Cats. How we love them. Until we don’t. Until they’re peeing on our carpets and ripping up our furniture. Then they can be the most frustrating, heart-breaking nightmares.
Fortunately there is a lot that we as cat-owners can do to help give our cats more interesting and fulfilling lives, to promote healthier levels of exercise and mental stimulation, and to design our homes in a way that will help them to be more relaxed in general. All of these things can go a long way toward preventing behavior problems before they even happen.
Cats can be very independent critters, which makes it a little easier than with a dog to put out food, water, and a litter box and kind of forget about them. But cats are intelligent, interactive animals– which is why we like them and invite them into our homes. And if we do not meet their needs for hunting, for hiding, for scratching, and for play, they may get stressed and start to exhibit the kind of behaviors that we do not want in our homes. Stress and boredom may also contribute to overeating which can easily result in obesity, a condition which is known to contribute to a variety of health problems.
So how do we make a home more cat-friendly?
1. Appropriate Litterboxes and maintenance.
The general rule of thumb is at least one more litterbox in your house than there are cats. Two cats? Three boxes. Litterboxes should be in multiple peaceful locations (and on multiple floors if you have a multi-level house), and ideally be of different designs and possibly with different litter, depending on what your cats prefer. Cats can be very picky about textures, so it is best to not change litter types on them suddenly. And remember– your cat is the one who gets the choose the litter. If he’s showing you signs that he doesn’t like it (such as doing his business right next to the box), listen to him.
Cats also prefer a clean bathroom. Don’t we all? Litterboxes are best scooped at least once a day, and completely emptied, cleaned, and refilled as needed (this will depend on what type of litter you use– if you use scoopable litter you will be able to go for a lot longer than you would with plain clay litter).
2. Cat trees and scratching posts.
Cat trees and other cat furniture are great options for providing cats with places to perch and survey the world, sleep, climb, and scratch. In the wild, cats rely on being able to get up high and survey the territory, especially when they are scared. Cats also tend to like to sleep in high places as it allows them to feel a bit more protected. If you do not want your cat snoozing on top of your refrigerator, then providing him with an inviting and more appropriate option is a helpful way to go.
Cat furniture is not particularly cheap, but if you invest in a well-made piece, it will last for a good long time. Multi-levels offer multiple cats assorted places to roost, and posts covered with varied surfaces allow cats to have their choice of inviting scratching surfaces. Sprinkling catnip or spraying the surfaces with a catnip spray can help make a new cat tree or scratching area more appealing.
Cats need to scratch. This is an intrinsic part of being a cat. They scratch to stretch their muscles, they scratch to sharpen their claws and shed old cuticle, and they scratch to scent mark. Even cats who are declawed will retain the need to scratch. There is a wide assortment of scratching toys available for purchase- ones that lay flat on the floor, ones that are verticle, ones made of cardboard, ones covered in sisal or carpet, even ones made of natural wood. What will work best for your cat will depend on your individual cat. Does he like to scratch the carpets? Then perhaps a scratch pad that lays flat on the floor will be most inviting? Does he go more for the sides of the couch or the back of the recliner? Try something verticle! Because of the scent-marking aspect of scratching, we need to remember that this is a social and territorial demonstration as well. Scratching posts should be placed in high cat-traffic areas, and it is best to have multiple scratching options in homes with multiple cats.
Cats love to be able to see outside. It’s natural television for them. It keeps their minds occupied and allows them to engage in their natural hunting instinct. If you do not have windowsills appropriate for your cats to sit on, consider rearranging furniture to provide a comfortable spot, or mounting a shelf or purpose-made window perch available at many petstores. The root of many behavior problems in cats is boredom, and giving your cats a way to engage with their surroundings will help alleviate some of that. Also consider things that will make their view even more entertaining– consider adding a birdfeeder in sight of your cat’s favorite window or planting flowers that will attract butterflies.
There are so many different kinds of toys available for cats, so think outside the box with this one and try an assortment of options to see which ones your cats like best. Everything from paperbags and the plastic rings off milkjugs to automated laser pointers for your cat to chase– each cat will have his own preferences. Some cats like stuffed catnip mice to bat around. Others love to chase laser pointers. Peacock feathers or kitty wand toys with feathers and sparkly plastic on one end and a long thin handle on the other are where the fun is at for others.
Remember that cats are very much hunters by nature, so toys that can be made to wiggle, move, and bounce are most likely to catch their attention.
Once you’ve figured out what your cat likes to play with, remember to not leave that toy available at all times– that will cause the toy to become boring. Either bring it out for designated playtimes, or have a variety of toys that are rotated every few days to keep them fresh and fun.
Not only will playing with your cat enrich his life and encourage exercise needed to prevent him from packing on the pounds, it will also increase the bond between you and your cat. Plus, cats are hilarious when they play!
If your kitty is very food motivated and eats dry food, another way to provide entertainment and stimulation is by feeding him his meals in a food-dispensing toy. These can be tricky to find made specifically for cats, but there are usually a wide assortment available in the dog toy aisle. Requiring your kitty to roll, wobble, or otherwise interact with a toy will make mealtime more engaging as well as encourage exercise.
For more tips on how to create a healthier and more engaging home for your cats, be sure not to miss Ohio State University’s Indoor Cat Initiative website. It is full of information about the nature of cats and why they do the things they do, as well as information on how to deal with conflict between cats, how to teach a cat to like his carrier, and a wide assortment of other topics.
Enjoy! And don’t forget to play with your cat!