What a cat wants, what a cat needs


A brief guide to environmental enrichment from feline expert Dr. Ilona Rodan.

Time for play! (Getty Images)Long live cats! That's what everyone wants-you, the cat owner, the cat. But some cat owners may not understand that by bringing these playful yet predatory creatures into a home, the cats may be suffering from lack of enrichment. The problem with that? Less activity can lead to obesity. And these kitties can get really stressed with nothing to do all day, so bad habits might start to pop up-house soiling problems, furniture scratching or destruction, conflict with other cats and overgrooming. Stress can also lead to physical illness, such as feline idiopathic cystitis, the most common problem of the lower urinary tract. Even cats in multicat households can suffer these ill effects.

“Cat owners love their cats!” says Ilona Rodan, DVM, DABVP (feline practice). “Unfortunately, when we don't understand another species, it's not uncommon for us to make a mistake and not give them what they need. Many cats are obtained for free. And a little booklet doesn't come with them explaining what to do to take care of them-that's a big issue.”

Here's your chance to provide said booklet, or at least pass on the bare necessities to cat owners:

  • Incoming … Since cats are hunters, a bowl of food placed in front of them takes away the chance to act on natural instincts. “The problem is we put this high-calorie, dense food into a food dish, and there are often other cats eating nearby. That's not the way cats eat in the wild,” says Rodan. “They eat about eight to 20 small meals each day. Lots of exercise goes into the hunting and catching of these small prey.” To encourage more interactive feeding, Rodan recommends putting the food in food puzzles, providing frequent small meals around the house or tossing kibbles to mimic hunting behavior.

  • Outgoing … Litter boxes should be placed in different spots throughout the house and on each floor in a multilevel house so that a cat sitting at the top of the steps doesn't block another cat from getting to the boxes in the basement. “Three litter boxes all in one area are really just one litter box in the cat mind,” says Rodan. This is particularly important in multicat households so there is no competition for resources. Accidents may happen if a cat doesn't feel safe stepping into a box.

  • A place of my own. Speaking of safe, owners can make sure there are areas for cats to hang out without worry-safe spaces, says Rodan. A safe place allows a cat to feel protected, such as a cardboard box on its side, a cat bed with high sides or even a cat carrier. Also include places to perch, since cats like to be on high, looking down on us mere humans, so to speak.

  • • The play's the thing. “As hunters, cats need play,” says Rodan. “Play is really important to teach them to hunt.” Cats can and should play on their own, but at least some of the play should also be interactive, she says. But not with your hands! Wand toys and feathers are great ways to engage cats safely and bring out their pouncing prowess.

  • Common scents. Having familiar scents throughout the house can make cats more comfortable. That can mean feline facial pheromones (Feliway-Ceva), which mimic their own scent.

Each cat is unique, as your cat-owning clients will readily point out. But they all have some basics that can help them live comfortably behind closed doors. Rodan leaves you with this: “Cats are just not something to look at and to sit on your lap or to sleep with you. They need play and attention.”

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