Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What do pet cats really need?

Michael chair black and white cat
Are you meeting your cat's needs?
What do cats really need from their environment? The non-feline oriented may roll their eyes and wonder why veterinarians, cat owners and others are even asking the question. But it’s critical to their welfare.

Companion cats are, to put it bluntly, captive. We keep them in an unnatural environment over which they typically have little control, so it’s up to us to ensure that that environment meets their needs.

Everyone who works with cats knows that their environment impacts on their physical health, wellbeing and behaviour.

Provide a safe place: cats prefer avoidance to confrontation and as such like to have the option of withdrawing to a safe zone. In most houses and multi-room apartments cats can find places to retreat to where they feel safe. In my house, the wardrobe is quite popular. As is any suitcase. Or under/behind furniture. I don’t always feel safe when a little paw strikes me from under the coffee table, but at least I know Hero feels better!

cat bed teepee
Michael likes to retreat to her teepee when Hero is overexcited.
Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, litter trays/toileting areas, scratching areas, play and exercise areas and sleeping areas. Cats are solitary animals who enjoy privacy and cope much better if they’re not forced to undertake their daily ablutions and other routines in front of an audience, feline or not. In my experience, owners really struggle with litter trays. You need at least one for each cat AND one extra. Having one litter tray in a multi-pet household is like subjecting your cats to the vilest public toilet and expecting them to feel comfortable in it. They don’t. It’s not that much more trouble to clean two litter trays.

cat litter tray toilet
There are some things that cats like to do in private. Toileting is definitely one of these.
Provide opportunity for play and predatory behaviour: cats that don’t have these opportunities may suffer from boredom, obesity and misdirected behaviours. Playing predatory games with your cat does not give them a license to kill, but it is helpful in meeting their behavioural needs. Even older cats need to play. The easiest, cheapest version of this is the old scrunch up a bit of paper and throw it down the hallway past your cat. Even if they sit there and watch you flick your old tax return around for an hour, they’ve been entertained.

Kitten playing claws burmese
Paper and string is all you need to get a cat excited. Never
leave kittens unsupervised with string. they have a way of eating it.
Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat interaction: most cats like frequent but short interactions with people, and the scientifically proven best spots to pat them are on the head or around the cheeks. Some cats like Michael will allow you to pat them on the head and, once they’ve assessed you’re up to the task, roll over and show you the other bits they want patted. Not all cats are like that and you can’t force them. Don’t, whatever you do, blow a raspberry on a cat’s belly. In 99.9 per cent of cases, this will not be well received.

Occasional visitors are "permitted" to give Michael a neck and shoulder massage once they have patted her on the head and under the chin.
Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell: they’re much more sensitive to smell than we are, and some smells (such as marking of another cat outside) can be offensive and distressing to them. Use of cleaning products that disrupt or offend your cat’s olfaction is discouraged. Providing familiar scents (via bedding or clothing) may have a calming effect. For me, having had both cats in hospital in the last few months, I’m reminded of just how foreign they smell when they come home from the vet. They act like they don’t know each other for a day or so. I’ve used a synthetic feline facial pheromone, Feliway, to try to spread some feline happiness. I’ve also been a big fan of giving them something that I think smells good and entertains them – cat grass.

Cat grass cats plants apartment cats
Minty with a massive pot of cat grass.
You can read the full article – including dozens of specific suggestions – via the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery or you can read the brochure for cat owners here.