While fireworks may be beautiful to behold, they can also be disastrous for any wildlife in the vicinity affected by their booming sound and vibrant, disorienting explosiveness. The effects are most often seen in the deaths of birds and in dogs, who often demonstrate behaviors that when operationalized, are seen to be occurring as adaptive responses to the sights, sounds and other stimuli that have become associated with fireworks. The behavior patterns displayed are notable to be often indicative of fear or panic, culminating in response class forms of escape or socially mediated behaviors that are a product of the fireworks and their stimuli. Fireworks usually occur on certain holidays or at certain times of year which are predictable and allow for control when it comes to setting up our dog, cat, bird, child or any other for less stress and fear and more comfort and success. In the following paragraphs, ways will be reviewed of how such success can be set up, most specifically for cats, though much of this information can be generalized and adapted to varying situations and species.
The most common signs that a cat is being affected and experiencing stress or expressing adaptive patterns to reduce stress will often be seen in that cat hiding or caving, most commonly under the bed, in a closet or behind some boxes. With such behaviors in these contexts there is nothing that needs to be adjusted as long as those places are safe and you can gain access to the cat in your life if need be. Other signs of stress created by fireworks could be increased meowing or yowling, pacing, not engaging in the usually predictive patterns of play or eating (if these are usually motivators and reinforcers) and notable shifts from usual behavior routines. When in doubt, assume that with fireworks, there comes some amount of stress that the organism will try to compensate for, often through escape or socially mediated responses. But have hope, fireworks happen and can be prepared for, so start with a plan!
Planning will take a twofold approach, the first being environmental arrangement, the second through classical and operant means of setting up a session with the goal of conditioning a certain stimulus-to-response association. So, with that in mind, it’s time to arrange the environment to be safe for the individual and tolerable to the senses. The most important part of all this is to keep the cat in your life indoors when fireworks are likely to ensue and make sure to be cautious when opening doors to the outside world, so no sneaking out can occur. The great outdoors can be dangerous enough for cats without the added element of disorientation and the reality that panic and its behavioral expressions expose one to an even heightened degree of vulnerability.
When it comes to the environment the focus is diminishing the noise and reverberations the firecrackers create and blinding out their bright flash. Ways to do this include, closing windows and curtains, having an air conditioner or fans running or other white noise that is predictable and already occurs on a regular basis, along with considering setting up a speaker in a central place in the home space and playing cat music (yes there’s literal music composed and written explicitly for cats based on research) or having on the TV (there is cat TV as well, find a station on YouTube) with the usual programs or something without loud noises, as such could add to and potentiate the cat’s response to the fireworks to an increased degree.
Other environmental considerations are having access to cat beds and safe spaces that could be used to cave or remove oneself from the presence of a certain stimulus. Adding a few new enrichment items and a puzzle feeder or two with some high value treats will create opportunities for cats to control the environment, but then again this is good to ensure at any time but in the context of fireworks, it is key to reduce the overall stimuli of the sight and sound and just as much key to offer the opportunity for cats to have those safe spaces to disengage to, but also those other opportunities to engage with some other form of enrichment, whether an interactive toy, paper bag, ripple rug, or another tempting engagement or puzzle feeder to list off a few options.
Interactive play sessions with various wand style toys that can be readily accessed whether online or instore (feel free to message me for my favs!) go a long way to orienting and focusing cats to engage in that ambush style of hunting that is so key to their essence and evolutionary history. If the cat in your life continues to engage in play in the presence of the stimuli of fireworks, that is a major celebration, but if not, that is also OK. Another quality interaction can be a grooming session where you can offer the stimulus of the brush to your cat and proceed from there depending how your cat responds and if self-directed rubbing or engagement with the brush occurs. There is a fine line to not “overdoing it” or throwing too much of our own behavior at the cat in our life during situations that have the potential to be stressful due to prior conditioning history or past association. The best approach is to make the above adjustments but keep your routine as intact as possible as that regularity is a guiding principle for how the cat in your life processes and engages life as well (and vice versa). To quote the legendary drummer Ringo Starr, all ya gotta do is, “act naturally.”
Now that the environment is planned and prepped it’s time to begin constructing new or “a new” association with the sound of fireworks. In cases where there is a strong aversion to such sounds, this process will be much more graded and gradual (which means volume on “1” from three rooms over and approximate from there). In most cases fireworks may be repelling in degree based on how loud the stimulus of that sound is. When such decibels are adjusted the level of control one can have over volume diminishes the intensity of fear or panic and as such being able to adjust volume, along with the actual frequency of the fireworks on the recordings is crucial to allow for the construction of the training session as seen in the accompanying video. (There are many compilations of firework sounds on YouTube and even some specifically for this kind of conditioning). During the training sessions in the video clips the sound of fireworks is being played on a recording and the volume is at a moderate level (though near the camera so sounds even louder).
Two of the most convenient ways to proceed in such cases is with targeting and pattern games as each offer movement and approach behaviors, while also allowing cats to opt out to explore apart from or pause from the engagement for a time without feeling like a training session is breaking down, as it may if the pattern were more stationary and the cat in your life just stood up and walked away to go explore. (Which of course would be fine as well. I personally consider motion to generate confidence in my own life, so I generalize this principle.) Pattern games can create such motion along with establishing clear criteria or “patterns” that can be engaged to instill a sense of predictability amongst unpredictability, such as in the case of fireworks. The pattern game seen in the video is a variation of our own, which we refer to as the “Explore & Report” pattern (the video notes will detail this pattern). A wonderful aspect of targeting is that it’s as complex and as simple as a poem and can be used to create structure and predictability (and indeed pattern games are exactly creative applications of targeting and stationing used within a certain matrix) with a tad more variability, though just as much predictability as inherently, there will still be an underlying pattern to maintain engagement, communication and empowerment.
In summary, begin preparing a week to a few weeks before the main fanfare of fireworks is to occur (as I write this, I literally hear random fireworks in the distance though July 4th is still over a week away). Plan and arrange the environment in a safe and enriched manner, give the video examples a try and come up with your own variations. I would love to continue this conversation so please comment or message me as I know there are others out there with such inspirations and insights on this topic and would love to keep this feedback loop intact and thriving!
In closing, I would not encourage anyone reading this to buy, use or frequent firework celebrations as like with all behavior occurrences there are consequences and the brunt of these are detrimentally felt by the environment and wildlife. I do not mean to sound off-putting, so at the same time I wish anyone who will be celebrating with fireworks to be safe and minimize the environmental impact as much as possible. For everyone reading this, consider instead of purchasing fireworks, donating to a local shelter or organization that supports wildlife and the environment, maybe a local rehabber. Happy 4th of July everyone and keep celebrating your freedom to live in the meow!
yours in good cheer and head bunts,
J.R. Henderson & the clowder
In categories: cat