When I’m consulted about cat aggression, I first turn to the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment, which were developed by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine. The groups wrote in the 2013 issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery that “a cat’s level of comfort with its environment is intrinsically linked to its physical health, emotional wellbeing and behavior.” For this reason, they contend that “addressing environmental needs is essential for the optimum wellbeing of the cat.”
The five pillars are:
- provide a safe place
- provide multiple and key separated environmental resources
- provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior
- provide positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat social interaction
- provide an environment that respects the importance of a cat’s sense of smell
Cats like to feel safe. According to Zazie Todd, a certified animal behavior consultant, “They prefer to avoid confrontation and their natural response to something stressful is to hide.” Indeed, a study in the journal Behavioral Processes found that shelter cats place a greater value on hiding places than on other types of environmental enrichment. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian behaviorist, wrote on the College of Veterinarian Medicine University of Illinois website that a cat’s safe place will also provide a sense of security. “Cats like to get up high where they can observe their environment,” Ballantyne said, “especially when there’s been a change or when they are frightened.”
Todd described the ideal hiding place as one that is just the right size for the cat, enclosed, and high up. She suggested a covered perch on a cat tree, a shelf cleared for a cat and cat blanket, or an open wardrobe door with articles of your clothing inside. Author Julia Wilson wrote in the online Cat-World that since placing large cat-safe plants on shelves, the popularity of the latter increased. With both the cat blanket and clothing, Todd noted that cats might be comforted by their scent and/or by the smell of their person. Ballantyne also advised that cats should have access to natural lighting and a window for looking outside. In addition, the study in the journal Behavioral Processes found “cats spent the most time in a hiding place from where they could see someone approaching,” suggesting they value being with people.
How do owners of multiple cats provide enough safe spaces? Ballantyne noted that research on indoor cats “shows that most cats prefer to maintain a distance of at least three to nine feet when they are within sight of each other, and they may spend as much as half of their time out of sight of each other.” For that reason, she suggested providing as many safe places in the home as the number of cats. If space is at a premium, increase the amount of vertical space by adding perches, shelves, and cat trees. She also suggested dividing rooms into several sections using vertical room dividers. The dividers will give your cats more choices about where they want to be.
Ideally, your cat’s carrier should be viewed by your cat as a safe place too. Unfortunately, if you’ve only used it to transport your cat to the veterinarian, your cat may fear it. There isn’t room in this article to explain how to acclimate your cat to a carrier, but start by having it always available for your cat. In other words, it should be a normal feature of your home environment. You can also encourage your cat’s use of it by placing bedding and food in it.
The key environmental resources for cats are food dishes, water bowls, litter boxes, scratching posts, and resting places. As with hiding boxes, there will be ideally as many resources in the home as the number of cats. In other words, have at least one food dish, one water bowl, one litter box, and one scratching post per cat.
Wilson also advised having separate feeding stations for each cat. According to her, this will provide “the opportunity for a more reserved cat to eat without the worry of a more dominant cat pushing them out of the way and provides a sense of security.” At the same time, Todd recognized that in multiple-cat homes, cats may form one or several social groups. It may be enough simply to provide each “group” with access to resources to avoid competition.
Ballantyne also said to separate food and water dishes from each other, noting that unlike dogs and humans, cats don’t drink while they eat. Since cats often don’t drink enough, it’s also important to place water bowls in different locations around the house to increases the chances that one will be in a location that a cat likes.
Todd believes that every cat should have a choice about resources and each resource should be one that the cat likes. For example, a cat owner wrote in Modern Cat that “ when given the choice between raised level or floor level dining, our cats always choose the former.” In Preventative Vet, Dr. Jason Nicholas described the ideal litter box as “at least as long as your cat, from their nose to the tip of their tail (when extended), and its width should be at least as wide as your cat is long (with their tail not extended).” Nicholas elaborated to say that a box with walls 5–7″ high is ideal for the average cat, but needs will differ based on the age, mobility, and spraying habits of the cat. He suggested that “the thing that most often fits the bill is actually a large, plastic under-the-bed clothes storage box.” Finally, when it comes to scratchers, Todd said that studies have shown most cats like to scratch vertically on a sturdy post that is taller than their body length and that sisal is the preferred texture. Please keep in mind though that all cats are unique, and try something else if what’s popular doesn’t appeal to your cat.
If you have a multi-cat household, having to provide one of each resource per cat might seem like a lot, but Ballantyne stressed the importance of spreading out resources: “Have you ever avoided going to the restroom at your office because the coworker that you don’t get along with sits near it? Have you ever waited until they took their lunch break or even waited until you got home? A similar scenario happens every day, multiple times per day, in multi-cat homes when resources aren’t spaced out, except these cats never get to get away from each other. If you have multiple cats, one of the best things you can do to improve their relationships with each other is to spread out their resources.”
