We do everything we can to make sure our cats are healthy. We feed them good quality food, we take them to their annual checkups, brush them, scratch them behind the ears, and love them. Cats have a reputation for being the low-maintenance pet – meet their basic needs, and they will live long healthy lives. But do we spend enough time thinking about our cats’ mental and emotional well-being?
It turns out that, like most creatures, happiness has a deep connection to your cat’s health. While good food and vet visits are clearly important, we also need to consider what our cats need to meet their instinctive requirements as a cat.
First, let’s look at the most prominent threat to a cat’s happiness: stress. Like in humans, stress, especially over prolonged periods, has a detrimental effect on cat health. Stress hormones that are perfectly designed to help cats in nature (the good old “fight or flight” response) were not meant to be released over and over again all day long. Continuous exposure to these hormones causes damage to organ systems by elevating heart rate and blood pressure and raising blood sugar.
But what on earth does a pampered domestic cat have to be stressed about, you may wonder? The answer is a lot of things. Things like boredom, conflicts with other household cats over territory, food or resources, changes in routine, loss or addition of household members and pets, tension in the home, medical problems, and so much more, can cause systemic stress in your cat.
So what can we do about all of this? We have to remember that cats are not very far removed from their wild relatives, and their needs are still very similar to that of their cousins. Cats are hunters, and also prey animals. They need to have their own territory and resources. In short, cats need to feel like cats. You can help keep your cat happy and healthy by:
Protecting Food Resources
This doesn’t just mean feeding them on time. When you feed them, make sure they are not threatened by other animals in the house – that might mean separating them from other cats at feeding time, elevating their feeding area to be safe from dogs in the house, or simply moving their dish away from the wall so that they can face the room while they eat.
Give them Ownership of Scent and Vantage Resources
Make sure that all of the cats in your house have access to climbing, perching and burrowing resources. In nature, cats might sit in a tree to view their surroundings for hunting or hiding purposes, or they might prefer to shelter in a bush. Approximating these with plenty of cat trees, perches, caves and beds will help to assure that each cat has their own space without any conflict. Likewise, there should be cat scratchers aplenty around the house – cats need them to maintain claw health and to leave their scent, thus securing their zone.
Keep Things Clean
In nature, cats bury their waste, and would not wish to relieve themselves in a dirty place. The same is true for your cat. Keeping the litter box clean by scooping or emptying a minimum of once per day is key if you want your cat to maintain good bathroom habits. You should also have more than one litter box – ideally, one for every cat in your house, plus one – distributed in different parts of your home, to avoid litter box conflicts.
Provide Mental Stimulation
We want to keep our cats indoors to keep them safe, but we also must ensure that their needs as a natural hunter are being met. Play with your cats daily by encouraging them to chase toys that resemble prey animals, laser dots, etc. Give them window perches so that they can watch birds outside. And if you want to go all out, you can build your cats a catio – an enclosed outdoor space that allows them to experience a taste of the outside world without the dangers of outdoor-cat life.
In reality, it just takes a few simple changes to put some focus on your cat’s mental well-being, and you will be paving the way for a cat who is healthy in both body and spirit.