Effect of Environment on Feline Behaviour

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Introduction

As solitary hunters, cats are highly dependent on their environment and territory. It is important to provide cats with a home that meets their needs, especially if several cats are sharing the same place. Otherwise there is risk of the cats suffering from stress and behavioural problems such as aggression, house soiling or indoor urine marking.

Any changes to a cat's environment may have a profound effect on its well being. In particular, the home, which should be the cat's ‘core territory’, is a crucial source of security for the cat. Proper introduction to a new home reduces stress and the likelihood of fear problems. Facilitating adaptation to this new core territory also reduces the risk of the cat straying or trying to return to its original territory after a house move.

Successfully learning about a new environment depends upon already having somewhere safe to return to, because normal exploration of a new environment follows a star-shaped pattern extending out from a place where the cat feels safe. Any fearful event will cause the cat to return briefly to its place of safety. Without this the cat will experience considerable anxiety and fear, which may create long-term aversions to the stimuli the cat encounters during the first few hours in a new location. Unfamiliarity with an environment can significantly alter a cat's emotional response to a situation; for example, a well-socialised cat may be confident around lively children when they are in an environment that it feels safe in, but feel fearful of the same boisterous children when in a new environment. This kind of encounter can condition fear reactions that continue to plague the cat’s relationship with the children even once it has settled into the new home. It is therefore essential that the cat accepts and feels safe in the new environment before encountering any potential stressors.

Adequate Environment for Cats

Most cats in there UK are allowed some degree of outdoor access, but a significant minority are kept indoors. In all cases, cats need a stimulating environment to satisfy their behavioural needs and avoid unnecessary stress. If a cat is not permitted to go outside, it is even more important to make sure that the indoor home environment is suitable. Resources such as litter trays, food and water bowls, sleeping places and hiding places must be provided at a level that enables all cats in the household to access them without competition with other cats. It is important to allow cats free access to all the resources without human intervention. The home should be equivalent to the cat's core territory; a place in which resident cats do not expect to encounter unfamiliar cats. Access to outdoor space should be provided using an electronic cat door that only permits resident cats to come and go.

The cat’s basic needs are for:

  1. Space (including access to height)
  2. Resources (food, water, latrines, resting places)
  3. Opportunities to perform normal behaviour (hunting, clawing etc.)
  4. Privacy (opportunities to withdraw from social contact and to perform certain activities, such as urination, in private)
  5. Choice (the need to have alternative places to eat, rest, play and go to the toilet)

Indoor Environment

Space

Cats should be provided with lots of opportunity to climb and explore. For example shelves at different heights, cat furniture and access to the tops of cupboards and wardrobes.

Resources

Cats are solitary hunters but they are able to live in groups as long as they have access to an excess of resources, particularly food. Given free choice, cats eat at least 10 small meals each day, and they follow a daily routine of territorial patrolling, hunting, and scent marking. Territorial scent marks are refreshed at specific sites at similar times each day, in order to reaffirm a boundary when other cats are not present.

The solitary independent nature of cats makes them susceptible to stress and frustration in some commonplace situations:

  • Waiting for food
  • Eating at set meal times
  • Queuing for the use of a litter tray
  • Waiting to be let outside
  • Accepting the owner’s control over their activities

To reduce stress for cats it is essential to make sure that they have access to what they need without conflict either with people or the other cats in the household.

In a multi-cat household, each cat needs a choice of several places to eat, drink and rest, so that cats do not have to compete for the same toilet or food bowl. Enabling the cats to live independent lives actually increases the chances that they will live happily with each other. Within a house there may be one or more “factions” of cats. Cats within these factions may tolerate shared access to certain resources and locations. They may be quite confrontational with cats that are not part of their faction, and will find sharing resources with those cats much more stressful. This is normal behaviour for cats but it becomes a problem when two competing factions share a home. If these groups share a single feeding place in the kitchen then one group may monopolise the food or all the cats may be hesitant about gaining access to it.

The answer is to give the separate factions, or individuals, their own places to feed, rest, drink and go to the toilet. In this way they can lead separate lives in the same home without conflict. This also means giving the cats back control over when they eat and gain access to certain parts of their territory.

General guidelines are:

  • Provide access to food at all times (dried food preferably).
  • Increase the number of feeding and drinking places, situating them in areas of the home where the cats tend to spend most of their time.
  • Increase the number of resting areas available to the cats as well as their access to three-dimensional space within each room (places to climb and hide).
  • Give cats access to outdoor space without restriction (if it is safe to do so).

Food provision: Feral and wild cats spend 8-10 hours each day foraging and hunting. To satisfy this behavioural need and use up this part of the cat's time and energy budget, it is best to provide food using simulated foraging (activity feeders).

Water provision: Cats do not regulate their water balance efficiently, as in a wild or feral state their diet has a naturally high water content. Increased water throughput is beneficial to sustain normal renal and urinary tract function. Cats can be encouraged to drink a larger fluid volume by providing a recirculating-type water fountain. The water movement and water slope make it much easier for the cat to drink, and can significantly increase water consumption.

Resting places: Choice over resting places is particularly important because cats move from one place to another every few days so that they can avoid parasites like fleas.

Latrines: Typically cats should be provided with one litter tray per cat plus one extra. This is because in the wild cats do not share latrines and they prefer to have separate ones for urination and defecation. It is possible to provide outdoor toilets for cats so that fewer indoor litter trays are needed; these are sand filled holes at the perimeter of the garden in locations where the cat can have some privacy whilst eliminating.

