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Posted on 01-24-2018

What Are Your Cat's Environmental Needs?

Understanding what your pet cat needs in the environment is essential for optimal wellness. Did you know that when you strive to meet a cat’s environmental needs, you are providing enrichment for your cat’s daily life? Additionally, you may be helping to avoid environmental stressors that could ultimately cause certain unwanted behaviors or medical concerns.

Let’s talk about the natural tendencies of cats – because if we think about these, then ideas for how to keep our cats happy start to flow easily.

Hunting: Cats have a natural predatory tendency, which means they have a drive to hunt. Cats need to be able to express this natural behavior. If left with no other outlet, some cats may try and pounce on feet and ankles as they walk by! So how can we address this drive?

  • Provide play opportunities that mimic hunting. Dragging toy items across the floor or through the air can encourage the predatory chase and pounce. Tossing the toys, or using a wand that dangles the toy from a string, will keep your arms and hands safe from playful paws. Remember to let your cat “catch” the toy every so often to avoid frustration.
  • Use food puzzles and food balls at meal or treat time. These items can also put your cat in a hunting mindset and mimic a more natural feeding behavior.
  • It is important to rotate these toys to prevent boredom!

Protection from perceived dangers: As solitary hunters, cats have a tendency to also protect themselves from perceived dangers. As a territorial species, cats can feel threatened if their territory is disturbed. Cats who feel threatened may hide and exhibit anti-social behaviors, or they may become unexpectedly aggressive. They can also display undesirable behaviors such as scratching inappropriate surfaces or marking or eliminating outside the litter box. So how do we help our cats feel safe?

  • Offer cats multiple options for retreat. This could mean a high perch, or an enclosed area (such as cardboard box, carrier) that fits only one cat. Ideally the space should have multiple sides for entry and exit. Your cat may use these areas for safety if he or she feels threatened (by a loud noise, unfamiliar visitors, etc.), or if he or she just wants a place to get away and rest.
  • Help children and house guests understand that the cat needs to initiate and control how much interaction he or she has with humans. Interactions should never be forced as this can increase your cat’s anxiety and possibly lead to someone being bitten or scratched.
  • Pay attention to what might be happening inside (or even outside) of the house to decide if your cat may need some additional environmental interventions.  For example, home renovations, loud noises or installations, and repair workers could increase your cat's anxiety and feelings of being unsafe. Or, if a neighborhood outdoor cat is visible, or even tries to engage in behavioral displays through the window, this could cause your cat to develop anxiety or displaced behaviors.

Cats need key resources, including food, water, scratching surfaces, play areas, resting areas, and somewhere to eliminate. For multiple cat households, these resources may need to be separated to some degree to minimize competition.

  • Of course cats need to eat and drink, but keep in mind that they also need to be able to do these things without threat from housemates. Always ensure cats are able to access these resources without fear or competition. Older cats, especially those with arthritis, may have difficulty jumping up on surfaces to access food and water bowls. Keeping items lower or providing steps up to the surface can be helpful in these situations. 
  • Litter boxes should be scooped at least daily. Be sure to provide your cat(s) with enough litter boxes to cover different areas of the home, and allow cats living in multiple pet households to be able to access the box without being disturbed.
  • Scratching surfaces are not only used for sharpening claws and maintaining claw motion. Scratching also aids in visual and olfactory communication. Providing cats with multiple scratching substrates, and making sure the cat can stretch it’s entire body while scratching, will minimize damage to household items.

Cats can hear and smell really well! This means that noises and smells that may not affect or bother us can cause stress in our cats. How can we be respectful of their exquisite hearing and sense of smell?

  • First, recognize that cats mark their scent on things by rubbing their face and body against items. When they do this, the cat’s natural pheromones are deposited on the surface. This is your cat’s way of marking a territory in which he or she feels safe. Whenever possible, avoid removing their scent with cleaners, especially if a new cat or some other stressful event is going on in the home.
  • You can help supplement your cat’s natural pheromones with synthetic pheromone products such as Feliway.
  • Keep in mind your cat may not enjoy your cleaners or scented sprays/ plug-ins, etc. Sometimes the stress from threatening or unfamiliar smells can lead your cat to eliminate inappropriately, scratch undesirable items, or even develop stress-related illness. Of course if your cat develops signs of illness, you should have him or her examined by a veterinarian.

Cats are individuals and have their own unique personalities.

  • If you have a kitten, remember that the biggest socialization window is between about 2 and 9 weeks – so do everything you can during that time to introduce your kitten to a variety of people and experiences.
  • During play time, remember to give each cat some one-on-one time if you have multiple cats!
  • Individual cats will have individual preferences regarding human interaction. Work to understand your cat’s cues about how much and how often they enjoy petting, grooming, play time, handling, or sitting on laps.

Do you have a question about your cat's environmental needs? Then give us a call today! Or is it time to schedule your cat's next veterinary appointment? Then ask us about our feline-focused appointment times!

Author: Dr. Clarissa Noureddine, DVM, MS, MS

Reference/ Additional Resource:

​Your Cat's Environmental Needs. Pet Owner Brochure from the American Association of Feline Practitioners.