The Importance of Home Environment for a Happy Cat
Whilst pet cats are considered to be a “domestic” species – having lived among humans for thousands of years – what many people don’t realise is that “domestic” cats still strongly retain many of their natural wild instincts. We frequently see behavioural issues with pet cats when these natural instincts are challenged, or not accounted for within the domestic environment. By developing an understanding of a cat’s natural behaviours, and taking a step back to look at the environment as seen from a cat’s perspective, we can often overcome many behavioural issues (and subsequent medical conditions), and provide a happy haven for our purry friends!
While cats can comfortably live alone or in bonded social groups, they always hunt alone. For this reason, any risk of injury would mean that a lone hunter would be at a serious survival risk. As a result, cats naturally tend to “avoid and evade” rather then confronting perceived threats. A safe place enables a cat to withdraw from conditions it considers threatening or unfamiliar. Cats are programmed with keen senses to detect threatening conditions, which can be signalled by strange smells, loud or strange noises, unfamiliar objects, and the presence of unknown or disliked animals, and the degree of sensitivity to perceived threats varies according to individual cats. By having the option to withdraw to a safe place, a cat is able to exert some control over its environment, which it finds satisfying and comforting. Safe places should include high perches where a cat can observe and survey its surroundings while feeling out of view. Commercial cat trees with different shelf levels and hiding places are great for this, but also simply having access to furniture such as chests of drawers and wardrobes, shelving units and wall shelves, and also window sills. Some cats also like low hiding spaces to retreat to such as under beds or inside of wardrobes. It is worth noting that if a cat has retreated to one of its safe places, it should not be disturbed, as this defeats the purpose of having a place of “safety”.
PROVIDE MULTIPLE AND SEPARATED KEY ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES
Important environmental resources for a cat include feeding stations; water sources; toileting areas; scratching areas; toys and play areas; resting and sleeping areas. Since cats are solitary survivors, they need to have free access to key environmental resources without being challenged by other cats or other potential threats. In addition to avoiding competition for access, separation of resources reduces the risk of stress and associated diseases, and satisfies the cat’s natural need for exploration and exercise. Ensure key resources are separated from each other around the home, and use the golden formula of “1 per cat plus one extra” to determine the minimum number of each resource.
In the wild, cats would never eat their catch near a water source or toileting area, for risk of contamination. Domestic cats, therefore, instinctively prefer all 3 of these resources to be kept entirely separate. So forget about the “double-diners” that are so popular with many owners. Food does not only have to be provided in a bowl – puzzle feeders are excellent for all cats (but extra important for indoor-only cats), and they are hugely under-utilised. Puzzle feeders can be bought in a huge variety of designs, and include stationary and moving types, and can be suitable for both wet and dry foods. Home made puzzle feeders are also easily achievable and just as effective, for example, using an empty cardboard egg box to place kibble in to be manually fished out by your cat! Puzzle feeders offer enrichment for all cats, honing in on their natural stalking and hunting instincts to allow expression of normal behaviour. This can in turn reduce boredom and frustration, whilst also helping to burn off small amounts of energy so can help with weight-loss in obese pets too.
In multi-cat households, it is not uncommon for owners to feed all the cats lined up together. Eating is an essential survival mechanism, so even conflicting cats within a household will usually tolerate eating together, but will frequently bolt down their food whilst feeling great stress and insecurity. Therefore, cats within a multi-cat home should ideally be fed in separate areas.
Cats can be very picky about the receptacle that they drink from. Most cats dislike plastic water bowls as they can taint the water, whilst some dislike stainless steel due to the reflections as they dip their head in the bowl. Most cats tend to prefer ceramic or glass bowls, but it is a good idea to experiment with different types to discover individual preferences. The size and shape of the bowl is also important – wide-brimmed shallow bowls filled up to the brim, tend to be preferred so that the cat does not have to dip their head too far in making them vulnerable to being stalked. Cats also dislike their whiskers touching the side of the bowl. Some cats also have a preference for the type of water they consume – experiment with tap water, filtered water, rain water etc. Many cats are drawn to running water. In the wild, cats would avoid drinking from standing water which may have gone stagnant, and thus favour running and naturally filtered water. Leaving your cat with access to a slow dripping tap, or providing a commercial water fountain can help encourage many cats to consume more water (commercial water fountains are now also available in ceramic and stainless steel models).
