Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
Inconsistent weather outside, darkness inside, ice everywhere we look — this winter has been especially crazy. Many pets like to match their behavior to the crazy. For my pets this happens right at the start of winter, then again in February after months of darkness. I still walk the dogs, but what about cats? My cat typically spends a lot of her time sitting on my porch in the sun, and months of weather that is too cold for her gets her grumpy. After a nail trim the other night she chased one of my dogs around hitting him. Though he had nothing to do with her toes, he is the easiest target in the house.
For cats who go outdoors and hunt all summer, the transition to cold and having to stay inside more can lead to increased agitation. For cats who enjoy their outside time and Vitamin D even in enclosed spaces, being trapped inside can push them over a delicate happiness line. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to enrich your indoor environment to give your feline friends more to do. These tips apply to indoor-only cats too, and can help all cats lose weight while curbing bad behaviors.
Although many of our cats these days are couch potatoes, cats have gone through many less behavior changes than dogs over the years. There are many instinctual behaviors that they haven’t lost, and the more we can encourage these in play, the happier our cats will be. Additionally, many of our cats are taking the Garfield approach to life, and sleeping a lot in between eating a lot. When we can get them moving and thinking more, we can often shed some extra pounds while curbing boredom. As any of us who mindlessly snack while we watch TV know, boredom leads to eating more.
Many negative behaviors that we see in our house cats can be resolved with appropriate enrichment, as they stem from boredom too. Behaviors such as scratching furniture and going to the bathroom outside of the litter box can resolve if we direct their energy elsewhere. We always do a full physical exam and look at urine from cats who have been peeing outside the litter box, as it is often a medical issue. However, in some cases even after clearing up an infection the behavior persists from stress. In other cases, no infection has ever been present and all of the signs result from stress.
The next question is always: how in the world can my cat be stressed? It seems like most of our cats have a pretty cushy life! However, stress in cats comes from many things (from a housemate they don’t like to a litter they don’t like) and is always more prevalent when cats aren’t getting the stimulation they need.
Cats have a high natural chase and hunt drive. When they are kept indoors in a rodent-free environment (or so we hope!), there aren’t as many chances for them to stalk and hunt. I recently had a little rodent issue that my cat dutifully ignored, so just planting mice in your house won’t always help either. If you have ever seen a cat hunting, it is a pretty involved process. They usually find a trail, sit and wait for as long as it takes, then pounce when the chance comes. All of this integrates their mind and body.
I do not recommend bringing rodents into your home just for your cat’s entertainment. You will end up having a cat like mine who can’t be bothered to get fur in her teeth. Where does that leave us? We have to replace the mice with something more appropriate for our indoor cats to “hunt.”
Every cat has a favorite, but feathers on string, ropes over the tops of doors to hang down, and laser pointers are popular choices. Not only will these engage your cat and get them moving, but carving out time to play with your cat will also strengthen your bond. While many see cats as aloof, and some cats are, many crave attention and love from their owners just like dogs. Get several types, toys that have a bell, rustle, scratch or squeak. Have a toy basket and get a different toy out for each day so that they are new and exciting. Just leave a few down for everyday play and reserve the others for dedicated play time.
Another way to get your cat exercise while using their chase drive is to feed them meals of dry food by tossing kibbles across a floor (or up and down stairs.) This helps cats work off their calories while simultaneously letting them chase, catch and eat their meal.
Cats tend to jump up to high places before sleeping or grooming. While the threat of predators in our houses is pretty low, cats instinctively tend to seek high ground before letting down their guard. Cats that have a place to do this in our houses tend to be less agitated and able to spend more time in their comfort zone. This is especially good for multi-cat households, since it can provide everyone with their own “bedroom” area and decrease stress. There are many ways to create this environment. You can purchase tall, elaborate kitty condos that have beds and scratching posts. You can make a cat tower or simply attach a series of shelves that your cat can access (without anything on them). You can add any favorite beds or scratching posts to these. If your house is full, your wallet is empty and your carpentry skills aren’t up to snuff, then consider clearing any tall space. Dressers and tops of entertainment centers can make perfect spots — just make sure to be consistent and clear all tall furniture so that your cat doesn’t get confused about why that china vase was off limits.
Cats scratch things to sharpen their nails, spread their scent and stretch their muscles. The key is giving them something to scratch that is allowed. We certainly don’t want to encourage them to ruin furniture, so instead, we must replace it with something acceptable. Find out what your cat likes to scratch (soft cloth, rough cloth, rope, cardboard, sisal) and buy or make them scratch posts. Some cats prefer these to be horizontal, while other prefer them to be vertical. Make a couple of trial posts and pads. This will help them fulfill a natural urge while also encouraging them to leave your furniture alone.
I’m sure everyone has noticed this, but cats love to get into enclosed spaces like boxes and bags. Plastic bags have a much higher risk of suffocation or plastic ingestion, so I encourage boxes or paper bags. Cats can entertain themselves for quite a while just by playing in these homemade toys. Take advantage of this inexpensive play time and set up different types of bags or boxes.