In the wild, the numbers of cats living in a given area are dictated by the amount of resources in that area. This reduces proximity of groups of cats from each other. Contrary to common belief, cats are not solitary animals. They usually live in small family groups; however, by nature, cats will avoid confrontation at all costs and aggression is a last ditch behaviour.
When cats are kept in a domestic situation and resources are made freely available to them, then the number of cats in an area increases. This forces the cats to come into greater contact with each other and increases stress. This can cause incidences of aggression and undesirable behaviours such as urine spraying. It is important to address the cat’s normal behaviour and provide an environment for your cats that allow for this.
Resources that are important to cats are food, water, toileting areas and sleeping areas. It helps to think of each resource as a “station”. It is important to keep each station separate from the other. In multi-cat households, there should be multiple “stations” that allow the cats access without being visible from other “stations”. It is also important to allow your cat to display normal behaviours such as hunting, playing and clawing.
Cats are solitary eaters. It may look like all of your cats get on well together at meal times. However, if the resource (food) is only being given at set times of the day your cats may have no choice but to eat with each other. This may cause them to eat very quickly as they are anxious to leave the feeding station as soon as possible. I do query whether this could contribute to the vomiting immediately after eating that many owners complain about. Watch your cat’s body language as they eat. If they crouch down or flatten their ears at each other it may indicate they are anxious when being fed together. If this or other anxiety related problems such as urine spraying are seen, it is important to provide separate feeding stations for each cat.
Cats prefer their water station to be separate from their food station. If your cat has kidney problems or lower urinary tract disease, it is very important that they have a high fluid intake. Placing water close to food e.g. using double bowls may decrease the amount of water your cat drinks. Cats seem to like flowing water so commercially available cat water fountains can be a good idea to help increase water intake.
Litter trays should be placed in quiet, non-threatening areas. They should not be placed next to food or water stations or next to entry and exit points. Generally, it is recommended to have one more litter tray than the number of cats in the household. However, this does not mean lined up side by side! It is important that they are placed out of a cat’s line of sight from each other. Some entertaining examples given by Dr Sarah Heath of poorly placed litter trays she has actually seen are: 5 litter trays in a row at the bottom of stairs – the poor cat sitting on the tray as its housemate is sitting above it watching it toilet; a litter tray on top of the washing machine – imagine the poor cat sitting in this as the machine began its spin cycle; litter trays beside the cat door – very threatening for the cat as other cats may come in while on the tray.
Cats can have very strong litter substrate preferences. If you are having problems with your cat either urine spraying or toileting inappropriately in the house, it is worth trying different types of litter. It is important to clean the tray out at least once daily of soiled material and a complete change should be done every 2-4 days (depending on the number of cats using the tray).
Cats need 3-dimensional spaces. Providing a sleeping area in an elevated position gives the opportunity to rest and feel safe and secure. Placing blankets on top of wardrobes, cupboards, shelving or platforms on cat scratching posts can provide suitable places for sleeping areas. Remember that visual contact with cats outside the home can be stressful to your cat. Place sleeping areas away from windows and doors. If possible, remove any outside vantage perches where a cat can sit and stare into your home. Microchip cat doors are also beneficial for preventing outside cats entering your home. Cats love to hide in boxes. However, they can feel trapped if there is only one entry/exit point. In multi cat households, using tunnels or boxes with 2 openings gives the cat a chance to escape if cornered by another cat.
Scratching and clawing is a normal behaviour for your cat. Clawing stretches the back muscles after waking, helps to mark the boundaries of their territory and removes the blunted outer claw sheaths. Some cats have a preference between horizontal and vertical surfaces to scratch on. If vertical posts are used, they should be big enough to allow your cat to stretch up to its full body length and stable enough not to topple over and potentially injure your cat. Scratching posts should be placed in areas that reflect their function – close to resting places, near to entry & exit points and near to furniture.
Play is very important to your cat’s mental well being. In the wild, hunting is a time consuming occupation. Cats have approximately 100 to 150 hunting attacks per day. About 10% of these attacks are successful leading to relatively small meals. In the domestic situation, we provide an over abundance of food resources. This takes away a large mental stimulus as well as providing easy calories that contribute towards obesity.
Schedule regular play times with your cat. Cats are most active in the early morning and evening and before meal times. Cats often prefer toys that move and that are small and can be picked up. Bright, reflective and glittery colours are best. The most effective noise for a toy to make is a high-pitched prey noise. Toys are often more effective if changed regularly and different textures are offered, particularly textures that allow tearing and clawing. Toys like laser pointers can induce frustration in cats, as they feel that they can never grab on to the toy. If laser pointers are used, make sure that they periodically land on a toy and allow the cat to grab hold of something.
The normal pattern of cat to cat interaction is one of very frequent but low key communication. In contrast, humans tend to give low frequency but high intensity interaction. We are often at work all day and then expect our cats to be interacting with us whenever we are at home. A study done indicated the ideal length of playtime for a cat was the length of television ad breaks! The suggestion was to schedule play interactions in the ad breaks & then leave your cat alone during the television programme.
Making your cat work for its food helps to provide mental stimulation and also helps to reduce over-eating. This can be done by hiding small amounts of biscuits in different places through the house, so that your cat has to search them out in different places each day. Treat toys can be purchased from pet shops or you can make your own by placing holes in a small coke bottle. Biscuits are then put inside and your cat has to bat the toy around to get the biscuits to roll out. Another great idea is to wrap biscuits up in greaseproof paper parcels. Your cat has to rip and tear through the paper to get to the food which also provides some hunting like activity. Remember to only use a small length of natural string to tie the parcels up so there is no chance of a gastro-intestinal foreign body.
Taking the time to assess and improve the environment of your cat will improve their mental wellbeing, reduce the possibility of undesirable behaviours and increase your enjoyment of your pet.