PLAY AND PREDATORY BEHAVIOR
Play is important for cats. Even after hundreds of years of domestication, the most well-fed cats are hard-wired with this prey instinct. The prey sequence is stimulating to cats, and one to keep in mind as you play with yours. The prey sequence consists of four phases. First, cats stare at their prey and then slowly move into the best position to stalk it. Next, cats stalk their prey, wiggling their behind to signal an impending attack just before springing into action. Third, cats pounce and grab their prey. Finally, cats roll onto their side and kick against their prey with their back legs while biting their prey.
Even though domesticated cats don’t need to hunt for their food, they retain the instinct to do so, and cats will benefit by replicating the prey sequence when they play. There are different types of toys that can elicit different components of the prey sequence. For that reason, it’s important to provide your cat with a variety of toys. There are four main categories of toys, each of which focuses on different parts of the prey sequence. The four categories of toys are: self-play such as plush mice, battery-operated, puzzle toys/puzzle feeders, and interactive such as the wand toy.
Besides providing your cat with a variety of toys, here are some other tips to keep in mind:
- Incorporate two or three 10-15 minutes sessions of play per day at set times.
- Encourage your cat’s natural prey instinct by providing toys in the shape of birds, mice, snakes, and insects.
- Allow your cat at times to play on his own, so he doesn’t become reliant on you to stimulate his prey drive.
- When a play session is about to end, let your cat catch the toy and switch it with food to replicate the hunt-then-eat pattern from the wild.
- Rotate toys each week so playtime doesn’t become mundane.
- Use catnip spray to renew toys.
Ballantyne also suggested making mealtimes interactive. Puzzle feeders are one way to go; another way is a game of hide-and-seek, where small portions of food are hidden around the home for the cat to find. Be creative and figure out which your cat prefers.
HUMAN-CAT SOCIAL INTERACTION
While cats have a reputation of being loners, the truth is that they like interacting with people but on their own terms. According to the five pillars, “Many cats prefer a high frequency, low intensity level of social contact with humans, a scenario that gives them a good deal of control.” Former veterinary hospital manager Ingrid King on her blog The Conscious Cat advises allowing cats to initiate and end human contact.
According to the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment, there are two ways to give cats a choice of when to interact with you. One is call them to you and wait to see if they come. Another is to get down on their level and put out a finger or hand to see if they approach. Talking gently to cats might also help to put them at ease. However, when a cat ends an interaction by moving away the recommendation is to not force further interaction.
Wilson advises to learn what your cat likes or dislikes and then respect those boundaries. For example, most cats like being scratched on their head, their chin, and on the back close to their tail. When cats head butt you, wrap their tails around your legs, slow blink, purr, or knead, they’re showing that they’re relaxed. The standard advice is to not rub a cat’s belly.
As with other environmental resources, each cat should have access to individual attention without competition. At the same time, to foster positive interactions it is also recommended to play with cats together when feasible.
This past fall, a new study by Kristen Vitale published in Current Biology found that the majority (65%) of cats are emotionally attached to their owner. The findings show that these ties are stable and present in adulthood. Moreover, according to Vitale, “cats use their owner as a source of security in a novel environment.” It’ll be interesting to see what additional studies will teach us about the best ways people can interact with cats.
SENSE OF SMELL
Finally, the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment noted that, “Cats use olfactory and pheromonal signals through the use of scent marking by facial and body rubbing. This establishes the boundaries of their core living area in which they feel secure and safe. People should be careful not to interfere with a cat’s olfactory and chemical signals and scent profile.”
How can you respect a cat’s sense of smell? The Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment provides several tips. First, provide plenty of places for your cat to scratch. The scent glands on your cat’s paws deposit pheromones onto objects they scratch. Second, when possible, don’t remove objects that your cat has rubbed. Objects that your cat has marked help promote a sense of security and well-being. For that reason, it’s advisable to wash your cat’s bedding on rotation instead of all at once. Three, rub new cats and new objects with a fabric that has your resident cat’s scent.
In addition to preserving your cat’s smell, you should also avoid introducing competing smells. Use an unscented cat litter and always rinse detergents from litter trays to remove the odor. Recognize that a cat returning to a multi-cat home from a visit away may smell different and may need to be rubbed with the scent of the other cats. If you need to place your cat in a cage, even if only for a short time, place your cat’s bedding in the cage. One value of synthetic feline pheromones is that they can reduce the impact of novel scents and thereby reduce a cat’s anxiety.
According to a study by the British Veterinarian Association, behavior issues because of a poor home environment are the biggest welfare concern for cats. In multi-cat homes, if the cats must compete for environmental resources, stress and inter-cat aggression can result. Although following the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment may not completely resolve aggression, the pillars certainly provide a solid start.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This information is available as a checklist. Click here to download.