According to the latest PDSA PAW report, there are approximately 11 million pet cats in the UK, with 24% of all pet owners choosing to keep cats.
By Alexandra Taylor – Cat Wellbeing and Behaviour Advisor, International Cat Care
Cats are undoubtedly popular but are sometimes misunderstood, and this can negatively impact their wellbeing. A common misconception about our feline friends is that they are ‘easier’ than dogs to keep as pets, probably because they are considered low maintenance or having a more independent nature. However, cats have specific needs and behaviour (and health) problems can develop if we don’t meet them.
ANCESTRY OF THE DOMESTIC CAT
To properly understand cats, we need to go back to around 10,000 years ago, when the Near Eastern wildcats (Felis sylvestris lybica) started to reside alongside humans living in the region ‘the Fertile Crescent’. These wildcats were elusive, nocturnal, and highly territorial, avoiding contact with humans and other cats due to their solitary and survivalist nature. Felis sylvestris lybica was not only an effective hunter, but also a prey animal too so relied on itself to stay safe and survive. However, these wildcats became attracted to high numbers of rodents living near newly developed grain stores during this time of early agriculture, giving them easy access to prey which benefitted humans by keeping the rodent population down. Those wildcats more tolerant to humans and the presence of other cats would have been more likely to gain access to prey, increasing their chances of survival and starting the process of domestication.
There is very little difference genetically between Felis silvestris lybica and today’s domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus). Our pet cats are still programmed as wildcats and behaviours such as hunting and defending their territory are ingrained in them, they cannot be just switched off because they don’t suit us, even if we don’t like them.
Despite the genetic similarity, there are large variations in the lifestyles of individual domestic cats. Some pet cats happily live alongside people in home environments, while others live freeroaming or as ‘Inbetweener’ cats where they have a caregiver that supports them in a more remote/hands off way. So, although there are commonalities in the needs and behaviours of all domestic cats, each individual is different. The temperament and subsequent behaviours of the domestic cat are influenced by their genetics, how well they are socialised with people (and other animals) during the early weeks of life and any ongoing experiences. No two cats are the same and thus they don’t all cope living in a home environment either, in other words – cats are complex and have different needs.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR CAT’S NEEDS
Like us, cats have needs, for example, a comfortable place to sleep and daily food but it’s really important to view these needs through cat’s eyes and not allow our own personal wants and needs to cloud these. Meeting your cats needs helps improve their wellbeing and enhances the bond with your cat too. According to the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) and ISFM (International Society of Feline Medicine) Environmental Guidelines, we should be looking at the ‘Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment’:
Pillar 1: Provide a safe place:
As self-sufficient survivalists, cats need a choice of safe places where they can perch, observe their surroundings and relax in privacy without being disturbed. This can prevent conflict between cats living in a multi-cat household. For those with outdoor access, this needs to occur both inside and outdoors.
Pillar 2: Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources:
Cats need easy access to all their key resources; this includes feeding and drinking areas, litter trays, scratching surfaces, play opportunities and resting and perching areas. While some cats successfully live alongside other cats, this can very much depend on the individual. Distributing multiple options for each key resource throughout the home can help prevent competition and conflict between cats living in the same household. Although eating together is considered a pleasant and social experience for people, this is not the case for cats and just because they will eat together or near each other, it does not mean they are enjoying the experience.
Stress-related behaviours in cats, include things such as indoor urine marking, scratching in areas undesirable to the owner and fighting. Overgrooming can also be a stressrelated behaviour, but any associated medical causes such as pain or allergies need to be addressed first. Providing optimum indoor litter tray facilities is essential for feline welfare.
Pillar 3: Provide opportunity for play and predatory behaviour
It’s completely natural for cats to engage in predatory behaviours, whether that’s play, hunting or both. If cats are not given the opportunity to perform these behaviours such as giving appropriate toys, play behaviours such as biting and scratching can be directed at people. One study showed that feeding a high meat diet and spending 5-10 minutes a day playing with cats reduced incidences of prey being brought home. International Cat Care are the custodians of International Cat Day (8th August) and this year we focussed on how spending time playing daily with your cat can benefit the physical and mental health of cats and strengthen the human-animal bond.
Pillar 4: Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction
We often show love and affection by choosing high intensity, low frequency interactions with other people (kissing, hugging etc), but for cats it’s different. Cats tend to prefer a more ‘little and often’ approach to interactions – this allows them to remain in control, giving the choice of whether they want the interaction to stop or continue.
It’s important to remember that cats’ social preferences are very individual. Sometimes cats just want to sit near us, but do not want to interact with us, and many cats are not lap cats. Respecting how cats want to interact with us is important to help maintain their wellbeing, and failure to do this can cause them to feel threatened or frustrated. There’s no doubt that people and cats can have fantastic relationships that benefit both parties, we just need to be mindful of how cats like to interact with us.
Pillar 5: Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell
Everyone knows that dogs have a good sense of smell – but did you know cats do to? They have a much better sense of smell than us and their world is controlled by smells that are often undetectable to us.
Cats use both odours (smells) and pheromones (specialised chemicals) for communication with each other and have a specialised organ situated within their hard palate called the ‘vomeronasal organ’, used for detecting and processing pheromones. This is why cats sometimes make a funny grimace face known as the ‘flehmen response’ after sniffing something interesting. The flehmen response is just a way of cats picking up and processing pheromones from another cat
Whilst we might find certain smells pleasant, cats might find them overpowering, so strong smells inside the home should be avoided where possible. This includes:
- Strong perfume
- Air fresheners
- Heavily scented disinfectants
- Scented candles
- Essential oils/ reed diffusers (toxic if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through skin)
International Cat Care defines welfare as equally encompassing both the physical health and mental wellbeing of the individual cat, which are intrinsically linked. In 2022 we developed our own ‘Cat Friendly Principles’, which focuses on feline welfare and underpins our work.
International Cat Care is a charity founded in 1958 by a small group of very passionate cat lovers, who were compelled to do something about the dismal lack of information about cat health and welfare.
The International Cat Care website also contains lots of useful information and resources on cat health and behaviour. You can also make a donation and help support International Cat Care’s vital work to help cats all over the world.