Understanding what cats need is vital to keep them happy

Are we indulging our cats or indulging ourselves?

Understanding what cats need is vital to keep them happy! For most cats who come and go, interaction with their human(s) is largely about convenience. Humans provide a range of functional rewards such as food, safe and secure sleeping areas, warmth and comfort as well as social interaction.

Cat exploring the house

However, most cat owners understand cats seek our attention one day and aren't bothered the next! This is probably because their changing hierarchy of needs reflect a requirement for reward in a different order. If hunting is the driving behaviour of the moment, anything else will come second.

We think that we are training our cats to fit in within our family life but, mostly, our cats are training us. If a cat doesn't like a certain food she won't eat it because outside there's a huge cafeteria in the long grass. Very soon, to get our own reward in the form of watching our cat eat the food we've lovingly put down for her, we'll replace the rejected food with something else. Until we find something she likes to eat.

Cats like safety and have a genetic need for security against predators. Because we know that cats like to have somewhere to hide, we buy special beds or create special places that facilitate this. Many cats would be happy with a cardboard box to sleep in but most of us feel the need to indulge our cats more.

Cats need freedom of choice

We tell ourselves that some cats are almost entirely nocturnal by choice; but it's possible that choice may be driven by factors we don't understand.

In the main, cats don't like to fight. This stems back to a time when cats had to survive in the wild and any injury could prove fatal; either through trauma, infection or the loss of the ability to hunt.

Recent work has shown that, outside our doors, a complex, social, feline network is in operation. Cats soon learn the safer times to go out to avoid confrontation. Unless, of course, they want to fight. This may colour her choice of timing and even the route she might take when she does go out. Fitting a cat flap means we allow our cats to come and go as they please. However, that choice is dictated by a social hierarchy that we don't understand.

Cat at home

Allowing our cats the freedom to choose when to come and go keeps them safe, as well as happy.

Cats need activity and food

Just like us, cats need both mental and physical stimulation. Allowing them to hunt and roam provides most or all of the stimulation they need.

Recent work has shown that domestic cats may have a territory that extends for several miles. When they get home, their needs vary: for sleep, for some social interaction, and, often, for some additional food. Roaming consumes a lot of calories and not all cats eat the prey they kill. Some cats may not be succesful in killing enough prey to provide a proper balanced diet. It's vital that owners understand that cats are not vegetarians and cannot synthesise certain key amino acids. Fortunately, these can be now found in all commercially available complete diets.

Indoor cats need mental stimulation

Unlike some of us, cats are natural athletes who like to run, jump and climb. Unless we provide opportunities for them to do these activities indoors, we deny them the chance to work off the excess energy. We also deny them the mental stimulation that outdoor activities provide.

On the positive side, an indoor cat is safe from predators and disease, from traffic and from confrontation with other cats. Understanding the need to keep indoor cats happy and occupied falls squarely on the owner. There are many excellent activity toys for cats on the market, as well as structures that allow them to climb and hide - both natural behaviours for any cat.

Cat eating it's food

Cats feel safer higher up because in the wild most predators are found on the ground. In our homes, cats often prefer to sit on the kitchen worktop or a window sill as these places seem safer and allow a better viewpoint. Cats are naturally curious and are interested in most things that move. If we don't let them out, we need to fulfill their need to climb, chase, run and pounce. This often involves toys that require interaction on our behalf. That commitment to provide all the environmental enrichment our cats need is the trade-off for keeping them indoors.

Does my cat need a friend?

Possibly not! Deciding to provide a friend as a companion for our cat is often a recognition that we may not be providing for all of our cat's needs. Understanding what cats need means realising that cats don't hunt in pairs and, left to their own devices, wouldn't choose to share their feeding, sleeping or toileting arrangments with another cat.

Some cats have grown up in multi-cat households and are fully accepting of sharing territory. Nevertheless, many cats won't drink from the same water bowl, use the same litter tray or come for cuddles if a competitor is around.

Introducing another cat into the indoor-cat's home is often an indulgence for ourselves rather than for our cat. It should be done very carefully - if at all.

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