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Why are cats scared of fireworks?

Fireworks season is starting – and it can be a really nasty time for our pets! But to understand how to help them, we need to understand WHY they’re so afraid. Only then can we address the root cause of their fear, and hope to help them.

How do cats respond to fear?

To some extent, it depends on the circumstances. Cats generally respond to acute and sudden fear by hiding from it (typically either in a buried and hidden den, or up high on shelves or curtains), or in more extreme cases, running away from it. A cat in a blind panic won’t look to see where she’s running – she just runs, and that puts her in danger when crossing roads, or crossing into other cats’ territories. In addition, a panicked cat doesn’t keep tabs of where she’s been, so is quite likely to become lost and be unable to return home.

If the frightening stimulus (e.g. bright flashes outside and loud bangs and whizzes) is slightly less acute, the cat may react more subtly. Signs of stress and anxiety in cats may include spending more time in hiding, but also urine spraying, inappropriate defecation, spending less time outside, reduced appetite, and over grooming. These are all signs that something isn’t right, and that you need to look into it urgently!

Why is this?

Domestic cats evolved as small carnivores – lethal to anything their own size or smaller, but also at risk from bigger predators. As a result, even though we now provide for them, they live life on a hair-trigger, and their instincts are designed to protect them. So, any unexpected loud noise might be a large predator coming to get them, so they’ll try and hide from it (in a den), climb up trees to escape it (or up the curtains if there aren’t any nearby trees!), or if all else fails run away from it. So from your cat’s point of view, these responses are perfectly logical! We know that the fireworks aren’t toothy monsters that want to eat them – but cats come from a long line of animals who weren’t prepared to take that chance, and therefore survived to evolve into our pets.

The less acute response is also logical, when you think about it. A cat has a series of concentric nested territories; the innermost one is their “inner sanctum” and the place where they feel safest. If this territory is violated by an intruder, they need to refortify it, to mark it as still being theirs. So if anything makes them feel insecure in this safe-space, they’ll try and re-stake their claim to it. That’s what the urine spraying and, in severe cases, defecating is about: they’re putting up feline “Keep Out” signs! You’ll notice that these deposits are usually left around doors and windows – places where intruders might conceivably get in and need warning away. They tend to concentrate on this to the exclusion of everything else – until they have a safe core territory, cats usually won’t want to venture out into riskier areas (e.g. the garden). They also tend to be reluctant to eat and drink, because that’s when, with their head down, they’re at their most vulnerable to a surprise attack.

Overgrooming is actually the saddest sign of stress of all. It usually means that the cat is very stressed and afraid, but doesn’t feel able to do anything about it. Grooming is something they can do, though, and so all their anxiety is displaced into obsessively cleaning themselves. In some ways, you can see it as a call for help.

What can we do to help?

The best thing you can do is to make sure they stay safe – keeping them indoors at night when fireworks are expected, and giving them a safe den to hide away in where they won’t injure themselves.

However, you can also do a lot to reduce their fear levels. Use a Feliway diffuser to reassure them that their core territory is intact: it contains a synthetic version of the cat’s facial pheromone, the one they mark their space with. By plugging in the diffuser and/or spraying around the doors and windows, you’re helping the cat to reinforce their core territory and feel safe.

You can also help them to gradually get used to the fireworks noises by playing recordings very quietly, and over weeks or months gradually building up the volume. In many cases, offering a special treat at the same time is helpful, so they realise that the nasty noises aren’t monsters, but a sign they’re about to get something really nice!

If your cat is terrified of the “firework monsters”, have a chat with one of our vets to see how we can help.