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The Cat Clinic

Responsible Cat Ownership - More Than Just a Bowl of Food, Water and a Litter Box. Part Three - Shelter, Socialization and Exhibiting Normal Behavior

Cat laying in grass

For the last couple of months we’ve been exploring how to keep our cats happy and emotionally healthy in relation to the CVMA’s five animal freedoms.   Our last three freedoms are providing adequate shelter, ensuring proper socialization and allowing them to exhibit normal behavior.

In Ontario most of our pet cats are kept indoors.  There are many benefits indoor cats experience that outdoor cats lack, the shelter of our homes, comfort and safety being the biggest.  Shelter comes more into play when they go outdoors.  If your cat does go outdoors please always make sure they have a place to go where they can be warm in winter but also cool in summer.  There are many tutorials for how to make outdoor shelters online from inexpensive ones made out of plastic totes that someone with no carpentry skills can put together to more complex builds requiring specialized tools. For an easy to follow tutorial check out this video from the Cole and Marmalade website.

Socialization and exhibiting normal behavior we can class together.  The feline behavior specialist’s further break this down into what’s called the Five Pillars of a Healthy Cat Environment. 

A Safe Place

All cats need a place where they feel safe. Typically they will choose it within our homes and our job is to recognize it and then respect it.  A safe place could be up high on top of a book case or kitchen cupboards or an enclosed place like a box or nook in a closet.  Think about where your cat goes when something scary happens.  Ideally when the cat chooses to be in this place we should do our best to respect it by not removing them from it or doing “bad” things (giving pills for example) while they are in it.  

Multiple and Separated Key Sources

When we talk about resources we always think about litter boxes and the general rule is to have one per cat plus one spare.  These should not be in one place or side by side.  But did you know water bowls, places to scratch, play and safe places to sleep are also key resources?   Choices are important and resources should not be placed together.  For example if you have two cats but you put all three litterboxes side by side or in the same room the cat views these as only one with an annoying thing in the middle.   Also it makes it easy for a more dominant cat to block a more submissive cat from these important places.  Feeding places should also be separate.  Cats are not inherently social eaters so food bowls should not be side by side but have space with no line of sight (ideally a different room) between them.

Opportunities for Play and Predatory Behavior

Cats are smart and need something to occupy their minds.  Cats who have lots of opportunity to play have less social and behavior problems and less problems with obesity.  Pet toys are a billion dollar industry but cats get bored with them quickly so how do we provide new fresh experiences without breaking the bank?  Many of us have lots of toys that our cats never play with anymore … but they used to.  Set up a rotation system.  I like a one week rotating system.  Each week has its own zip lock of toys and at the end of each week we swap them out.  It is also a great opportunity to “freshen up” cat nip toys by adding a bit of dry cat nip to the bags.  This way kitty constantly gets new to them toys but without you having to buy them every week.  New toys are more likely to be interesting and be played with.  Please keep in mind that if a cat has one item that they truly love like my girl Tadpole has a long stuffed snake she carries around daily, that toy should be available all the time as it can be more about comfort than true play. 

Puzzle feeders and toys you can randomly hide treats in are also a great way to keep your kitty occupied and mimic predatory behavior. Treats can also be tossed instead of just given to encourage hunting behavior.

Wand toys are the best toy to let your cat practice “hunting”.  These are great for getting kitties moving and most cats love them.  Just please be aware these should always be a “with supervision only” type toy as some cats chew on the string and if swallowed it can cause damage to the intestines that often needs surgical repair.

 Positive and Predictable Human Interaction

Cats in general want to interact with us.  Depending on the cat this can have different meanings but as we know cats like to be in control.  For our guys who have been well socialized and handled as kittens this can mean, snuggles, brushing, playing or petting and for some welcomed at any time.  For our more standoffish cats who didn’t get to experience this it may simply be existing in the same room while you talk quietly to them.  I have one kitty in my home that was brought in as an adult un-socialized street cat.  The last thing Rusty wants is for me to try and pet him or pick him up but he does like me to stand still and talk to him while he rubs against my legs and feet.

In general - Don’t try and force your attention on your cat, let them choose when, where and how.  The exception to this would be if you are actively trying to socialize a street cat that you’ve just brought in (and if so please get some advice from one of the many foster parents/rescues that specialize in this as they will have some great advice).  If they are a less outgoing cat try getting down to their level so you are less intimidating.  Most adults appreciate short more frequent play/love sessions while many kittens and young cats like longer.   When they feel they are done and want to leave, let them.  You should never try and force your attention on a cat. 

An Environment that Respects your Cats Sense of Smell

Cats have an amazing sense of smell and as a result find most strong smells very offensive.  Again we always think of the litter box and while it’s true that the litter box should be scooped at least once a day to keep your cat happy there are many smells we don’t find offensive that your cat will.  There are also smells that your cat finds comforting that we don’t think of that if we take away can be disconcerting.

One of the ways we can respect their sense of smell is to avoid cleaners with strong odors and rinse well after using them.  Ammonia products are especially offensive since to your cat it can smell like cat urine.  Febreeze type sprays, Diffusers, scented cat litter, strong candles etc can all be very offensive to your cat.

We also need to be careful not to remove all the comforting smells at the same time.  Cats spend a good amount of their time putting their scent/pheromones into their environment.   One of the more common of these is the comforting scent of themselves on their bedding.  This can increase the cat’s sense of security and safety.  For washing we should make sure we never wash everything at the same time but instead rotate our laundry schedule.  

Now that we’ve reviewed all of the “freedoms” you can easily see there are a lot more things to consider to keep our cats happy and healthy than just providing a litter box, food and water.  We love our cats and want to do what’s best for them.  Thankfully we now have the knowledge to keep them safe and happy in our homes for hopefully a long time.

Written by Angelina Johnstone RVT Certified in Fear Free and Low Stress Handling