This guidance will help you make your home cat-friendly and enriching for your cat.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
As we know, a cat is very different to a dog, and has a range of specific needs that reflect this. Unlike domestic dogs, cats are much more closely related to their recent wild, asocial ancestors. What this means is that whilst many cats are very confident, friendly and seemingly unfazed by our often busy and unpredictable lifestyles, others may sometimes struggle to live in an environment so different to that of their wild relatives.
However, with careful matching of a cat with the right owner and home (our job!), and following the advice provided below (your job!), your cat has the best chance of having a happy and enriched life with you.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ENRICHING?
We want every cat to be able to thrive in their new home. Therefore, whilst it’s very important that each cat is kept in good physical health, we want to ensure each cat also feels safe and secure, and in addition has plenty of opportunity to experience pleasure and positive emotions.
All this can be achieved by providing your cat with a stable and predictable environment, as well as various sources of enrichment or ‘entertainment’ (which we will describe below).
WHERE SHOULD WE BEGIN?
A good way to understand the fundamental needs of cats and their order of importance is to think of them within a pyramid – the needs at the bottom will be of primary importance to your cat, but once these have been sufficiently met, the next level of the pyramid will become the priority, and so on, as your cat progresses up the pyramid.
Your cat’s most primary need is to be free from pain and disease, to have access to food and water, and to be physically comfortable. The next need is for her to feel safe, to be able to retreat and hide from challenging or unpleasant situations, and to have safe access to all her important resources (i.e. the things she needs). After these needs are sufficiently taken care of, the next priority is for her to have a predictable, relatively calm, and stable environment. If she feels all these needs are already adequately provided for, she will then prioritise exploration and various forms of environmental and social interaction (depending on her temperament – she will value social interaction to a greater or lesser degree).
BASIC HIERARCHY OF NEEDS FOR CATS
The needs at the top of the pyramid (such as environmental stimulation) are unlikely to be a priority for your cat if she doesn’t first feel safe or have predictable access to her resources, so efforts should be made to ensure these needs (i.e. needs 1-3) are met before trying to encourage her to play or interact socially with people (i.e. need 4), because this could be too overwhelming for her at this point, particularly if she has only recently been introduced to your household.
Depending on the temperament of your cat, her current physical and emotional state, as well as the environment she is in, she may need some extra support for some of these needs to be met. For example, a very timid cat may need a much quieter and more predictable environment for need 3 of the pyramid to be met than a bold, confident cat, who in turn might need much more environmental stimulation for their need 4 to be satisfied.
HOW DO I MEET THESE NEEDS FOR MY CAT?
NEEDS 1-2: PHYSICAL HEALTH, PERSONAL SAFETY AND ACCESS TO RESOURCES
How to take care of your cat’s basic health, provide her with all her basic resources, and help her to feel safe and stress free is covered in our advice on reducing your cat’s stress.
NEED 3: PREDICTABILITY AND STABILITY
The following advice will help you to be able to provide a stable, calm and predictable environment for your cat. What’s most important is that your cat feels she has choice and control over various aspects of her life, and the more that she can predict when both good and not so good things are going to happen (see examples below), the happier, more settled and less anxious and frustrated she is likely to feel.
Predictability and stability:
Keeping to a general routine with regards to the following will allow your cat to feel more in control of her surroundings. For example:-
- Feeding her at the same times each day.
- Keeping her main resources (e.g. food, water, litter trays and beds, hiding places) in the same quiet and undisturbed locations. If any resources have to be moved (i.e. due to decorating, or the arrival of a baby), do this gradually, one at a time, rather than changing everything at once.
- Being consistent in the way she is handled and interacted with.
- Being consistent in terms of what rooms of the house she can and can’t have access to. This will be easier for her to get used to than if she is only sometimes allowed in certain areas (such as the bedroom), which might cause her frustration when she is suddenly shut out.
- If she is particularly sensitive to noise and disturbance, try keeping cleaning to predictable times – this way she can anticipate when the disturbance is going to happen and take herself off somewhere quieter if necessary.
In addition, the following will also help:
- Making sure she always has access to a hiding place or quiet area of the house, particularly when it is noisier or busier (for example when visitors come to the house, when the vacuum cleaner is on, when loud music is being played, furniture is being moved about, or the house is being decorated).
- Cats deposit special pheromones via skin glands located around their face and other areas of their body (such as their tail and between their paws), and they will rub these glands on furniture and other objects around the house (you may have seen your cat doing this, or you might have noticed the slightly brown, grubby marks she leaves behind afterwards – especially on white surfaces). These pheromones are thought to make the environment feel more familiar and reassuring to your cat, and therefore you should avoid cleaning these marks away, at least too often.
- If your cat has specific areas in the house where she sleeps, avoid washing all her blankets/bed cushions at once. This will help to maintain the presence of her smell within the house and again make it seem more familiar to her.
- If you have a cat flap, make sure no cats from the neighbourhood can enter the house – the best way to do this is to install a microchip operated cat flap.
- Scratching is a natural behaviour that cats perform to keep their claws in good condition, but your cat may also want to scratch to make the environment smell (by using the scent glands located in between the pads on her paws to deposit scent) and look (via the visual marks the scratches leave) more secure and familiar. Providing her with specific objects to scratch on is therefore a good idea.
