‘Cats are not small dogs.” I (Dr. Perry Jameson) still can hear my anatomy professor in veterinary school saying this on our first day of class. Little did I realize 26 years ago how important that lesson was.
Over the past two decades, I have seen how we as veterinarians have made the mistake of treating them like little dogs in how we address everything from dietary needs to medical therapies.
As we have adapted these therapies to address their specific needs, we have seen an improvement in how they respond.
What cats need out of their environment to have a happy, stress free life differs from dogs, too. In the March issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine released guidelines on feline environmental needs.
According to these recommendations, addressing them will result in fewer unwanted behaviors, improve recognition of disease, ease handling of cats at home and at veterinary clinics, strengthen the bond between owner and pet, reduce the stress in multicat households and, most importantly, create happier cats.
The committee of veterinarians divided the recommendations into five pillars. By applying these pillars, a healthy environment will be created regardless of the cat’s lifestyle.
Pillar 1: Provide a safe place. Cats need a quiet, private, secure place to escape to. Often, this is in a raised location. As a general rule, cats prefer flight over fight, and this safe place gives them that option. A cardboard box, perch and open cat carrier are examples. There should be a safe location for every cat in the home, and they should be separated from each other to reduce any unwanted interactions.
Pillar 2: Provide multiple and separate key environmental resources. These resources are associated with feeding, drinking, litter use, claw scratching, playing and resting/sleeping. Since cats generally are solitary animals, they need to be able to meet these needs without feeling challenged. Each cat should have its own food bowl, and there should be one litter box per cat. These resources should be spread throughout the environment so that the cats can separate themselves if desired.
Pillar 3: Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior. Cats have a strong predatory instinct, which consists of locating, capturing, killing, preparing and eating its prey. My big male cat Ollie manifests this behavior by attacking and then carrying our socks out of the dirty laundry.
He then vocalizes until I come and inspect his “kill.” Pseudo-predatory behavior, or what we call playing, will meet this instinctive need. You can do this with food by hiding kibble or using puzzle feeders. Any object that moves and promotes them to chase can be used. Allow them to occasionally catch and mouth it. Be sure to put away anything with a string or that could easily be eaten and cause an obstruction after use. The importance of this behavior can be seen in outdoor cats that naturally will spend a large portion of their physical and mental activities on hunting.
Pillar 4: Provide positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat social interaction. This need will vary from cat to cat based on genetics and early rearing experiences with people. It is important to not force this interaction but to allow your cat to initiate it. Once it ends the interaction, allow it to go and do not force further contact. Remember that each cat’s need is different. My cat, Polly, loves to be picked up and carried, but Inky will hide for hours if I try to hold her. The key here is like any relationship: Give them the time each day to interact with you on their own terms.
Pillar 5: Provide an environment that supports the cat’s sense of smell. Felines use their strong sense of smell to evaluate their surroundings, and this promotes a feeling of comfort and security. Facial and body rubbing are used to mark the areas and objects (such as your pants leg) where they feel safe.
It is important to maintain olfactory continuity where their scent is never completely eradicated. This can be done by not using detergents in areas they have marked with facial rubbing and not washing all of their bedding at the same time. Cats returning from a veterinary visit often will pick up odors from the hospital that the other cats will notice. A slow introduction back into the group may help alleviate this stress.
The guidelines state that, “Understanding these principles and the unique environmental needs of the cat will help veterinarians, cat owners and care-givers to reduce stress, the incidence of stress-related disorders, and unwanted behavior in their feline patients and pets.”
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.