory is the same.
  4. Get your cat microchipped.
There are Fireworks Tonight, what should I do?
  1. Close any windows and external doors and block the cat flap.  This will stop your cat going out and muffle the sound of the fireworks.  If your cat is terrified and runs outside it will ignore any traffic so is more likely to get hit by a car.  Sometimes they don’t return after being scared of fireworks resulting in more strays being handed in at shelters around bonfire night.
  2. Put the TV or radio on; this will muffle the sound of fireworks and may distract your cat.
  3. Allow them access to their safe area; leave them alone in there to calm down.
  4. Feed them as normal; stick to their routine.  Your cat may not want to eat but at least it has the choice. Give them space around their food; if you are interfering, even to try to help, they will become more stressed.
  5. Think about putting a ThunderShirt on them before the fireworks start.  Some cats won’t let you put a coat on them or will take it straight off but others cope well with them.  ThunderShirt applies constant pressure to the skin.  This calms most cats down by either giving them something else to focus on or by them releasing endorphins (feel-good chemicals).  ThurnderShirt claims to help 80% of cats so odds are it will help yours to some degree.
  6. Calming Supplements and pheromones.
  7. Sedatives/ Anti-anxiety medications.
Scared
How a scared cat looks
What are Pheromone Diffusers?

Pheromones are chemical messages released from a cat’s body for another cat to pick up on.  These messages tell other cats where they have been and help them to calm down.  Cats recognise pheromones through an organ in the nose called the vomeronasal organ.  The vomeronasal organ can detect pheromones which don’t have a smell unlike of the rest of the nose which only detects scents.

There are two different cat pheromones, F3 and F4, both helping with different types of anxiety.  F3 helps with generalised anxiety and any fear to the environment and can help with fireworks. However, F4 helps to reduce anxiety to being handled.  Naturally, both pheromones are produced by the cat with F3 spread in urine.  F4 is released from glands in the cheek and is spread when cats rub their cheeks on things.   Both help cats to signal what belongs to them, either as part of their territory (F3) or different items/ cats (F4).

Feliway is a synthetic version of F3.  It can be bought as either a spray or diffuser.  The spray quickly fills an area such as a cat basket or through a room.  However, the diffuser slowly builds up the levels until they remain constant in a room.  Usually, the best way to get help F3 work quickly is to spray a room at the same time as plugging in a diffuser.  It does work with just the diffuser though it can take days to fill the room completely.  Ideally, you should spray your cat’s safe place with it before they go in there.

Feliway helps most cats to become calmer and happier with their surroundings and reduces anxiety.  It is very safe however, it sadly isn’t effective with all cats.

Supplements

You can buy nutritional supplements to help calm your cat down.  These contain natural ingredients which do/ are similar to the bodies chemicals and act to reduce stress or anxiety.  Some cats may not take these as they are suspicious of things added to their food.  Also, as all cats are different, they may not work with your cat but if one doesn’t another probably will.

NutraCalm is a powder inside a capsule which works within an hour if giving it to your cat by reducing their anxiety.  NutraCalm can be used just as a one-off dose or daily without any side effects if needed.  It contains a number of ingredients which all act together to help your cat.

They mainly contain;

  • L- Tryptophan which causes a cat to be sleepy.
  • GABA which relaxes the brain and helps with anxiety
  • L-Theanine (amongst other ingredients) to alter Dopamine levels and calm your cat.

NutraCalm is fast-acting and natural so many owners like it though it may not help as much once your cat is fearful.  I’d recommend not trying to give your cat supplements if they are already anxious as it may worsen their anxiety.  Instead, try giving them supplements before you expect to need them.

Zylkene is similar to a compound in cows milk which calms down young calves and does similar in cats.  Unlike NutraCalm it needs to be given daily for a week before it is needed and then continuously throughout firework season.  It will only work best to calm your cat if used like that, one tablet every so often will not work.  Also, when used correctly it still may not help your cat but it does help with a lot of them.  If your cat is fearful of fireworks its worth trying to see if it will help.

I’d definitely recommend trying all nutritional supplements (I’ve not listed them all here) to see if they help before considering putting your cat on medications.  However, only try one at a time as you won’t know which has worked or if they affect each other.  Also, if your cat is on any medications or has any health conditions discuss any supplements with them first.

red firework

Anxiety Medications

Most anxiety medications usually need to be taken every day for them to work.  These should only be used in very anxious or depressed cats and not usually those with only a problem around fireworks.

Most anti-anxiety medications, such as Clomicalm or Fluoxetine, need to be given daily for up to two months before any improvement may be seen.  Alongside that, they also have side effects including sedation, diarrhoea, vomiting or inappetence.

Over time, your cat’s body will also get used to these medications and so when you can’t just stop them straight away; to be safe, your cat will need to be weaned off them.  Weaning off tablets can be a long process and, unless your cat has had a successful behavioural modification program (such as Sounds Scary), they may still have a firework fear.

Medications are NOT a long-term solution but are a back-up during behavioural modification or needed if everything else has failed.

Sedatives

Some medications such as Diazepam or Alprazolam are used for one-off occasions to calm a cat down.  These both reduce anxiety by acting on the brain with Alprazolam working better in cats than Diazepam.  Alprazolam is most effective when given at least an hour before the fireworks start and it lasts around eight hours.  Medications should only be used when supplements, behavioural programs, ThunderShirts etc have all been tried as they will likely not help your cat out in the future.

Acepromazine is another sedative.  This used to be used a lot but no longer is recommended.  This does not reduce fear but just stops your cat behaving fearfully. With ACP, your cat will still be scared but will be unable to show that/ run away so they are no longer look scared.  The experience of having ACP often leads to cats becoming more scared as they’ve experienced being fearful and not being able to escape. Therefore, ACP is not an appropriate treatment for any types of anxiety.

Finally, Microchipping.

One of the most likely times for your cat to escape is when there are fireworks.  When terrified they will run without thinking and may become disorientated or lost.  Even if you take all the measures to stop them getting out, one could potentially escape and get lost.  The best way for your cats to be returned to you is if they are microchipped.

A microchip is a plastic computer chip around the size of a grain of rice which is read by running a scanner over it.  If your cat is microchipped and your details up to date on the microchip’s database then the vet/ rescue centre can scan them, find out your details and contact you.  The microchip itself does not contain any details on it.  A microchip only produces a number when scanned so people won’t get your personal details from just scanning your cat.  Instead, they must contact the database who is able to provide the contact details on record for a microchipped animal’s number.

 

If you want to discuss this in more detail or your cat is having problems with fireworks then feel free to contact me via kim@animalwelfarematters.co.uk

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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