Keeping Indoor Cats Happy


(note from Dr. Young: these recommendations are based on a seminar given by Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson at the 2008 Western Veterinary Medical Conference. Dr. Neilson is a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behavior and practices at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, OR.)

While there are obvious benefits to an indoor only lifestyle for cats, drawbacks may include behavioral and medical consequences such as elimination problems, intercat aggression, compulsive disorders and obesity. Stress may play a significant role in the development of these behavioral/medical disorders. These stressors and subsequent disorders can be minimized via environmental enrichment and behavioral management. Normal behavior patterns of unrestricted cats: Knowledge about how a cat without significant restrictions chooses to spend its time may give insight into a normal behavioral pattern and what an indoor cat may want/need to express. Of course any cat studied will be impacted by its particular environment and these data points don’t necessarily represent the full adaptive potential of the species. A study recorded behaviors of free ranging domestic cats and produced the following data of percentage time that a cat spends engaged in each of these behaviors over a 24 hour period: 40% sleeping 22% resting 15% grooming 14% hunting 3% traveling 2% feeding. While most indoor cats meet or exceed the sleeping/resting component of the ethogram, probably very few spend 14% of their day hunting for a meal. This ethogram may help owners develop an indoor world that provides some possible options for species typical behaviors. Social structure of cats: Cats are social, albeit a different social system from that of dogs or people. The social system of the cat impacts most indoor kept cats—the solitary cat may not get the desired cat-cat social interactions and the multiple cat household may not allow for adequate distancing from cats in conflict. In the US the average number of cats in a cat owning household is 2.4 cats/home. Affectionately dubbed the “potato-chip” syndrome—cats owners just can’t stop at one. It is critical to remember that cats are social and do develop preferred associates within a group. These dyads include all gender groupings. Some cats will also avoid certain other cats while still living in the same home range. Dominance interactions occur between two individuals and within a larger group a dominance hierarchy is formed. The group hierarchy is not a linear association but instead a complex mix of triangular associations and coalitions. In one studied household of 14 neutered unrelated indoor only cats living in a single story house with 10 rooms and a density of one cat per 900 sq.ft. found that the cats experienced very little overt aggression and no fights. There were preferred associates for some cats and the cats tended to rotate access to preferred locations. The male cats tended to access between 4–5 rooms and the females used a range of 3–3.6 rooms. Provide an Enriched Environment Providing all requirements without any physical or emotional challenge to the cat is not ideal. Instead, providing a combination of security, complexity, the ability to control (achieve objectives) and novelty should help achieve an enriched environment. Below are suggested steps to make this a reality: Provision of resources: Identifying and providing multiple resources spread throughout the environment is recommended. Resources include but are not limited to watering sites, feeding sites, scratching sites, elimination sites and resting sites. A standard rule is to provide as many resources as cats plus an additional one. For example, if there are four cats, there should be five litterboxes in different locations. Games that are functional and fun: Games and toys can be used to address the predatory drive that is not fulfilled by the heaped food dish. When designing games, the capacity of the domestic cat should be considered. As solitary hunters they have developed acute sensory abilities to detect prey, avoid danger and capture/consume that prey item. These abilities extend into every sense—great visual ability in low light settings to allow them to hunt effectively when their prey is most active (dawn/dusk) auditory abilities that allow them to hear high frequency sound emitted by their target prey a sense of smell superior to ours and an incredible tactile system that includes guard hairs and whiskers. When indoor enrichment is considered, these sensory abilities need to be accommodated. So activities and toys that target multiple sensory involvement may give the most bang for the buck. Consider a piece of paper that first sprayed with a commercial catnip spray (olfactory), then is scrunched (auditory), and tossed across the room over pillows on the sofa (visual) the cat gets to dart after it (musculoskeletal) and make the “catch” (tactile). Another step could be added by placing cat treats/food inside a hollow toy and tossing it—the cat then gets to consume its “prey” at the end of the sequence. Another study examined the interest of cats in 10 different toys. These included: plastic ball with a bell, Kitty Kong filled with food treats, catnip mouse, feathers on a stick, used hair band tied to a string, paper ball, sticky ball with feathers, cat track toy, new hair band tied to a string and a mouse on a spring. The used hair band and the food stuffed toy were the top two toys. The new hair band and mouse on a spring were next in preference. The author indicated that toys that stimulated evisceration and eating (stuffed food toy) as well as toys that stimulated chase and predation were preferred. Perhaps the scent on the used hair band created an olfactory attraction to it over the unused hair band. The timing of play and the rotation of toys may also impact interest in the games. Rotating toys during a play session may spark a renewed interest in play. Short breaks (5 minutes) between toys seemed to enhance play with second item while prolonged intervals (25–45 minutes) resulted in a decreased interest in second toy. Play time should be scheduled daily when the cat is active and alert. Since cats tend to be most active at dawn and dusk and since most owners are home at those hours, those may make good play periods for the majority of cats. Three dimensional space: It may be the quality of the space more than the actual quantity of space that leads to successful co-habitation in dense population situations. It has been documented in several species, that increasing housing space alone did not change levels of activity. Making the space variable, entertaining and multidimensional increases the quality of the space. Cats in laboratory settings (kennels) tend to select elevated perches over the bottom of the kennel and cats prefer upholstered perches over slick surfaced perches, regardless of their height. Other studies show that they prefer resting places that were warm, dry, and protected on one, or even better, two sides and situated in the corners or edges of an