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2 Ways to Make a Cat Happier

Getting tuned in to their individual personality and needs.

Key points

  • Thinking about how to make your cat (even) happier is good for them and for their relationship with you.
  • Don’t use punishment because it can make your cat stressed and affect your relationship with them.
  • Enrichment is a great way to let your cat engage in normal feline behaviours and make them happier.
Ian Livesey/StockSnap
Source: Ian Livesey/StockSnap

A couple of years ago, I wrote about why it’s happiness, not obedience, that counts for pet dogs. But what about pet cats? Cats’ happiness matters too, of course.

There are many different things we can do to make cats happier. Here I’m going to focus on two things that are easy for everyone. The first is aimed at reducing stress, while the second involves finding things your cat loves to do.

1. Don’t punish your cat.

No one expects cats to be obedient, but they are still sometimes subject to harsh training methods. Some people, unfortunately, use aversive techniques like squirts of water or the noise from shaking a can of pennies to try to stop cats from doing things. These work because they are unpleasant for the cat and frighten them.

In a way, it’s a bit of a surprise that people use aversive methods with cats, because it’s relatively common to hear stereotypes and idioms that imply cats can’t be trained. For example, when people complain about the difficulties of herding cats or mistakenly blame cats’ behaviour on spite or hate.

But we do have expectations of cats’ behaviour. And somewhere in this use of punishment is a misconception. It’s as if people think that only aversive methods will work to change behaviour, when, in fact, cats can learn through positive reinforcement too.

Just as the use of aversive methods has risks for dogs, like the risk of making them fearful, anxious, or stressed, they have the same risks for cats. In turn, this may cause more behaviour issues. And since your cat may associate the punishment with you, instead of with whatever they were doing, it can affect their relationship with you, too.

It’s important to learn about cat behaviour and provide cats with what they need. For example, sometimes people punish their cat for scratching in a place the person doesn’t like, such as the sofa. But scratching is a normal behaviour for cats, so they have to scratch somewhere. Amongst other things, scratching helps to keep their claws in good condition. This means we have to provide scratching posts that the cat will like to use, which typically means something nice and tall and sturdy. Some cats also like a horizontal surface to scratch. And we can use positive reinforcement to encourage them to use that post more. Simply give them a treat immediately after they’ve used their scratching post.

Incidentally, if your cat is elderly, and especially if they are indoors-only, a scratching post is not enough to look after their claws: you may need to trim their claws, too (or ask your vet clinic to do it for you).

2. Provide more enrichment for your cat.

While stopping the use of punishment is about reducing stress, it’s also important to think about providing positive things for your cat to do. This is where enrichment comes in. Enrichment means making changes to improve the environment and give an animal (in this case, your cat) more opportunities to engage in species-specific behaviours that are interesting and stimulating and fun for them. This can help to stop your cat from getting bored and is especially important if your cat is indoors-only.

There are many different ways to provide enrichment for your cat, including making more time for play with a wand toy, making more toys available for individual play, giving your cat more access to high up places, providing hiding places like cardboard boxes and tunnels, giving them more cat beds or an upgrade for their existing beds, letting them have some paper to shred, improving the view from a favourite window, and so on.

Always give your cat a choice of whether or not to interact with the enrichment. Some cats, especially if they are shy, may need a bit of time to get used to a change in their environment, so let them approach in their own time. And if you find something new that they like, whether it’s a new spot on top of a bookshelf where they can perch or some extra time with you, keep it up!

Happy Cats

There are lots of ways you can make your cat even happier. The checklist at the end of my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, is a good place to start. You can also pick things that you know your cat loves to do and make more time for them, whether it’s sitting on your lap on the couch or chasing the wand toy around.

If there are behaviour issues, don’t use punishment; seek help sooner rather than later, and if it’s a sudden change in behaviour always see your vet in case of a medical cause. If there are things that make your cat fearful or anxious, find ways to deal with those too, such as training your cat to go in the cat carrier.

Having a happy cat means being tuned in to their individual personality and their needs. When we provide cats with what they need, it means they will have good welfare, they will be less likely to have behaviour issues, and more likely to have a good relationship with us. And although people don’t think about obedience for cats, we can think of training them with positive reinforcement, and we should think about their happiness, too. After all, I think all cat lovers want a happy cat.

Facebook image: Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock