By Theresa DePorter, DVM, Dipl. ACVB and ECAWBM
I recently had the opportunity to visit the new feline research facility at Kingfisher International Inc. (KFI) in Ontario, Canada and you can see all of the kitties were curious to visit with me.
It’s a wonderfully designed cat-friendly vivarium staffed by well-trained and caring feline health professionals! The KFI cats are well cared for and well adapted to their lifestyle and the environment. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about how we should balance enrichment needs for all cats: cats in our homes, cats in our shelters and cats with jobs. One of my favorite books is about Dewey, the library cat. (http://www.deweyreadmorebooks.com/). Though as a kitten he was abandoned in a book drop one cold winter night in Iowa, Dewey lived a full, rich, rewarding lifetime sleeping in book shelves, greeting children at the library and resting on the warm copy machine. Throughout the book there are examples of compassionate care for Dewey and modifications to his environment for everyone’s well-being.
In a research facility these modifications are important too. Today we know just meeting the husbandry requirements and scientific constraints of regulatory studies may not be sufficient for the modern feline’s emotional welfare. There are ways research facilities, shelters and pet owners can create an environment best suited to their cat’s physical and behavioral health.
Nine simple strategies for enhancing feline enrichment and improving the cat’s welfare:
Family and socialization. The critical period for the development of feline family bonds occurs between 5 and 12 weeks of age. Cats that are introduced and form strong bonds at this age may be “purrfect” companions for a lifetime. When feasible, keep related animals together or introduce kittens to adults during this window for optimal socialization. At the KFI facility, staff members take time to play with the litters of kittens. Beyond socialization with people and animals, kittens should be introduced gradually and kindly to as many experiences as feasible that a cat may face as an adult, including, but not limited to, noises (vacuums to door bells), odors (cleaning products to perfumes), foods (treats, dry and canned food), types of litter, scratching posts and cat carriers. Cats are naturally wary of the unknown. Early exposures are important to build familiarity. Furthermore, each experience should be perceived as a pleasant experience. Avoid startling or scaring kittens since those associations may last a lifetime. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.
Predictable routines. Everyone likes knowing what is going to happen next and we know familiarity, consistency and routine provide comfort. In the real world, sometimes the only constant is change. Being flexible and adaptable is a good life skill for cats, too. Find little ways to introduce some variation into the daily routines without causing distress so the cats are better at adapting to modifications. By feeding cats in a few different locations or out of different bowls, commercial feeder toys or homemade food puzzles, the cat may learn to be more flexible and better adapt to changes in the future. Kibble or canned food may be placed in ice cube trays, empty tissue boxes, egg cartons, yogurt containers or cardboard paper towel rolls.
Object play. Cats like to watch, bat at and pounce on objects, especially when the object is about the same size as a rodent. Cats are true carnivores and excellent predators by nature. In group housing situations the toys should be easy to clean or inexpensive so as to allow frequent replacement. Examples include ping pong balls, golf balls, ice cubes, or shower curtain rings.
Space. Multidimensional use of space allows cats to get the most benefit from their living areas. Avoidance is normal for cats and readily available escape strategies are essential for emotional wellbeing. Some cats seek high hiding places while other cats seek low resting areas. No one can pick someone else’s “safe spot.” Cats need a readily available secure safe haven of their own choosing. Some cats prefer an elevated retreat. For those cat’s that prefer a bird's–eye view, add high resting areas by providing cat friendly shelves, elevated walkways or towers. There must be an escape route. Single-cat sized spaces are best. Other cats prefer to seek a low, covered retreat area; these cats may find comfort in tunnels, boxes or passageways behind furniture. No one likes being cold: a heated cat bed may provide optimal temperature regulation opportunities.
Music. Music may calm, influence moods or, at the very least, obscure noises which may otherwise startle a cat. Psychoacoustically designed music is available for cats, dogs and people which utilizes a principle of simple sound. Moreover, by minimizing intricate auditory information of intentionally selected, arranged and recorded music, we may provide easeful auditory assimilation. Through a Cat's Ear, Vol. 1: Music for Calming by Lisa Spector & Joshua Leeds is my own personal favorite (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/through-cats-ear-vol.-1-music/id653748425).
Meals. Cats are not social eaters; avoid a communal feeding routine. Widely distribute dry kibble feeding stations and if possible give each cat special treats or moist foods at unique times. Eating in close proximity may contribute to social conflict and tension. This may result in cats eating quickly or gulping food which is a contributing factor for obesity.
Never punish, startle, lecture or reprimand a cat for any misbehaviors. You may call, coax, sweet-talk, pick up a cat, or redirect a cat to another activity; but avoid punishment or any technique that makes the cat afraid and thus, flee and run. We can change a cat’s behavior while still being kind.
Play time. People and cats need social play. Provide play time with prey-type toys. “Da Bird” is a fishing pole toy which encourages healthy, safe, prey activities when supervised. Steve Dale shows how to play with your cat and make meal time a hunt: http://www.chicagonow.com/steve-dales-pet-world/2014/08/environmental-enrichment-for-cats/
Respect cats by understanding their unique body language and communication. Watch how your cat looks when you greet your cat. Cats will hold their ears forward and their tails up over their back (like a question mark) when they are most comfortable with the ensuing social interaction. You will know a cat is aroused, agitated or distressed when the ears turn to the side or back and the tail is level, low, or tucked while flipping back and forth. Cats Protection has developed an excellent educational video: “Body language in cats”
Pet cats have jobs too; my cat, Bacon, has plenty of important daily jobs: every morning he holds down the couch for a few hours; in the evening he walks back and forth across my laptop when I should take a break and at night he patrols for rodents. Some cats participate is useful and meaningful research. Cats are not just small dogs: we need research facilities and projects that focus on understanding this magnificent, curious and puzzling creature. From our homes, to shelters, to research facilities, we should consider the unique perspective of the cat and modify our interactions and the environment to celebrate the welfare of the cat. In NYC, there is a Meow Parlour, New York City's first permanent cat cafe, which provides a safe haven for adoptable felines and their fanciers alike. http://www.meowparlour.com/. Someday I want to visit a cat coffee shop; I will have a vanilla latte with extra cream.
Theresa DePorter, DVM is a board certified diplomate in veterinary behavior in both the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine (ECAWBM). She has been practicing behavioral medicine in southeastern Michigan since 1995 and sees behavior cases full time at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.