How do I know if my cat is happy?

How do I know if my cat is happy?

The exact beginnings of cat domestication is unknown, however, we do know that cats and humans have had a companionable relationship for thousands of years and that these bonds play a significant role in modern-day households. More and more people are selecting cats as their pet of choice: they make us happy, are self-cleaning, and generally slobber a whole lot less than their canine counterparts! But cats are renowned for their aloofness and independence, so how do we know if our feline friends are content with their existence? How do we know if they are happy?

Recent studies suggest that the cat owner (commonly known by cats in 2021 as ‘the hooman’) has a significant impact on the quality of a cat’s life1. One study found that from a selection of cats from cat-loving homes where 90% received ‘good quality of care’, only 11.2% of these cats were deemed to have a high quality of life, and a whopping 83.9% demonstrated abnormal behaviours2.  Ademalli et. al. conclude: “…even though the owners paid attention to the care and the physical aspect of their cats, they did not respect their behavioural needs3. Wow. I immediately wondered how our household stacked up in terms of cat welfare.

If a cat’s wellbeing is directly related to their owner’s choices- the environment we create for them in the home, and the opportunities we provide for them ‘to cat’ – then, it’s critical for us to understand exactly what being a cat entails.

How do I give my cat what they need?:

An undomesticated cat has a significant natural roaming range of up to several square kilometres4and when this instinct is curtailed, cats can experience significant frustration and ill health as a direct result5.  Many cats have become captives in their own homes, experiencing similar behavioural consequences as zoo animals6. Confined cats can experience issues with toileting, dermatitis from over-grooming, inter-cat aggression, irritability and aggression towards owners, and destructive behaviours7. Domestic confinement is a choice being made by an increasing number of cat owners, and in some instances is council-mandated, making it even more critical to ensure our households are set up as cat-conducive environments.

How, exactly, do I do that?

1. Your cat needs to feel safe

Cats, like humans, need places that are solely theirs, where they feel safe and secure. They need soft, warm, and comfortable bedding in various places around the home where they can retreat for some me-time; to clean, chill, or to sleep. For a happy, well-adjusted cat, place bedding in high places, as well as cozy places such as a cat cave in which they can hide away9

Cats love privacy! A cat that is afforded these spaces can choose when they seek solace, and when they want a snuggle with their humans. ‘According to Herron et. al., ‘owners should be advised to let the cat determine the timing and duration of contact with non-prey species to enhance the cat’s perception of control’. Providing room for your cat to detach when they choose is critical10.

2. Your cat needs to climb

An enriched indoor environment needs to allow your cat to express their innate behaviours, such as the desire to climb and to get up high. All species of cat will climb and jump, and your feline will seek lofty places in the home in order to feel secure and comfortable11. To create a stimulating and safe environment for your cat, vertical spaces are essential. High shelves and platforms on walls or cat trees create great vantage points, as well as the opportunity for complex active play and a retreat when they choose to rest.

Consider ways to provide access to heights in your home for your cat, whether through existing furniture and structures,  or the addition of intentionally designed cat furniture.

3. Your cat needs to scratch

A part of a cat’s natural behaviour repertoire is also the need to scratch. Scratching makes for healthy claws and is a form of ‘visual and pheromonal marking’13. An obvious way to avoid your cat scratching valuable items such as your lounge is to provide alternative, scratch-appropriate, items. However, these introductions don’t always appeal to your feline as a preferred option. 

So what should I look for in a scratcher? 

Cats are all unique and have different scratching preferences. Most cats are happy to choose between carpet and sisal and will tend to scratch whichever option you choose. If your cat continues to scratch your pot plants or furniture, they are telling you that they don’t fancy your selection and that you need to consider choosing a different texture for their scratching pleasure!

Cats tend to scratch in vertical places where they spend most of their time and most often stretch and scratch when they wake from a nap14. Place scratchers in your cat’s favourite spots in the house, and near places where they nap.

4. Your cat needs mental stimulation

Your cat is a smart cookie, and just like you, can easily get bored. Outlets for play are essential for a happy, healthy cat. Play behaviours are linked to a cat’s predatory nature and will ‘enact a sequence of stalking, chasing, pouncing, and biting’15. Again, your cat will have their own ideas about what makes a great toy, but consider toys that mimic nature, such as mouse-shaped/sized toys, and toys featuring feathers and tails. Cats, like children, can grow bored with the same toys, so consider having a rotation system where you bring out and hide toys to maintain interest.

Despite a cat’s innate desire to roam outside, it is possible for your cat to live a long, safe, healthy, and behaviourally well-adjusted life inside the home.
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