Both food and water sources should be positioned to allow the cat some privacy whilst eating or drinking, as well as giving a good view of their surroundings and an escape route should they feel threatened. As desert-dwellers, cats are naturally opportunistic drinkers, so providing water sources in various locations around the home where the cat frequents, can encourage an opportunistic drink in passing – this is especially important for cats that need to consume extra water for medical conditions such as kidney disease and cystitis.
A cat’s latrine is one of the most important resources you can provide, and with some cats, much consideration needs to be given to avoid problems. Litter trays should be placed in a quiet secluded area away from food and water sources, and be easily accessible with a clear escape route – other pets should not be able to sneak up on a cat at its most vulnerable! This means that many cats will prefer an uncovered litter tray to allow full view of any approaching threats, however, some cats do prefer the privacy of a covered tray, but do ensure any door flaps are removed as this can be one obstacle too many to deal with. Placing litter trays in cupboards may be preferable and more aesthetically pleasing to an owner, but many cats will feel quite vulnerable and “trapped” when confined like this. There should be at least one litter tray on every floor of the house that the cat has access to, and try to avoid placing near cat flaps or full length windows as cats may feel vulnerable from possible perceived threats from outside.
The size of the litter tray is also very important – the ideal size is 1.5 times the length of the cat from nose to tail base! This means that most commercial trays are therefore too small, and DIY trays may need to be constructed (especially if you have a large breed such as a Maine Coon). Plastic garden trays can be a useful item to construct a litter tray from, with a cut out at the front as an entrance. Hi-tech self-cleaning litter trays may look very appealing for an owner, but they have been known to activate whilst the cat is inside – this would be incredibly frightening for a cat, and a sure way to encourage a litter tray aversion and subsequent house-soiling.
Type of litter is another consideration. As cats are naturally desert-dwellers, sandy consistency litter is most desirable. Clay clumping litter is an ideal choice, having the correct texture, and allows clumps of urine to be scooped out on a daily basis. A sufficient depth of litter is approximately 3cm to allow the cat to perform natural digging behaviour. Faeces should be removed as soon as possible, with trays fully emptied weekly and washed with hot soapy water. Try to avoid changing litter type and brand regularly, and if you do need to change litter type, do so gradually over a transition period to avoid litter aversions. Scented litter and deodorisers are intended to please owners, but they can cause an overpowering and unnatural smell for a cat’s sensitive nose, and so should be avoided. Polythene liners can also cause cat’s claws to get caught when digging in the litter so should also be avoided.
SCRATCHING POSTS AND PADS
Scratching is a normal and natural behaviour for cats. They need to scratch to keep their claws sharp and in good condition for hunting and climbing; to exercise and stretch their muscles; and also to mark their territory – both with visual markers as well as producing pheromones from their paws. If acceptable scratching surfaces are not provided, then your cat will find something else that does the job, such as stair carpets or the corner of the settee! There are lots of different types of scratchers available, the most common of which being sisal-covered posts (either free standing or as part of a cat tree). Many cats seem to prefer the corrugated cardboard scratchers, which are also generally very cheap to buy, and last reasonably well.
Scratchers should be tall – or long – enough for the cat to use at full stretch, and both vertical and horizontal surfaces should be provided. Cats like to stretch and scratch when they first wake up, so providing scratching posts near their favourite bed or sleeping area can be useful. Placing scratchers near a window or radiator in your cat’s favourite room can also be attractive, especially if part of a multi-level cat tree (the cat can get up on the shelves to survey the outdoor territory). Sprinkling some catnip or spraying Feliway onto the scratcher, or offering treats on the scratcher can encourage use initially, as can playing with a fishing rod toy that makes contact with the scratcher – but please never demonstrate to the cat by grasping their feet and moving them down the scratcher, as this will be a frightening experience and only discourage their use.
A FINAL NOTE
These are just some of the key elements which should be considered by all cat owners, to ensure a suitable, content environment is created, to allow cats to live stress-free and in harmony, whether they are a single cat or multi-cat household. Further considerations can include toys/play, grooming and outdoor access, as well as human interaction, and how our own routines (and changes to our routine) can affect a cat’s lifestyle. Synthetic feline pheromones can also successfully be used alongside environmental modification techniques, to help promote self-assurance for individual cats.
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