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Everyone knows that cats need food, water and a litter box.  But what about your cat’s mental health?  Have you ever considered whether your cat is happy and fulfilled?  In the ideal world, cats could roam happily and hunt and play naturally but this is not at all safe in most situations.  Cities and towns are just too hazardous to allow roaming.  In the veterinary practice we see cats poisoned by access to toxins, hit by cars, mauled by dogs, bit by other cats, suffering from heat stroke or freezing, getting lost and never being found.  It is just not worth the risks!  On the other hand, we also see a lot of stress related problems that require medical intervention in the indoor cats.  Obesity and urinary issues are the two most common examples.  So, we must make the indoor environment happy, safe and fun for your pet.  How do you do that?  The following gives you some ideas to help you start thinking about how you can provide your cat a fulfilling indoor environment. 

Note:  Any food changes or changes in exercise should always be discussed with your veterinarian first.  Obese cats may need to start with ramps or low perches or steps leading up to higher areas at first.  Jumping could create injuries in overweight cats. 

In my opinion, the keys to a happy cat are:

  • Environmental Enrichment
  • Play Sessions
  • Making Feeding a Hunt
  • Litter Box Management
  • Low Stress Environment

That sounds like a lot but once the place is set up and you see your cat being mentally engaged in activities you will see that it is well worth the effort.

Environmental Enrichment

Over the last 5 years there has been more and more talk about environmental enrichment.  You really want to make your home stimulating for your cat by providing a home where your cat can hunt, play and enjoy an environment similar to what would occur in nature.  I’ve talked a lot about this issue in the handout on “Keeping Peace in Multicat Households”.  So I’ll just do a brief summary here. 

  • Ideally your pet should have several perches or shelves that are safe and don’t contain trinkets that could get knocked off and hurt.
  • Your cat needs several scratching posts and you need to reward and encourage your pet to scratch in the appropriate places. 
  • Cat furniture can be home made and inexpensive.  For example:
    • Rope can be wrapped around a board to make an inexpensive climbing post
    • Boxes and bags can be scattered around for cat(s) to explore
    • Tops of book shelves can have a mat as a perch for your cat
    • Cat trees can be made and directions can be found on line (be sure they are safe with no nails or screws sticking out, etc.)
  • Depending on your climate, a screened porch or building an outdoor enclosure (ensure safe, protected from weather and pet is supervised) can be very interesting for your pet.

Play Sessions

The “Fun Things to Do with Your Cat” handout discusses this in a little more depth so a short summary is provided here.  Have several different types of toys and/or puzzle type toys (example pictured left) and encourage your cat to play with them.  Small treats (like chicken cut into tiny pieces) can be used to reward appropriate play.  Never use your hands to play with a cat as this often leads to bites and scratches! 


Making Feeding a Hunt

For starters, the current recommendation for cats is to have a high protein diet that is all canned.  Check with your veterinarian and ask what diet they recommend and then discuss switching the cat over (follow veterinary directions carefully to avoid illness with any food change).  Small amounts of dry food can be put in small bowls or even sprinkled in the areas your cat frequents around the house as part of the diet or as a treat.  Some food should be put up high if your pet is fit enough to climb and jump.  This way your cat can hunt for the food.  You can also play games where the cat has to chase his kibble or a dried liver or chicken treat simply by throwing them on a slippery floor and, hopefully, your cat will run and get it.  Toss one kibble one direction, the next another direction and you’ll have a fit and healthy cat.  If you use this feeding technique be sure that your cat is finding the food and eating appropriately as fasting can be very dangerous for overweight cats. 

Litter Box Management

One of the most common problem we see in housecats are litter box issues.  In the wild, your cat would be able to find a clean area to go in every day.  In your house, the choices are limited to a box.  If the box is unclean, in an area where there are startling noises (washer, furnace, etc.), or if the cat has a medical problem, he/she may stop using the box.  Prevention and/or early intervention are important.  Here are some ideas:

  • Most cats like a clumping, sand type litter in an uncovered box. 
  • Avoid scented products and remember that if you can smell the litter box it will smell way worse to your cat’s sensitive nose. 
  • Have one litter box, plus one extra, for each cat in the house. 
  • Scoop boxes daily and use dish soap and water to clean them once/week. 
  • Plastic litter boxes should be discarded after one month as the plastic will absorb the urine smell and become unpleasant for your kitty. 
  • If it is too expensive to replace your litter box monthly then consider making a litter box out of the bottom of a large box and use a garbage bag as a liner.  Some cats don’t like the liner though so observe carefully. 
  • The litter should be at least one inch thick. 
  • If your cat has arthritis or any physical issues, make a walk in litter box with low sides using a box or a large plastic storage container with a cut out door opening. 
  • A product called cat attract can help encourage cats to use the box as well. 
  • The boxes should be in areas that the cat frequents. 
  • Watch for changes in the urine or the stool including:
    •  more or less urine or stool than normal
    • diarrhea
    • hard stool
    • blood in the urine
    • small drops of urine
    • accidents

These can be the first signs of an issue that should be dealt with quickly.

Low Stress Environment

Think about what your house would be like from your cat’s perspective.  Cat’s like to sleep and rest and groom and play.  Is your cat comfortable doing these things?  Does your cat hide a lot?  Are you seeing signs of stress such as litter box issues, pulling out hair, hiding, hissing or aggression?  Is your cat naturally outgoing and gregarious or the shy type that is very nervous around strangers?  Once you’ve given it some thought, you might be able to make changes in your house to make your pet secure and comfortable.
Now, cats can’t talk so some of this is speculation and theorizing on my part but I think it is supported by my medical experience.  I think the perfect environment for a cat is as follows:

  • A fairly reliable routine of feeding.
  • Quiet and calm.
  • The cat has opportunities to play and interact with people but can also move to an area that is quiet if the cat wants to get away.
  • Some visitors but not a revolving door and visitors are good with the pets.
  • Mental stimulation as discussed above. 

If your house is a party place or you have teenage children that have friends over all the time or if there is a lot of conflict and yelling or even abuse and addictions, your pet may react negatively and show signs of stress.  There are always solutions to these issues although sometimes they may be very difficult.  If your house fits into one of these categories consider the following:

  • Making one room a cat sanctuary.   It should be quiet and comfortable with hiding spaces, scratching posts, food and water stations.  The cat should be able to always access this area but it should a low traffic area.   A cat door is ideal.  If you are in a small area sometimes a closet or a dresser with a partially open door or drawer can give your pet an area to get away from it all!
  • Encourage everyone in the house to keep the volume level down if possible.  Consider whether the garage or one room as far away from the cat room as possible could be designated as the noisy area.
  • Play classical music for your cat(s).  It has a calming affect.
  • Be sure to do the play sessions with your cat!
  • If you have a timid cat and it is in a situation where it is not interacting with people and always hiding, consider whether re-homing the pet might be best.  The same would go for situations of abuse, conflict or addictions.  Having the strength to do what is best for the pet shows great courage.  Maybe it will be the first step in improving the situation for you..  wishing you the best!

So, I hope the above gives you some ideas that you can apply to make your house cat friendly and cat happy!  I realize that not every solution is practical for every situation but sometimes the ideas help you think of your own creative solutions for you and your pet.

Also see the “Fun Things to Do With Your Cat” article for more ideas that can make your cat’s life more exciting.  “Keeping the Peace In Multi-Cat Households” also has references at the end that show cat furniture and litter box tips etc.

Hoping this will make your place the Cat’s Meow…  punny huh!

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