As a behaviour consultant and cat sitter I have been going into cat guardians’ homes for 15 years and I have noticed that several basic feline welfare mistakes tend to crop up again and again. It is not that cat guardians don’t care about their cats rather they don’t take the time to view their homes from a cat’s perspective.
Litter Boxes-are by far the area where most cat guardians will make mistakes. Usually this involves cleanliness. Whenever I ask a cat guardian how often he or she scoops out the litter box the answer is almost always 'daily'. Yet, when I go into the home I find litter boxes that have obviously not been scooped for several days. Occasionally I find litter boxes that are in truly appalling conditions. I once encountered one that had not been scooped in so long that the stools were covered in white mould.
Cats are extremely clean creatures. They do not like to step into dirty litter boxes any more than we want to use an unflushed toilet. Indeed, some cats are so fastidious that they won’t step into anything but a freshly scooped litter box, and there are cats who prefer to have one litter box for urine and another one for stool. If the litter box is dirty the cat will likely find somewhere else in the home to eliminate. It is always best to be proactive where litter boxes are concerned. Preventing litter box avoidance is always the best option.
Another common mistake cat guardians make with litter boxes is not locating them in cat friendly areas. Litter boxes are tucked away in basements, laundry rooms, closets, and bathrooms. This isn’t necessarily bad, unless the litter box in the basement is so out of sight that it rarely gets cleaned, or the litter box in the laundry room is near loud appliances that may frighten a cat. No one wants a litter box right in the middle of their living room, and it is true that it is best not to locate the litter box in highly trafficked areas, but one key factor that is high on a cat’s list while eliminating is being able to see escape routes while in the litter box. In nature cats are vulnerable to predators when eliminating. Being able to see escape routes is a hardwired survival mechanism.
Not having enough litter boxes is another common mistake of the cat guardian. The general rule of thumb is one box per cat plus one. So, if you have one cat you should have two litter boxes and those two litter boxes should not be placed right next to each other or in the same general area. If you have three cats you should ideally have four litter boxes, and again these should be located in different areas of the home. Another litter box mistake I often see is litter boxes that are too small for normal sized adult cats. Cats prefer the litter box to be 1.5 times the length of their body (from tip of nose to base of the tail).
Food and water issues are another area where I see repeated mistakes. Humans tend to think that cats prefer their food and water dishes next to each other, because that is what we would want. But cats do not like to eat near their water source. Again, this is a hardwired survival technique. Cats do not wish to foul their water source with their food or attract predators to their water. Nor do cats want either their food or water located near the litter box or sleeping areas.
Not cleaning the food and water dishes daily. I have had clients tell me I don’t have to bother cleaning the food dish after each meal. Who wants to eat off a dirty dish? Cats don’t, they possess 200 million scent receptors compared to a humans’ meager 5 million. Foul odours in the food dish can even cause some cats to become anorexic and this can lead to serious medical problems.
Leaving dry food out at all times. Cats are not cattle being fattened on feed lots but sadly many cat guardian’s are feeding their cats as if they are. Firstly, dry food is not a species appropriate food for cats. It is too low in protein, too high in carbs and far too low in moisture. Secondly, dry food left out all day does go stale and in humid climates can become rancid. If you must feed your cat dry food feed very small amounts (as a treat) and make the cat ‘hunt’ for the food by using a treat ball or food puzzle. This is a far more natural way for a cat to eat dry food. In nature cats will eat multiple small meals each day AFTER having spent energy hunting that meal down and not every hunt is successful.
Lack of daily interactive play. Cats need to stalk, pounce, run and leap and cat guardians can provide for these needs by playing with their cats with interactive ‘wand’ type toys on a daily basis. Several scheduled 10-15 minute play sessions will make a world of difference in the mental and physical well being of your cat. I see many behaviour problems that are solved in part by implementing routine play sessions. Play alleviates stress and anxiety and helps build confidence. Interactive play is therapy for cats!
Lack of vertical space. Just as cats need to play they also need to jump and climb. Cats are able to jump 5 times their own height. Getting up high helps cats feel safer and more in control of their environment. Adding vertical space in the form of cat trees and climbing shelves is adding valuable territory for your cat and can help alleviate tensions in multi-cat households.
Lack of veterinary care. All cats should be examined by a veterinarian (but not necessarily vaccinated) once a year. Even if your cat seems perfectly healthy an annual trip to the vet is important. Cats are masters at hiding illness and are able to hide serious illnesses and disease processes until it is too late to affect treatment. As cats age they should be examined more frequently so that problems can be picked up and treated before they reach crisis point. There are many reasons why caring cat guardians don’t take their cats in for annual exams the most common being that it is such an unpleasant experience for both cat and guardian and causes much stress. In these cases the cat guardian should look into the possibility of a house call veterinarian. Most larger cities and towns have veterinarians who specialize in house-calls.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with over 20 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.