We've spent a lot of time researching cats. They kind of feel like part of our team now.
Cats in a hospital or cattery will almost always get enough food, water and appropriate veterinary care. But with the traditional cage system, they don’t have the opportunity to express their cat behaviours or avoid things that cause them distress (eg most of the normal sights, smells and sounds of a busy vet or cattery). It's our mission to change that.
We explored how cats behave both in and out of their usual environments. We talked to loads of experts about how to create accommodation that feels comfortable and safe for cats. They all told us that there are two main areas where we needed to focus: decreasing stress and enriching the environment. To do this, we needed to understand what cats really are. Here's some of what we know.
Cats are territorial
A cat's territory is almost everything. It can be hard to hear as a cat owner but cats are often much more bonded to their territory than to their people. Cats outside their territory feel unsafe. The less well socialised or naturally anxious, the more unsafe a cat will feel. Feeling unsafe triggers defensive behaviour such as hiding or becoming aggressive. This is why perfectly sweet cats at home can become complete spitfires at the vet or cattery.
A natural territory consists of a larger area (for food hunting/exploring), a smaller area that will be vigorously defended and a small safe private den where the cat can retreat to. It will usually have a few high perches for observing and napping in safety. The water should be away from the food (cats prefer water that isn't near the meaty stuff they eat) and both food and water should be far away from the toilet. Territories aren't fixed – they increase or decrease according needs and they can overlap with other cats' territories, but they'll tend to 'time share' to avoid contact.
While our pet cats have all of their 'resources' provided, they retain the drive to carve out a territory. Both male and female cats mark their territories with smell and sight signals such as rubbing on objects (including the people in the house), spraying urine and scratching on vertical surfaces (which is smell and visual). They also tend to be concerned about intruders (cat or human), especially those who invade their protected spaces.
When we confine cats to small territories in catteries or hospitals, we still need to provide elements of a natural territory so they can express their cat behaviours. Key elements include a small, private spot for sleeping and hiding (preferably elevated), separate toilet, feeding and drinking facilities, and an area for exploring.
Cats are highly sensitive to smells
We readily appreciate how dogs use their sense of smell, but because cats don't tend to shove their noses into everything we don't realise how scent sensitive they are. Cats use pheromones and other smells from their scent glands (lips, chin, top of head, base of tail, between their toes and around their bum) as a means of social communication. They can also use urine marking (spraying) or uncovered faeces for communication. They're usually saying 'This is my territory, get lost' when they're doing this. It can be a way that cats express feeling threatened or highly emotional.
When cats can't smell any familiar scents, or worse still, they're overwhelmed by the scents of strangers, they can become highly anxious. Again, this can trigger behaviours like hiding and aggression. When cats are staying away from home, it can be a good idea to bring something (eg bedding) from home to create a bit of scent comfort.
It's important to clean away the smell of other animals (so we need non-porous surfaces) when we're working with cats. Strong disinfectants can be as overwhelming as the pong of other pets, so we need to make sure that surfaces are rinsed well after cleaning.
Cats are clean
Cats like to keep themselves and their environment tidy. Happy healthy cats spend almost 10% of their awake time grooming themselves – removing parasites and keeping the highly sensitive hairs on the coat free from dirt. Reduced grooming might be a sign of pain or disease. Too much grooming may be a self-soothing activity to cope with anxiety.
The consensus is that cats seem to prefer clay-based litter that's deep enough to bury urine and faeces (ie around 3 cm deep). And they like a toilet location that is away from feeding, sleeping and activity areas – somewhere secluded and quiet is ideal as doing the business is a time of high vulnerability. The placement of the litter tray can affect feeding and relaxation.
Understanding cats' cleanliness needs is not only important for those working with cats but also for cat owners. Many owners seek advice about cats peeing or pooing outside of the litter tray. The main reasons cats will do this are:
- dislike of the tray, litter or site (including moving the litter tray from a favourite spot to site that feels unsafe)
- aggression from other cats (these could even be outside) or tension in a multi-cat household
- having an unpleasant experience in the litter tray (eg dirty litter; pain such as arthritis or urinary tract disease; fear)
- lack of training
Cats are hunters
No matter how well fed, cats are still hunters and they need the opportunity for play that expresses hunting behaviours. These behaviours are triggered by sight, sound and smell of 'prey' rather than hunger. We usually see these behaviours most during the peak activity times for a cat, which are dawn and dusk.
The hunter nature of cats needs to be appreciated in two ways. The first is that we need to provide environmental enrichment to allow play. That one is kind of obvious – no one wants to live in a barren environment. The other is less so. Because cats have evolved to catch and eat regular small meals, their digestive systems and our feeding patterns often clash. That's usually the reason why cats that seem hungry might have a few mouthfuls and walk off. It's not that they don't like the food or that they weren't really hungry, it just doesn't take much to satisfy them. Of course, there are some cats that act like Labradors and hoover up anything put in front of them.
Although cats like a certain amount of routine and predictability, they can also become bored. So it's important to change up their toys or things to watch, particularly during extended stays.
Cats are independent and have long memories
Because we're social animals, we tend to project this onto our cats. But cats don't need other cats to get by – they don't hunt in packs, they don't share prey and they don't group raise their young. A cat is a self-sufficient being. In fact sharing territory with another cat can be extremely stressful. This is why we want to minimise cats seeing, hearing or smelling each other when staying out of home.
Yes there are cats that live together. You might see colonies of stray cats or farm cats living together – these usually consist of related females that have grown up together and don't need to compete for food or shelter. They don't form a structured pack like dogs and there's no dominance hierarchy as such. When pet cats live together we tend to see two situations. One, the cats live in separate territories in the house and time share resources. Or two, the cats genuinely appear to get along, showing friendly social interaction like mutual grooming and eating together without competition. The second situation is more likely if the cats have grown up together and/or they've been well socialised as kittens. There is a third situation. Some cats will never really accept living with another cat – they'll show signs of ongoing stress such as hiding, aggression, urine marking, leaving faeces uncovered and not interacting with people either.
Socialising of cats occurs very early in life (between 2 and 8 weeks of age). What they're introduced to then, stays with them for life. This not only refers to how they get along with other cats, but with people and other animals too. Kittens that have positive human contact between 2 and 8 weeks of age will usually enjoy human company later on and tend to cope better around strangers like at the vets or cattery.
Cats have long memories. A single unpleasant experience as a kitten or even as an adult cat can affect all future interactions. This is why it's so important to adopt a cat friendly approach – the better you are at handling cats, the better cats are at being handled in the future.