Watch a cat jump on a kitchen counter or stalk a catnip mouse and you’re seeing traces of the cat’s ancient cousins. Recent genetic studies show that domestic cats are only partially domesticated, meaning that many traits of their wild ancestors are still lurking in our feline companions.
As more cats live exclusively indoors, we need to provide an environment that simulates the mental and physical stimulation they would encounter outside. Cats that don’t have outlets to express these instinctual behaviors can vent their frustration through unwanted behavior such as house soiling, or become overly stressed which can lead to poor health outcomes.
Feline behavior experts developed a series of recommendations designed to improve the well-being of indoor cats, including those housed in shelters. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine, the five pillars of a healthy feline environment are:
- Provide a private and secure place for a cat to hide in or retreat to. Boxes, perches, and cat condos are examples. Cats evolved to avoid and hide in the wild, and providing a place where indoor cats feel safe satisfies this need.
- Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources such as litter pans, food and water. Cats in the wild are solitary hunters, and having access to resources without competition decreases stress for indoor cats.
- Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior. Allowing cats opportunities to exhibit these instinctual behaviors helps prevent stress and unwanted behaviors.
- Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction. Don’t force interactions, but actions such as petting, grooming or playing with your cat reinforce bonds between you and your cat.
- Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell. Cats depend on their sense of smell to make sense of their environment and perceive threats. Disrupting normal scent cues can lead to unwanted behaviors. Steps owners can take to address this need are avoiding scented cat litter, using synthetic pheromones to reduce anxiety, and avoiding cleaning areas facially marked by cats.
If you own a cat but aren’t familiar with these recommendations, you’re not alone. Drs. Judith Stella and Candace Croney, with Purdue University, surveyed students, staff and faculty of two veterinary colleges about the home environment of their personal cats. The research team discovered that many of the respondents were not implementing the best practices listed above. For example, the researchers found that one-third of respondents placed their cat’s food, water, and litter boxes in areas where they could be disrupted while using them. One-third of cats did not have toys that mimicked prey, which doesn’t allow cats to engage in predatory behavior.
“The results suggest that while cats are increasingly popular companion animals, many people who keep them may not be fully aware of or attentive to meeting their needs, especially relative to cat behavior,” said Dr. Croney. “Even for those affiliated with veterinary colleges, indoor-only cats were often kept in environments lacking in enrichment and key resources. Improved outreach to cat owners should emphasize behavioral as well as the physical health needs of cats, including ensuring that cats have the resources that allow them to express normal behaviors, keep them mentally stimulated, and help them to feel safe in their environments.”
Morris Animal Foundation has a long history of funding research focused on the emotional well-being of cats. Dr. Croney and her colleagues study is one example of how we’re advancing knowledge of the behavioral needs of cats, allowing our feline friends to live fuller and happier lives.