According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine, “a cat’s level of comfort with its environment is intrinsically linked to its physical health, emotional wellbeing, and behavior.”
To that end, the AAFP and the ISFP developed five research-based guidelines known as the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment. Those pillars can help us provide the best cat environmental enrichment possible in our homes and daily lives.
Let’s explore how to make your home cat-friendly.
Cats like to feel safe. Ideally, you should provide a minimum of one safe space per cat in each of your cat’s main living areas. A safe space should fit your cat. The space should be at least partially enclosed, while also giving your cat a clear view of its surroundings.
Your cat will want a safe space that allows it to escape household commotion while remaining close enough to keep an eye on things. You should keep your cat out of places that could be dangerous, such as washers/dryers and cupboards with toxic cleaning supplies. You should also offer a choice of high and low safe spaces.
The optimal cat habitat will have natural light.
Convenient options for safe spaces include a shelf cleared for your cat, an open closet with articles of your clothing inside, or even under your bed. Cat beds and cat caves are comfortable places where cats can relax or hide. A cat hammock placed near a warm part of the room or a sunny window is another great option.
Cat trees will give your cat the opportunity to get up high. If space is at a premium, you can increase the amount of vertical space by adding perches, shelves, and cat trees, or even dividing rooms into several sections using vertical room dividers.
Cat tunnels serve both as a hiding place and a fun toy. If you keep your cat carriers out and open, your cats will be able to use them as safe spaces – and this has the added bonus of making it easier for you to transport your cats in their carriers
The key environmental resources for cats are food dishes, water bowls, litter boxes, scratching posts, and resting places. As with hiding spaces, there will be there will ideally be at least one of each resource per cat.
Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian behaviorist, explains the importance of cat environmental enrichment and resource availability with this analogy: “Have you ever avoided going to the restroom at your office because the coworker that you don’t get along with sits near it? Have you ever waited until they took their lunch break or even waited until you got home? A similar scenario happens every day, multiple times per day, in multi-cat homes when resources aren’t spaced out, except these cats never get to get away from each other.”
By providing a separate feeding station for each of your cats, you’re helping to ensure that each cat will feel secure while it eats. In my home, my younger cat doesn’t think twice about eating the food of the others, and so I feed her in a different room.
Animal behavior consultant Zazie Todd recognized that in multiple-cat homes, cats form social groups. In those cases, she said, it may be enough simply to provide each “group” with access to resources to avoid competition.
When it comes to litter boxes and scratching posts, start by providing different kinds of each so you can learn what your cat likes. Preventative Vet described the ideal litter box as being at least as long as your cat, from their nose to the tip of their tail, and its width should be at least as wide as your cat is long minus their tail, and with walls five to seven inches high. You should also consider the ideal location for your cat’s litter box, avoiding dark basements or confining closets.
Your cat’s needs will differ based on its age, mobility, spraying habits, and personal preference. Todd said that when it comes to scratchers, studies have shown that most cats like to scratch vertically on a sturdy post that’s taller than their body length and that cats prefer scratching posts made with sisal. However, all cats are unique, so your cat may like something other than the norm.
Even though domesticated cats don’t need to hunt for their food, they retain the instinct to do so. Your cat will benefit by replicating the prey sequence when it plays. For this reason, cat environmental enrichment should include careful attention to this sequence. The prey sequence consists of four phases.
First, cats stare at their prey and then slowly move into the best position to stalk it. Next, cats stalk their prey, wiggling their behinds to signal an impending attack just before springing into action. Third, cats pounce and grab their prey. Finally, cats roll onto their side and kick against their prey with their back legs while biting their prey.
There are different types of toys that can help evoke different phases of the prey sequence. For that reason, it’s important to provide your cat with a variety of toys. The four categories of toys are self-play (such as plush mice), battery-operated, puzzle toys/puzzle feeders, and interactive (such as wand toys).
Self-play toys simulate only the pounce and grab phase of the prey sequence. Battery-operated toys are powered to move on their own, which can simulate a more realistic prey object. Puzzles force cats to use their brains and bodies in ways that mimic predatory behavior. If you use a wand toy strategically, you can replicate the entire prey sequence.
To create the best cat environment, your cat should have access to a combination of these options.
HUMAN-CAT SOCIAL INTERACTION
Cats like interacting with people, but on their own terms. Each cat should have access to individual attention with you, but to foster positive interactions, you should also occasionally play with your cats as a group.
According to the five pillars, there are two ways you can give your cat a choice of interacting with you. One is to call your cat to you and wait to see if he or she will come. Another is to get down on your cat’s level and put out a finger or hand to see if your cat will approach.
Talking quietly and moving slowly can help put your cat at ease. Offering treats or toys might entice your cat to you. Just as importantly, when your cat moves away from you, accept his or her decision to end the interaction.
When your cat does interact with you, take the time to learn what your cat likes or dislikes, and then respect those boundaries. For example, most cats like being scratched on their head, their chin, and on their back close to their tail.
When cats head butt you, wrap their tails around your legs, slow blink, purr, or knead, they’re showing that they’re relaxed. The standard advice is to not rub a cat’s belly, but some cats like my former feral enjoy a gentle belly massage.
SENSE OF SMELL
The fifth pillar of a Healthy Feline Environment fascinates me the most because until learning about it, I’d never thought about the importance of the senses in creating a cat-friendly home. The fifth pillar says, “Cats use olfactory and pheromonal signals through the use of scent marking by facial and body rubbing. This establishes the boundaries of their core living area in which they feel secure and safe. People should be careful not to interfere with a cat’s olfactory and chemical signals and scent profile.”
Contained within The Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment are several tips for how to respect a cat’s sense of smell. First, provide plenty of places for your cat to scratch. The scent glands on your cat’s paws deposit pheromones onto objects they scratch.
Second, when possible, don’t remove objects that your cat has rubbed. Objects that your cat has marked help promote a sense of security and well-being. You should also avoid introducing competing smells, such as those that might come from scented litter.
Third, rub new cats and new objects with a fabric that has your resident cat’s scent. You also might need to do this when one of your cats has returned from a place with different smells, such as a vet or groomer.
In multi-cat homes, if the cats must compete for environmental resources, stress and even aggression can result. Although following the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment may not entirely resolve aggression issues, doing so will provide a solid start.
In what ways have you prioritized cat environmental enrichment in your home? We’d love to hear all about what makes your cat-friendly house unique!
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior coach, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses her research-based, positive reinforcement coaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats.