Whenever cat foster Carolyn Mitchell used to turn on her bathroom faucet to wash her hands, an orange and white cat named Spike would rush to her side.
“He would come screaming in,” she recalls. “He wanted to drink out of the sink.”
Spike refused to drink or eat out of small bowls because he didn’t like his sensitive whiskers touching the sides – a phenomenon in cats dubbed “whisker fatigue.” So Mitchell, an active cat foster for Feral Feline Friends of East Tennessee, invested in water fountains and gigantic bowls to feed her foster cats, like Spike. She even leaves a big bowl for water in the bathtub that the faucet can drip into.
“You’ll see a lot of cats reach into a water bowl with their paw and lick the water off their paw, and people think, ‘Oh, that’s so funny. That’s so cute.’ Well, I think that’s whisker fatigue,” she says. “So I have big wide bowls.”
We can make many simple fixes in our homes to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress for kittens and cats to help them thrive, says Leslie Dunham, DVM, medical director of Fear Free certified Gentle Touch Animal Hospital in Denver, Colorado.
Inspired by the work of British veterinarian and animal behaviorist Sarah Heath, Dr. Dunham created an oral presentation about that very subject titled “The Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment.” Her recommendations include the following:
No. 1: Provide a safe place. For instance, place a cat tower in a quiet room where they can withdraw. “Cats are private. They like to go up high and watch things,” Dunham says. “Cats think vertically. I actually had a technician build shelves on her walls so that her cats could travel on the shelves up on her walls around her whole house. She’s got a bunch of cats and a bunch of dogs, so the cats travel on those shelves – they don’t even walk on the floor.”
Just be sure shelves are large enough that cats can stretch out if they like and have a “grippy” texture with a lip so cats don’t slip off the edge, she adds. You can find other ways to enrich the environment with cat furniture here.
No. 2: Separate key resources. When it comes to key resources such as food, water, and litter boxes, Dunham recommends at least two of each, noting that the number of litter boxes should equal the number of cats in the household plus one.
Put resources in different areas; cats don’t want their food and water next to the litter box. Access to resources shouldn’t be a one-way street. Make sure there’s an entrance and exit to prevent trapping or guarding.
“Don’t put all of the resources into one room, because if you have multiple cats and they don’t get along, one cat can essentially sit in front of that doorway and block all resources from the other cat,” she says. “If you have a multilevel home, don’t put all of the resources downstairs, because the cat can block that stairwell.”
Change drinking water daily. Scoop litter daily, too. If your kitty has toileting issues, clean the box and change the litter weekly.
No. 3: Mimic predator-prey behavior with your play. When playing a game of chase with a laser pointer or a string toy, let your cat catch the prey every now and then so they don’t get discouraged. If you’re using a laser pointer, have it land on a space where your cat can pounce and “catch” it. Rotate toys so cats don’t get bored and modify play for older cats by slowing down.
Dunham’s tuxedo cat Penny, who knows the cues “sit” and “shake,” enjoys hunting for little toy mice with cat food inside that Dunham hides around their home.
No. 4: Provide predictable human to cat interaction. This ranges from spending a lot of time with kittens and cats to socialize them to giving cats choices and listening to what they want to do. For example, if you invite your cat to join you on the couch but they don’t, avoid picking them up and bringing them over.
“Try something else, like, ‘If you don’t want to come over here, how about we play with this toy?’ If they don’t want to, go get something else instead of just throwing the toy at them or something,” she advises.
No. 5: Remember their sense of smell. “Cats communicate a lot through the sense of smell and through olfactory means,” Dunham says. “Cats are always rubbing up on things like edges of walls, their humans. It brings them comfort to have their own scent around.”
With this in mind, it’s best not to clean all of the cat beds or areas at one time. Either leave the scents for the cat, or clean in stages, Dr. Dunham recommends.
Having a contented cat will help you recognize behavior changes that could be signs of a medical issue. As Dunham says, “Behavioral issues at home are medical until proven not.” So share changes with your veterinarian and then adjust accordingly. For instance, a cat diagnosed with arthritis might prefer a horizontal scratching post to a vertical one since they can’t stand on their hind legs to scratch.
If a urinary tract infection or other veterinary issue isn’t causing your cat to eliminate outside the litter box, consider where you keep it. Avoid the laundry room because if the washing machine buzzer sounds, it can scare the cat away from their box, never to return.
Finally, consider enrichment, like leaving the TV on when you’re gone.
“Leave your window blinds up and curtains open so they can see what’s going on outside,” Dunham suggests.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.
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Published May 8, 2023