Ten Tips For Keeping Your Cat Content
Clare Hemington DipCAPBT
We might not know it by looking at the faces of our enigmatic feline companions, but life can be pretty stressful for them. In fact, they spend their lives evaluating possible threats that might be lurking around every corner...
The reason for this is that cats are not only top of the range predators, but they are also a prey species and as far as they’re concerned danger is everywhere! However, even when they’re experiencing emotions such as fear, we might not always notice. This is because, as far as cats are concerned, showing any weakness puts them at a disadvantage, either from other cats or any other species that might be after them (including humans!) In addition, our domestic cats have evolved from a once non-social species who spent much time engaged in solitary hunting and there was no need for them to communicate socially. For this reason, cats have far fewer facial muscles than the more social and expressive dog.
All this means it can be difficult to tell when our cat is having a stressful time. The odd bit of stress every now and then is part and parcel of life, but chronic stress in cats can be very harmful and can kick-start physiological processes in their bodies that can precipitate the onset of disease such as lower urinary tract conditions.
However, there are lots of things we can do to optimise the home environment our cats are living in so that the chances of them becoming stressed are minimised. Let’s look at these:
Cats have adapted as solitary hunters and therefore prefer to eat at a table for one. So, if you have a multi-cat household it’s a good idea to feed your cats in separate areas. If you usually leave a bowl of dry food for your cats to graze on throughout the day, try splitting it into different containers left around the house. This can eliminate the stress your cats might feel by having to compete for their food. Even better, introduce your cat to puzzle feeding. I'm a huge fan of this form of feeding. Not only does it provide stimulation for cats by encouraging them to forage for their food, but it can also slow down the food intake of obese cats.
Puzzle feeders can be homemade, or shop bought. Examples of both can be seen here: www.foodpuzzlesforcats.com/
Likewise, having various drinking stations around your home will reduce the need for competition and it might also stop your cats from having a surreptitious drink from the glass of water that you’ve left unattended! Cats don’t associate water with food as we do, so keeping the two completely separate will encourage your cat to drink more. And if you have a garden placing a receptacle outside to collect rainwater provides a much tastier alternative to chlorinated water. Where possible place food and water bowls away from walls to give your cat a 360 degree view around them.
Even if your cat is the outdoorsy type and performs his toilet duties in the garden (or in the neighbour’s garden!) it’s always a good idea to offer an indoor litter tray for him in a discreet location. Cats are at their most vulnerable when toileting and it might only take one ‘mid-flow’ ambush from another cat to create a negative association with toileting outdoors. I always feel that it’s easier to maintain a litter tray than it is to try and get rid of the smell of cat wee from a sodden carpet! If you have more than one cat, then having separate litter trays in separate locations is important.
Trays should be large enough to allow your cat to freely move around, ideally one and a half times the size of the cat from the tip of his nose to the base of his tail and contain a fine, soft clumping cat litter. Avoid litter liners as cats can get their claws cut in these. Likewise, strong smelling litter tray deodorisers can be very off-putting for cats.
Sometimes our cats just need to get away from it all and hiding is a positive coping strategy for them. Having a number of hiding places available where they can relax in peace is an essential part of reducing their overall stress. This could be on a blanket inside an open wardrobe, on a sleeping bag or duvet under a bed or even a cardboard box in a quiet place with something soft inside it. It’s important to try and avoid the temptation to disturb them whilst they’re having their ‘me time.’
Cats like to feel safe and in control, and this is the reason why many seek out height. So, providing lots of places that they can climb up to is really important for our cats. These could be shelves, wardrobe tops or the modular multi-level cat activity centres/scratchers that you can buy online or in pet shops. If you do decide to go for the latter, bear in mind that they should be stable, and if very tall, fixed to a wall.
If your cat is elderly, giving them a ‘stepping-stone’ so that they can access a raised comfy place such as the sofa or a bed will help to make them feel more secure.
In multi-cat households items such as narrow console tables or boxes can be distributed so to give your cats more options for how they move around each other.
From kittens to geriatrics, most cats thrive on play, whether it’s solo play or interactive play with their owners. There are thousands of cat toys on the market, but you needn’t spend a fortune and a scrunched-up piece of paper or a shoelace will usually do the trick. However, each cat will have their own preferences when it comes to toys and I’m sure you’ll have quickly learned what floats your cat’s boat! Whatever you go for it’s important that the toy remains novel.
Cats get bored very quickly and if you’re wondering why yours has stopped playing with that expensive motion-activated mouse, it could be that he’s already ‘killed it’ and sees no point in going near it again! So, having a number of toys in a sealed bag with some dried catnip leaves thrown in and rotating them by bringing one or two out at a time may help keep your cat interested. If you love being involved with your cat’s play, the long-handled fishing rod toys are great idea for playing with your cat whilst keeping your extremities out of the way! Scent enriched toys such as those containing honeysuckle, catnip and valerian can also be useful for de-stressing cats by giving them a temporary ‘high’.
Scratching is a very important activity. It allows cats to exercise their muscles and the claw-motion used in hunting and climbing; helps remove the worn outer claw sheaths; provides cats with a way of stretching out their bodies which can help relieve muscular tension and is a good workout for the muscles of the forelimbs. Very importantly, scratching is used by cats as a way of marking their territory via the scent and sweat glands in between the pads on the underside of their paws. The more of their scent they can spread throughout their territory, the more secure they feel.
So, giving them dedicated cat scratching posts is important. These range from standalone posts to huge cat activity centres, to cardboard box scratchers.
If you have a scratcher that your cat can perch on, this is best placed in front of patio doors, but whichever type you choose make sure they’re stable and tall enough to allow your cat to scratch at full stretch. Be prepared to experiment with locations!
Deep, quality sleep can be a rare commodity for cats, but one good way to help them drift off is heat! I particularly like the low voltage heated pet pads.
These are great for promoting sleep, can also help to keep cats warm, ease muscle tension and can reduce discomfort from pain due stiff joints in elderly cats.
Ideally food stations, water stations, litter trays, high places, hiding places, toys, beds and scratching posts should be provided in the formula of one per cat plus one in a different location. Depending on the size of your home and the number of cats, this isn’t always practical.
The Great Outdoors
Can sometimes be a scary place for our feline companions, so making sure they have some high places in the garden from where they can survey their territory is important.
If you don’t already have a cat-flap and are thinking of getting one, I would thoroughly recommend a microchip cat flap. This is one that can be programmed with a cat’s unique microchip number giving only the cats that should be coming into your home entry and exit rights! If your cat is nervous about going outdoors, having some camouflage such as outdoor pot plants around the front of his exit point will allow him to scan the garden from relative safety.
The Touchy-Feely Stuff
Whilst some cats are real ‘cuddle monsters’, others can be slightly more disdainful when we attempt to initiate contact. The rule of thumb here is usually to allow your cat to dictate the intensity and frequency of physical contact.
Where they do indicate to you that they might like some petting then keeping these interactions short, for example a brief tickle around the forehead, cheeks and chin. If you leave them wanting more, the chances are that they’ll keep coming back to you.
Cats thrive on routine and predictability so keeping their routines as consistent as possible is incredibly important when it comes to allowing them to live as stress-free as possible.