At their core, cats are wild animals. When we invite them to share our lives and homes, we can’t expect them to completely give up all their natural instincts. We have to look at our living space from cats’ point of view and provide an environment that keeps them stimulated.
Cats whose instinctual needs are not met will be stressed, and this stress will often demonstrate itself in behavior issues such as inappropriate elimination, scratching, aggression toward other cats, and even toward the humans in the household (see sidebar on petting and play aggression.) Accommodating cats’ needs is critical to ensuring that cats are happy and healthy.
This is especially important for kittens. Kittens have boundless energy, and we need to provide ways to allow them to safely discharge some of that energy through play and through an environment that offers stimulation as well as safe places to relax.
Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior
Play is crucial to keep kittens happy and healthy. “Kittens need to play,” says Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and author. “Through play, they develop coordination, learn boundaries and importantly, hone hunting skills that are important for survival.” Toys that mimic prey behavior, especially interactive, fishing-pole type toys, are a great way to allow kittens to not only encourage play and exercise, but to foster and increase the bond between cat and human. Structured play time, at least 10 to 15 minutes, two or three times a day, provides fun for kitten and human. Make the last play session of the day just before bed time so your kitten is tired out and sleeps through the night.
For the times when you can’t play with your kitten, puzzle toys are a great way to keep him entertained and mentally stimulated. These toys are designed to be filled with treats, and they challenge kitty to retrieve the treats through varied openings in the toys. Marilyn Krieger recommends rotating toys every week or so. “Like all cats, kittens like novelty. If the kitten does have a favored toy (and some do), don’t remove it—always make sure it’s available to her. The other ‘B list’ toys can be rotated out. They can be also become new by rubbing treats on them.”
Another great way for a kitten to exercise his need to play is with a companion of the same age or temperament. This is also the reason why many rescue groups will only adopt kittens in pairs. Few humans have the energy level, not to mention the time, to satisfy a kitten’s almost insatiable need for play and motion, but a well-matched feline buddy is always.
Provide safe spaces for hiding and relaxing
Every cat needs a safe space they can retreat to where they feel protected. Depending on your cat’s personality, this can be a cat condo, a raised perch, a cat carrier, or even a box. Typically, cats feel safest in spaces that are enclosed, but have a way for them to enter and exit from two sides. In a multicat household, you should have as many safe spaces as you have cats, and it’s best to not have them located too close together.
Provide a stimulating environment
In addition to safe hiding spots, cats also need stimulating spaces to offer entertainment and opportunities for play. One of the best ways to do this is through creating vertical space by offering various cat trees and perches. “Giving cats access to vertical space is not a luxury, or at least, it shouldn’t be,” says cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy in his new book, Catify to Satisfy: Creating Simple Solutions for a Cat-Friendly Home. This is especially important in multicat homes. Cats are territorial animals, and it’s not natural for them to live close together in small spaces. Adding a variety of cat trees and perches creates a perception of more space, and allows cats to get away from each other. “If you doubt this at all, just observe your cats’ behavior during the most socially active times of your day,” says Jackson.” If you have children and/or dogs, most likely at least one of your cats will spend time looking to get away from the chaotic foot traffic – and that means looking toward the heavens. Cats need vertical sanity.”
Scratching posts are another crucial component of an enriched environment. Scratching is a natural behavior for cats. Cats scratch to groom their claws, the scratching motion helps remove dead sheaths from their front claws (they usually chew them off their back claws). They scratch to mark their territory. Their front paws contain scent glands, and scratching leaves behind their unique signature on the object being scratched. They scratch for exercise, scratching stretches the muscles in the front legs and all along the back, and they scratch simply because it feels good. Providing appropriate scratching options will not only keep your carpets and furniture safe from the effects of sharp claws, it will also let your cat be a cat. Offer a mix of different scratchers, from horizontal to vertical models, and a variety of scratching surfaces. Some cats will prefer carpet, others will be drawn to sisal or cardboard.
Provide an environment that respects a cat’s sense of smell
Cats use their sense of smell to evaluate their environment. Scent marking, by rubbing their face and body against objects in their space, helps them claim territory. Try not to clean their scent off these areas, especially when a space or an object is unfamiliar to the cat, or when a new cat joins the household. A cat’s sense of smell is about 14 times as strong as a human’s. Avoid using highly scented products in your home. This is especially important when it comes to the litter box. Scented litters may be pleasant to the humans in the household, but the scent can be overpowering to cats, and can lead to litter box avoidance.
Provide easy access to food, water and litter boxes
Make sure your cats have easy access to food, water and litter boxes. In a multicat household, it’s important that they can access each of these areas without having to compete for them or being threatened by other cats. Food and water should never be placed close to a litter box.
Provide positive and consistent human-cat interaction
Cats have a reputation for being independent loners, but nothing could be further from the truth. Cats thrive on interaction with humans, and while your cat’s personality will determine what type of interaction and how much she will enjoy, consistency is important. Take your cue from your cat’s preference, and never force things. Let your cat initiate and choose how much human contact he wants.
This article was originally published in the 2016 issue of Kittens 101.