Choice and control:
It’s also a very good idea to provide your cat with as much choice as possible, for example:
- Providing her with multiples of the following, in different places around the house; beds, hiding spaces (e.g. cardboard boxes, cat igloos, areas under beds or other furniture) and places to get up high (e.g. cat trees, shelves and window ledges), litter trays and sources of food and water. Because cats have exceptional hearing and sense of smell, there may be noises and smells in parts of the house that we can’t detect, but that are off putting to her (for example the chemicals in cleaning products or high frequency noises emitted by household equipment such as washing machines and televisions etc.). Therefore, providing her with more than one place to sleep, toilet, drink, eat, rest etc. will help her to avoid anything she might find unpleasant in her environment, whilst still allowing her to access the things she needs.
- Allowing her to decide whether she wants to interact with people or not, and if so how long for.
- Allowing her to go and be in a quiet room of the house undisturbed if she wants to.
- Allowing her to come and go within the house and to have unrestricted access to a garden or outside space.
NEED 4 – ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL STIMULATION:
The following advice will help you to be able to provide your cat with positive environmental and social stimulation. However, each cat is an individual and may have their own specific preferences for the types of things they do or don’t enjoy. Therefore, an amount of trial and error, combined with frequent observations of your cat are important to identify her preferences.
Access to a safe, stimulating outdoor environment
Most cats are highly motivated to spend a large proportion of their day exploring and seeking out interesting sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes within their surroundings. Your cat may get a lot of pleasure from performing these activities, which will help to keep her both mentally stimulated and physically fit and active. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to provide her with a positively stimulating outdoor area. For further information about how to provide this please see our advice on how to make your garden or outside space cat-friendly and enriching for your cat.
These make feeding times more of a challenge, which is a great source of mental stimulation for your cat. They will also help to keep your cat physically active, stop her from eating too fast, and encourage her to perform parts of her natural predatory sequence (for example seeking out the food, using her paws and mouth to manipulate the feeder).
Puzzle feeders are generally made of plastic for ease of cleaning, and come in a range of different shapes and sizes. Some are ball shaped and roll around as the cat paws at them, whilst others are stationary and require the cat to push, scoop or lick at them in order to get the food out.
Puzzle feeders are designed to be used with either your cat’s treats, or their normal kibble or wet food. Some cats may prefer stationary feeders whilst other cats may prefer ones that move when pushed or touched. Some cats may like a combination of both types. If your cat is very food motivated and can use puzzle feeders easily, she may benefit from being fed all of her food portions (i.e. both wet and dry) in the feeders. Wet food is usually easier to use with stationary feeders rather than moveable ones (see third photo above). To keep the puzzle feeders interesting for your cat, we suggest using a couple and changing them each time you feed her.
A cattery staff member should be able to tell you which types of puzzle feeders your cat enjoyed using at Battersea.
Play is another great source of mental stimulation, as well providing physical exercise for your cat. Play may also encourage her to direct her predatory behaviours towards ‘safe’ objects rather than your hands or feet, or live prey.
Some cats may prefer to play with people, other cats with toys by themselves, and some may enjoy a combination of both. When playing with your cat, long fishing rod type toys with feathers, bits of ribbon, or prey-sized furry objects on the end are some of the best kinds. The way the object attached to the end of the string can be moved around can be quite stimulating for your cat, but the good thing is that it is also far enough away from your hands so they don’t get in the way of your cat’s teeth or claws whilst she is playing.
Toys that mimic the size, shape and texture of prey (e.g. furry mouse sized toys or those made of feathers) can be particularly good to encourage interest from your cat, especially if they are impregnated with catnip. She may also enjoy playing with these prey-like toys on her own (i.e. self play). However, catnip can be quite arousing for some cats, so we advise that you don’t try to handle or touch her whilst she is under the influence!
To keep toys novel and interesting, it’s good to store some of them away and only bring them out during play sessions (especially the fishing rod types). Other ‘self play’ toys can be left out, but these should be changed regularly to keep them exciting for your cat. Avoid leaving string/fishing rod toys out as your cat may get tangled up in them.
A complex and interesting environment, encouraging her to explore and exercise
Cats enjoy both being up high and having a good ‘vantage point’, as well as hiding and being concealed. Provide your cat with an environment that contains lots of elevated places she can climb up or jump on, as well as quiet places she can hide (e.g. a mixture of cat trees, cat tunnels and shelving, combined with cat ‘igloos’ and cardboard boxes – see photo above).
Cats also enjoy exploring and seeking out new sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes. You can help to stimulate your cat’s senses in this way by providing the following (for outdoor examples see our advice on how to make your garden or outside space cat-friendly and enriching for your cat).
Examples of indoor things to stimulate your cat’s senses
- A large cardboard box with leaves, food or natural feathers scattered inside.
- A large cat tunnel again with leaves, food, or feathers scattered in it.
- A range of suitable indoor plants, especially catnip and cat grass. These can be easily grown in small pots and placed around the house for your cat to sniff and chew on (see photo above).
- Please see guidance on poisonous plants to avoid.
- A range of different materials and textures to scratch on e.g. sisal posts (see photo above), corrugated cardboard scratching blocks, logs or tree stumps – these can be sprinkled with herbs such as catnip or valerian to make them extra appealing.
- As well as using puzzle feeders, you could also try ‘scatter feeding’ with your cat by placing small amounts of her dry kibble in different places around the house for her to search for (but make sure she first feels settled and comfortable in your home before doing this).
Positive, appropriate interaction with people
This is another potentially great source of positive stimulation for your cat.