Popular culture champions the dog as “man’s best friend,” and as a result, information and products aimed to help people give their dogs a better life abound. Dog owners will happily invest in doggy daycare, training classes, toys, puzzle bowls and a host of other enrichment items to ensure their dogs are entertained and have fulfilling lives.
On the contrary, cats have traditionally been seen as “easy” pets, requiring little to no effort from owners. Why, then, do we spend so much of our time in the veterinary clinic addressing litter box issues, destructive or disruptive behaviors, and inter-pet aggression in our feline patients? The animal care world is beginning to wake up to the fact that mental health in our indoor cats is not only as important as, but directly related to, their overall wellbeing.
As veterinary professionals, we recognize the role stress plays in the physical health of our feline patients. The most notable stress-related condition veterinarians and owners battle is feline interstitial cystitis, or FIC. While FIC is not fully understood, environmental stress is generally considered to be a major factor contributing to the disease.
A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 20111 showed cats diagnosed with FIC exhibited a reduction in signs of disease with the addition of environmental enrichment, such as a consistent schedule, human interaction, classical music, catnip, treats and new toys. Conversely, “healthy” cats (not previously diagnosed with FIC) participating in the study developed sickness behaviors, including urinary changes, when enrichment was withheld.
Cats who consistently have issues using their litter box are frequently at risk of being surrendered or euthanized. Other behaviors that can lead to cats losing their home include destroying furniture, excessive energy or vocalization, and/or conflict with other pets or human members of the family. According to Tori Peterson, a dog and cat trainer and behavior consultant from Verona, Wisconsin, these issues often have a common foundation. She explains many perceived behavioral problems in indoor cats stem from one or more of the following causes of stress: territorial stress, boredom and/or frustration.
Indoor cats may experience territorial stress from sharing space with another cat or having inadequate or inappropriate space for essential activities (eating, sleeping and eliminating). According to the International Society of Feline Medicine, most cats prefer their food and water be offered in 2-3 locations throughout the home, separate from areas housing litter boxes. Food should not be kept near plug-ins, scented cleaners or candles. Feline behavior studies suggest cats prefer to eat without other cats present, even if they cohabitate well in general. Each cat in a household should have its own food and water dishes and litter boxes to reduce resource-related territorial stress.
Behavior consultant Tori Peterson also recommends making sure cats have enough vertical space in their environment, particularly if multiple cats share a home. Vertical space can include cat trees, securely-fixed shelves or furniture that allows a cat to escape the ground level and preferably travel from one location to the next without leaving the security of a higher elevation. This is especially important in bottleneck areas such as doorways and halls. Dividing highly-trafficked spaces into different “lanes” allows cats increased freedom of movement without the threat of confrontation or conflict.
While some cats may seem content sleeping all day and keeping to themselves, many likely desire more attention and stimulation than previously assumed. A well-known study published by Dr. Kristyn Vitale in 2017 showed that cats who were offered food, scent and human interaction most frequently chose human interaction as the preferred diversion.2 Hallmarks of a bored cat include knocking things off shelves, walking on or in front of objects their owners are using, or exhibiting destructive behaviors only when in view of their owners. These cats are seeking attention, and even negative attention is preferable to being ignored.
Positive interactions with a cat can include petting, talking and play. Cats typically prefer being petted when in a relaxed state. Attempting to pet an excited cat can lead to play-biting, scratching or overstimulation. Many cats respond to being talked to, and some behaviorists believe meowing is an attempt by domestic cats to communicate with people as vocalization is rarely seen between cats or in the wild. Playing with a cat can include human interaction by using a toy such as a wand or even playing fetch with stuffed cat toys. A surprising number of cats even enjoy positive-reinforcement training as a form of play, combining mental stimulation and time with their owners.
Cat owners can also combat boredom by enriching a cat’s environment. Tori Peterson emphasizes engaging all five of a cat’s senses as much as possible.3 Having cat grass in the house gives cats something other than their food to taste, and safely screened, open windows can provide smells and sounds from outside. Bird feeders outside windows, secure fish tanks and “cat TV” offer stimulating sights. A variety of scratching post textures such as sisal, carpet and wood should be available, and both horizontal and vertical options should be at least six inches longer than the cat is tall to allow for a complete stretch. All enrichment items should be regularly rotated so the cat has access to new and interesting experiences.
Solving frustration in a cat is less about entertainment and more about allowing expression of natural behaviors. One of the key areas where indoor cats are likely to be unsatisfied is in their eating habits. A study published by the International Society of Feline medicine found that wild felines most closely related to domestic cats spend approximately 69% of their day hunting and foraging for food, in sharp contrast with the meager 1% spent by indoor pet cats. Additionally, a wild cat would typically eat 10-20 small meals per day rather than the 1-2 larger meals often made available to pet cats.
Owners can simulate a more natural feeding routine for their cats by using puzzle feeders. It is best to offer a variety of puzzle feeders that require different strategies (pawing, biting, kicking) to get the food inside. Cats accustomed to receiving food in a dish can become frustrated with puzzle feeders, so it is important to start with easier puzzles and slowly increase difficulty to the cat’s level.4
Tori Peterson believes mimicking the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle is the foundation of preventing indoor cat frustration.5 To effectively recreate this cycle in a home environment, an owner should first understand a cat’s need to play. The relatively low success rate of wild cats’ hunts drives an instinct to pursue prey even when not hungry, a behavior we see reflected in our own pet cats as play. Play should ideally last a minimum of 15 minutes and require a variety of movements natural to cats including stalking, jumping, pouncing and short bursts of running. Immediately following play, cats should receive a small meal, rewarding them for their “hunt” with the captured “prey.” Cats are then able to groom and sleep, having expended their energy and satisfied their hunger. Completing this cycle 2-3 times throughout the day—especially shortly before the people in the house go to bed—can reduce the incidence of cats waking their owners at night or early in the morning, and greatly increases an indoor cat’s sense of fulfillment.
When we consider the emotional health of our feline patients to be an important part of their wellness, we become more effective veterinary professionals. By educating clients about indoor cat enrichment, we can address both medical and behavioral issues, improving the lives of cats and those who love them. +
- Stella JL, Lord LK, Buffington T. Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2011;238:67-73.
- Vitale Shreve KR, Mehrkam LR, Udell MAR. Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat (Felis silvestris catus) preferences. Behavioral Processes. 2017;141:322-328.
- Peterson T. Staying busy not bored: cat enrichment ideas. Space Cat Academy. https://www.spacecatacademy.com/articles/2018/2/3/cat-enrichment. Published February 10 2018. Accessed March 15, 2020.
- Ryan L. Feeding cats for the future: an opportunity for creativity. Feline Focus. 2020;6:61-68.
- Peterson T. Keeping your cat satisfied: the cycle of daily needs. Space Cat Academy . https://www.spacecatacademy.com/articles/2019/9/6/keeping-your-cat-satisfied-the-cycle-of-daily-needs. Published September 6, 2019. Accessed April 7, 2020.