enclosure where they can watch without the possibility of being approached from behind. While the home setting is generally much more enriched than a kennel in a laboratory setting, cats still often are seen perching on elevated surfaces. It may be especially critical to offer these perches in multi-cat households to enhance the three-dimensional space. The author suggests creating single cat sized perches in households with intercat tension/aggression so that another cat cannot easily join the perched cat. It has been suggested to periodically alter the configuration of the perches and other environmental objects to produce a novel environment that may encourage exploration. While this may be beneficial for the cat household with good intercat social relations, the author is concerned that in households where there is a victim, the victim cat may experience distress and be more vulnerable if escape routes are suddenly adjusted. So in these situations, keeping established escape routes/safety perches in place and then supplement the environment with cardboard boxes/tubes, rocks, tree branches, paper huts (newspaper folded up into a hut) paper bags, etc. for added play/exploration. Make sure to routinely remove and add items to keep things novel and interesting. Social contact: People are important to domestic cats and provide a rich source of stimulation. Cats in restricted environments will seek additional stimulation from people indicating they may derive some benefit from the contact. Most cats seem to form preferential bonds with their human owners and may try to solicit affection from them at different times during the day. It is important for owners to take the time to interact with the cat during these opportunities. On the flip side harassing a cat in order to give it attention may create a cat that avoids that person. This if often seen in households with toddlers: the child chases after the cat and, if caught, the cat may be handled inappropriately by the toddler. That type of social contact may create stress for the cat and associated behavioral/medical problems. Options for improving social interactions may include interactive trick teaching for the intelligent and busy cat. The book Showbiz Tricks for Cats by Anne Gordon details how to teach a cat tricks (this book is out of print so used book stores or libraries are options). Advanced tactile interactions with cats may help to promote social contact—Tellington touch or massage therapy may help to create improved social contact. Sources for these options include Cat Massage: A Whiskers to Tail Guide to Your Cat’s Ultimate Petting Experience by MaryJean Ballner How to Massage Your Cat by Alice May Brock. Using food as a mental and physical challenge: Food has been a successful method of enrichment for other Felis species living in captivity and can serve as an important stimulus for indoor domestic cats. In most households the bowl is either kept constantly full or the cats are given 2–3 meals a day at a predictable feeding station. Most cats are provided with food that exceeds their daily caloric needs. Owners who have decided to keep their cat indoors may be very attuned and committed to the husbandry requirements of their cat including a regular feeding schedule, premium diet and regular veterinary care. While some aspects of this are favorable attributes (e.g., veterinary care), providing the cat with easy access, highly palatable food may actually be detrimental to the cat. The goal of an enriched feeding program should be to involve the cat in mental and physical activity to acquire its caloric needs. There has been a proliferation of foraging toys: toys designed to place food in openings or crevices so that the pet has to manipulate the toy to release the food particles. Some of these toys are designed specifically for cats (Kitty Kong) but many of these food puzzle toys are designed/marketed for dogs (Busy Buddy—Premier) but will work for cats. It is not necessary to invest in additional products to provide feeding challenges. Simply dividing up the cat’s daily food allowance into small portions and hiding the portions around the house to create a daily treasure hunt can make the indoor feeding regime more interesting. Providing safe grass for oral exploration/consumption can interest some cats. Sold in specialty grocery stores as wheat grass, owners can bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for increased indoor enrichment. Pheromone therapy: Feliway® has been indicated as a tool to help reduce anxiety/stress in the cat. Available as a spray or plug in diffuser. Outdoor enclosures/leashed walks : There are ways to provide the outdoor world to an indoor cat—namely secure enclosures or leashed walks. There are specialty products to cat proof yards ( or some owners build their own enclosures using chicken wire or other fencing materials. If leash walking a cat, the cat should first be acclimated to a well fitting harness and leash inside the home before venturing into the yard. While these options may enhance the environment due to the dynamic nature of the outdoor world, sometimes the outdoor enclosure just becomes another “room” in the house. So while it may help, the other suggestions should still be implemented to maximize the cat’s welfare. Intercat aggression: If either cat is intact, neutering may help reduce aggression. Any underlying medical issues should be investigated and addressed. The level at which behavioral therapy is employed depends upon the severity of the problem. For a mild conflict, simply providing an environment of plenty, placing a belled collar on the aggressor cat and using environmental pheromone therapy may be sufficient. For severe cases of aggression, it may be necessary to employ a program of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning with initial full segregation and then subsequent gradual, controlled introductions associated with positive activities. In these cases it is advised to contain the offensively aggressive cat in a kennel and allow the victim cat to roam free in the area during introductions so that the victim cat can gain a sense of confidence. In severe cases drug therapy to decrease underlying anxiety/aggression may be helpful. Most cats can successfully live indoor lives if owners are willing to provide adequate resources and engagement options for their cat. There are few things in life that come without a price, our duty is to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks associated with a feline indoor-only world. The most important factors include providing for natural feline behavior and avoiding stress via environmental enrichment. SUMMARY As cats continue to grow in popularity and animal welfare continues to be a concern of our society, it is likely that more research and information will be forthcoming on environmental enrichment for the cat. The smarter we are about our cats and how we manage them will hopefully translate into happier pets with fewer behavioral problems.

For additional information about indoor cat needs, cat problem solving and keeping cats healthy