A recipe for a happy cat includes environmental resources, socialization, and cognitive enrichment in the form of play and training. Andy and I attempt to give all of these “ingredients” to our own three cats and to a certain degree the kittens we foster.
First, let’s look at environmental resources. All cats need a safe place, which means they need high and low places. A few of our cats’ favorite high places are window perches and wall shelves in our dining room, cat towers in the living room and bedroom, and access to the back of our storage shelves in the basement. As for low places, their favorites are: a basket, a cave, a hiding nook, and their carriers. All cats also need their own feeding station, litter box, and scratching post. Our youngest cat, Rainy, likes to eat quickly and to eat whatever food she can find. For that reason, she has a puzzle feeder and eats in a separate room behind a closed door. We used to provide closed litter boxes but have been transitioning to large open boxes, as these make cats feel safer when going to the bathroom. For scratching options, our cats’ favorites are two tall scratching posts that allow them to stretch the full length of their body when they scratch.
Our foster kittens are spoiled in that they have their own room, albeit an unconventional one in that it also serves as my library. Their favorite high and low place then are my bookcases. The kittens will jump from the top and hide at the bottom of my bookcases. Other high places the kittens readily use include: the top of their mesh playpens and the top of a trunk that is adjacent to a window. If they want to hide, they have blankets, boxes, carriers, and the bottom of my reading couch. Thankfully, the kittens are flexible, in that they’ll share feeding stations and litter boxes more readily than adult cats. We used to provide one of each per cat, but that’s a lot of work when caring for litters of up to six kittens, not to mention how much space this took.
Next, let’s look at socialization. The prime age for this is between 2-16 weeks. Socialization shouldn’t stop at this age, but it’ll be harder to do with older kittens and with adults. Rainy is the only one of our cats that we adopted as a kitten, and she’s the most outgoing of our three. From the start, we gave her lots of attention and took her places to meet people. When we recently had foster kittens born in our home, we interacted with them multiple times a day and invited friends over to see them on a weekly basis. These kittens are probably our friendliest fosters. In contrast, when we worked with three eight-week old unsocialized kittens, our biggest task was to get them to even allow us near them. After that, we worked on getting them to accept food from us and play with us. It took several months before they were ready to be adopted.
Socialization is about more than introducing cats to people, although this is important. When training Rainy to become a therapy cat, I took her to new places and exposed her to new situations as often as I could. Each time we did anything new, I also gave her treats, so that she would view them in a positive way. Due to the pandemic, we stopped being able to visit people, but now Rainy acts as my demo cat for my virtual cat behavior consultation sessions with clients. As for our foster kittens, we usually introduce them to different rooms in our house, occasionally take them for a stroller ride, and often provide them with sensory enrichment. The latter refers to positive stimuli for the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and paws. Kittens have been introduced to online cat games, talk radio, silvervine, peanut butter (without Xylitol), plastic, to name a few.
Last, let’s look at play and training. For play to be effective, it should imitate the hunting sequence. Cats should be able to stare at their prey, stalk it, pounce on it, and grab it. Interactive feather or wand toys are best for this purpose, but toys also come in other forms such as self-play toys like mice, balls, and kick toys; battery and motion-activated toys; and foraging toys like puzzle feeders and toys. Ideally, play should be three times a week for 5-15 minutes. My own experience is that kittens start out with self-play toys and then graduate to interactive toys. As for adults, they often eventually get tired of their toys. I delay the boredom at our house by giving our cats only a few toys to play with, and then every couple of weeks switching them out for other toys. Even then though, it’s play often becomes routine for both them and me, which is why I often look online for brain games. Of late, I’ve been checking out the best games for dogs and modifying them for my cats.
To challenge my cats’ minds, I also teach them manners, tricks, and agility. It’s beyond the scope of this article for me to provide instructions on how to do this, and so instead I’ll focus on the benefits. Training reduces stress, provides physical activity, increases confidence, and strengthens the bond between cats and their owners. Some of our training sessions are practical: Cinder has learned to sit instead of pawing at me to get treats; Bootsie will head to the basement when I call her to train, and Rainy will pose for a photo. Other of our training sessions are for fun. Cinder can twirl; Bootsie can high-five; and Rainy will run an agility course as often as I let her!
Just like a cook will improve on a recipe upon each attempt, so too Andy and I continue to improve in the ways we make our cats and our foster kittens happy. My hope is that you’ll view this recipe as one that you’ll tweak throughout the lives of your cats.
Need help with cat behavior? I offer cat behavior consultations, training in manners and agility, and support for basic care and enrichment. Contact me at Allison Helps Cats.