Enriching the Lives of our Cats
The more we learn about animal behavior, the more we realize that animals have very similar needs as humans in regards to mental health. Social species like parrots and dogs display symptoms similar to observed mental illness in people when denied proper social contact. Animals that would roam large territories daily suffer when confined. Predators without an outlet for deep-seated hunting instincts may become depressed or self-destructive. Simply put, not being able to fulfill natural instincts causes negative stress.
The key to making our cats lives more fulfilling is to be aware of their instinctive needs. We need to “think like a cat” and be aware of things that may not seem important to us, may make a huge difference for them. Studies in veterinary medicine are showing a link between stress and common feline medical issues such as Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) and idiopathic cystitis. Key areas to target for lowering stress are food, security, territory, and social interaction.
The closest relative (and likely ancestor) of the domestic cat, the African Wildcat (felis silvestris lybica) eats about fifteen to twenty small prey items a day. On average only half of its stalking attempts ends in a kill. That means that the average Wildcat makes about forty hunts a day! Compare that to the house cat having a bowl filled for it and often just left available and what is a key stimulating exercise for a small predator becomes relatively nothing. Cats, just like some people, can be boredom eaters or eat “just because it is there”. Feline obesity is a huge problem in the US, and leads to many health issues for our companions. Making food fun does not have to be a challenge for the human. There are many commercially available puzzle toys that dispense food, as well as simple designs for making toys for do-it-yourself types. Simple training with food as a reward is a great social exercise as well as getting some of that hunting energy out.
The domestic cat is of a size that makes it a great predator, but also potential prey for larger animals. As such, cat instincts for finding safe, secure places are very well honed. What cat doesn’t enjoy a cardboard box or the top of a bookshelf? A safe cat is a happy cat, and providing many safe escapes and perches to observe the lay of the land is essential to enable our cats to feel safe. Pet beds with raised sides are great for this, as are cat furniture with perches and lookouts. Think about ways to allow your cat to access the vertical space in your home. Special cat shelves and perches can be both decorative and practical, cat walkways can be a creative solution, even placing furniture so the cat can be “above it all” is great. These vertical pathways also provide a great source of exercise for the cat. Cats are built to run, jump, and climb and maximizing up-space creates ideal obstacle courses for the “kitty zoomies”.
Cats are extremely territorial animals. In the wild, having secure territory ensures enough food to eat, safe places to hide and rest, and space to find a mate or raise offspring. Domestic cats retain a strong sense of territory and many behavior problems can be linked to the cat feeling that its territory is being threatened. Multiple litter boxes (general rule is number of cats +1) offers variety as well as duplicating marking behavior on the edges of a claimed space. Facial rub marks left on the corners of doors and walls, while a bit on the gross side for us, enforce the cat’s sense of home. Cleaning these marks off may make a cat of a nervous disposition feel that his space is being threatened. In multiple cat households having separate areas for eating, sleeping, and perching for each cat can help ensure a harmonious household with minimal inter-cat aggression. Artificial pheromone dispensers such as Feliway can help enforce the sense of secure territory and “safe space” in many situations. Cats have very keen senses of smell and subtle (or not so subtle) changes in scents can be distressing for them. Reference the common issue of one cat going to the vet for a check-up, coming home and then the other cats in the household treat them like a stranger for a few hours.
Interaction with your cat in the form of playtime with toys is also a great way to reduce stress. Try different toys to figure out your cat’s prey preference. Some cats enjoy mice-like toys, others go crazy for feathers. There are smartphone and tablet apps designed for cats, laser pointers, crinkle balls, and many other variations. Providing your cat with at least five to ten minutes of playtime a day will reduce their stress and improve the cat-human bond. It can be relaxing for the owners too!
The indoor cat is possibly the most popular companion animal in the US today. As cat owners we have a responsibility to our cats to provide a healthy lifestyle. By paying attention to their instinctive needs, we create a better life for our cats and ourselves.