Activities & Enrichment Cats Life at Home

What Cats Want and Need: The Science Behind Their Happiness

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We share our hearts and homes with our feline friends. However, as undeniably deep as the connection with our cats goes, there are certain aspects of our lives that simply can’t be shared. That’s because as much as we love our cats (and believe they love us in return), when it comes to any two beings, especially individuals of different species, there’s always going to be a clash of perspective and potential for problems if those differences aren’t carefully managed and properly accounted for. 

For instance, despite their best intentions, humans can mistake what their cats want and need based on their own beliefs about feline preferences, rather than what’s actually fulfilling and desirable from the cat’s point of view.

We don’t know what we don’t know, but, as Maya Angelou would say, “When you know better, do better.”

To know better and become all the more equipped to do best by all cats in your company and care, Dr. Zazie Todd’s Purr is the holy grail of all things cat. Purr is an illuminating and entertaining read based on the latest scientific research, uncovering mysteries of the feline mind and unraveling perplexing feline behavior. With this information, readers can make more informed decisions about the activities, environments, and forms of interaction that most benefit the bond between people and cats and contribute to the cat’s overall wellbeing.

Purr deep dives into different issues impacting feline wellbeing, including offering extensive insight into the number-one welfare issue affecting pet cats[1], a poor home environment. Improving the cat’s environment is vital, as a substandard living environment exponentially elevates feline stress, in turn increasing the risk of feline behavior issues taking place, including high-risk problems like inappropriate elimination that if left unresolved drastically increase the cat’s risk of surrender.

Thankfully, there are plentiful opportunities to improve life for our cats, making small but meaningful improvements to their living space and routine that together contribute to the health and happiness of our feline friends.

One such provision that’s vital for cats to feel secure in their home is having easy access to a safe space to retreat and hide. Purr highlights a study[2] indicating that having a safe space to hide is more than mere luxury and is instead a basic, vital need. In one study covered in Purr, cats were offered access to areas that extended beyond their core living space (containing the essentials of food, water, and litter box), each area containing a certain object—a place to perch, a toy, or a box to hide in. On average, cats spent the most time in the compartment with the hiding box. Having a safe space to hide is an essential environmental element that may be missing for some cats.

A safe space ideally offers cozy quarters just large enough for the cat to comfortably fit their body in and turn around. It may be a cube-, dome-, or tentlike bed, a covered cat condo, or an accessible cardboard box. It can be a carrier left out for the cat to easily access with a blanket or towel draped over the top three sides with the door secured open to allow free access in and out.

Training cats to willingly enter their carrier is immeasurably valuable for lowering travel stress—whether to the veterinary clinic or across the country—and improving the ability to handle cats. Various tips for building happy associations with the carrier are offered throughout Purr[3]. Cats who were carrier trained prior to a vet visit had lower stress scores overall during their visit, with their more restful attitude starting on the drive and continuing throughout the veterinary exam. Carrier-trained cats were less likely to pant or attempt to hide on the car ride and some were even able to eat treats on the drive. At the vet, cats who were carrier trained were less likely to attempt to escape and spent less time hiding during the exam, with their exam being completed significantly faster and most cats voluntarily allowing the full exam to be carried out. In addition, when trained to a carrier with a removable top, cats opted to remain in the bottom half of their carrier during the exam, possibly indicating that they considered their carrier to be a safe space.

Another aspect of feline life that we may not always be aware of, but that’s core to how cats interpret their world, is adjusting the cat’s living environment in a manner that takes into account their sensitivity to smell. By being aware of a cat’s olfactory prowess, their humans can make small adjustments that on one hand help to calm and comfort and on the other stimulates healthy exploration and encourages play.

Similar to how the smell of fresh-baked cookies or chicken noodle soup evokes a sense of comfort and a nostalgic sense of “home” for a person, we can also offer cats reassurance through the use of calming scents such as lavender and chamomile or chemical calmers such as synthetic feline pheromones. Last but not least, their own individual scent or their colony scent—a blend of the scents of cats with whom they live on friendly terms—helps cats to feel safe and secure in their living space.

We humans may overlook the importance of scents of sameness for our cats and mistakenly take to regularly washing their bedding and wiping down other areas of frequent use even when they’re not soiled. For us, this is a routine way to keep the house clean and show we care in a way that works on human terms, but can be downright distressing for a cat.

Instead, reduce the frequency of unnecessary cleaning or washing of feline favorite places or bedding. Ideally these areas are spot cleaned only as necessary. Further, note where cats regularly rub their cheeks and body, such as corner moldings or chair legs. If possible, preserve these scents—which go unnoticed by humans—rather than wiping them away with cleaning products. Also, avoid strongly scented detergents and cleaning products. Opt for those that remove unpleasant scents without leaving behind a strong odor that’s likely to be offensive to a cat’s sensitive nose. 

A cat’s sense of smell can also be catered to in an enriching way by offering scents that are pleasing to cats, enticing them to interact with the scented object. One popular form of scent enrichment is catnip, which incites a euphoric, delighted response in about two-thirds of cats who have the inherited ability to respond positively to the compound. But scent enrichment doesn’t stop there. Other options may be even more potent for a greater number of cats.

Silver vine evokes a positive response in about 80 percent of cats, including some who don’t respond to catnip. Others are honeysuckle wood and valerian, which have a positive effect on about half of the cat population. Additionally, a lesser-known option that’s also reported to have a positive effect in some felines is kiwi vine, a plant that’s closely related to silver vine[4]. Yet another option to spice up a cat’s life and encourage play is to offer a prey-scented item or toy for the cat to interact with, such as rabbit scent. Cats offered a rabbit-scented item were more restful after interacting with the scented-item, indicating that it’s a fulfilling activity for the cat.  

Lastly, a catio is another great way to benefit cats who live indoors or who also have access to the outdoors. It’s been found that all cats had improved welfare when offered access to a catio space (a securely enclosed outside space that allows cats to enjoy the great outdoors but keeps potential predators and prey such as birds out).

These ideas are just the tip of the tail when it comes to the wealth of information offered through Purr: the ultimate guide to all things feline.

Purr Author Spills the Catnip Tea on Feline Happiness:

[1] According to research published in Veterinary Record, Pg. 18 and 19 Chapter 1, footnote #13

[2] Behavioral Processes pg. 45, citation 3

[3] Pg. 92

[4] 121-23

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Mikkel Becker is the lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. She is a certified behavior consultant and trainer who specializes in reward-based training that’s partnered closely with the pet’s veterinary team. Mikkel is the co-author of six books, including From Fearful to Fear Free.

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