Opportunities to Perform Normal Behaviour

Clawing is destructive and problematic for owners. It is important to give cats opportunities to claw so that it does not become a problem in the first place. Cats claw for a number of reasons, including when they need to stretch back muscles after waking, to mark boundaries of territory, sharpen claws or gain attention from their owners. Sensible places to position clawing posts are therefore close to where cats rest, near to cat doors and at the edges of the garden and in living rooms close to furniture or the television (where the cat may claw to get attention or a reaction from its owner). Cats have preferences for particular kinds of material to claw. Upholstered furniture is often used for stretching and claw sharpening because of its proximity to resting areas and the texture of the padding. Soft wood is often scratched to leave a scent mark at a boundary. Owners need to experiment with providing the right surfaces to satisfy the cat’s clawing needs and encourage clawing by taking notice and praising the cat when it claws on an appropriate object.

Hunting and play are important for cats, especially in the early morning and evening. These are times when it is important to encourage interactive games using fishing toys, laser pointers and lightweight toys that can be rolled on the floor. Cats should never be encouraged to play with people’s feet or hands because this can create problems of aggression especially for cats that are kept indoors. At other times, the cat should be provided with a continually-changing selection of small lightweight toys to play with. It is useful to keep a selection of feathers, decorated ping pong balls, furry mouse toys and similar small items in a box and scatter a selection of these toys around the house daily. Real fur toys are particularly good because they act as a focus for cat’s predatory behaviour.

Certain features of toys are very important:

  • Lightweight: Cats prefer toys that move easily when touched
  • Noise: toys that twitter or squeak when touched
  • Movement: toys that move rapidly and unpredictably when they roll
  • Texture, size and colour: bright colours, feathers, parts that sparkle or dangle, or toys that mimic real prey

Typically cats habituate to a toy within 10 minutes. So, unless the toys or games are changed every few minutes a cat will lose interest. In the wild, cats spend several hours every day hunting for, catching and eating their prey. In the domestic environment, all of this activity may be absent, especially for indoor cats. It is also known that well-fed cats continue to hunt wildlife, indicating that this is a behavioural need that cannot be satisfied by feeding alone. Simulated foraging, using activity feeders, is a way to enable the cat to expend this energy safely in the home. This also helps cats to regulate their calorie intake, reduce obesity and frustration, which is especially important for indoor cats. Simulated foraging may also reduce a cat’s interest in predatory behaviour, and can therefore save local wildlife from being killed.

Activity feeders that do not allow the cat to see the food within them are often frustrating and hard for cats to learn how to use. Cats also vary in their level of dexterity, with some finding it more difficult to paw and manipulate toys to get food out of them. For this reason, a good activity feeding setup should enable the cat to see the food and provide a range of different ways to gain access to the food.

Privacy and Choice

Privacy is partly provided by giving cats plenty of choice. If cats can choose to feed or rest away from each other they are more likely to tolerate each other. Some cats, especially those which are timid, elderly or infirm, prefer to have ground-level hiding places where they can run in and hide. Empty cat baskets or cardboard boxes are perfectly suitable.

Outdoor Environment

Cats control access to their territory using scent marks and by watching and threatening their enemies from vantage points that they spend time at around the edge of their territory. In order for the cats to do this, the garden must be filled with hiding and climbing places as well as places for scratching. Otherwise the cat may use vantage points in the home, and could start to scratch and spray mark inside.

Making improvements to the outdoor environment has several benefits, including increasing the space available to the cats and reducing competition for toilets, resting places and space within the home. It provides the cat with things to do so that it is able to carry out a wider range of its normal activities. The cat may stay closer to home because all of its needs are met locally and it enables the cat to successfully maintain the garden as a territory, thus reducing fighting with other cats.

Necessary provisions:

  • Outdoor toilets
  • Scratching places: Cats tend to leave claw marks at the edge of their territory to keep other cats out. Creating some outdoor scratching places will enable the resident cat to maintain its territory more effectively. These are simply made from softwood posts, which have been rubbed against existing scratching places to pick up claw marking smells. The surface is scratched with a wire brush to simulate scratch marks, as this often attracts further scratching. They should be positioned around the edges of the garden.
  • Hiding places and vantage points: Cats need some easily-defended vantage points in the garden from which they can rest and watch the activities of other cats. For example fixing shelves to fences and outside walls, wooden platforms into trees and empty shelves and windowsills in garden sheds so that the cat can sit on them. The vantage points need to face away from the house, otherwise invading cats may use them to stake out the resident cat's home. The line of sight back to the house needs to be blocked using the natural arrangement of trees and plants in the garden or pot plants, fences and other obstacles.

Some cats are hesitant to go out and will hang around the cat flap for long periods, or they will often rush in as if they are being pursued. These cats may benefit from having a few hiding places (e.g. plant pots) close to the exit of the cat flap. This also reduces the tendency for cats to spray around the interior walls close to the cat flap. It also means that the resident cat can sneak out into the garden without being watched by other cats.

Preventing access by other cats
In most cases, cats are not very concerned when other cats cross their territory because it is normal for this to happen. Problems arise when other cats lurk in the garden, using their own vantage points to observe and threaten the resident cat in its own home or when it tries to enter the garden. To prevent this from happening, plant shrubs or planters and other obstacles can be used to obstruct the view. Another option is to make vantage points uncomfortable for other cats to use, for example by fixing burglar deterrent prickle strips onto fences or spots where intruder cats might rest in the garden.

Introducing a Cat to a New Home/Environment

The importance of properly introducing new cats to a home where there are existing cats is well known. Before introducing a new cat, it is important to think about whether the existing cats will accept it. If they are under stress already they are not likely to accept a new cat. Their existing problems should take priority. If introduction is not managed correctly, there is a greater probability of fear and anxiety problems, inter-cat aggression and inappropriate spraying in the future. It is also important to introduce cats correctly to households where there are no other cats, but where animals, children and the general routine in the household may be unfamiliar and stressful. The same is true when moving cats form one home to another.

Introduction to a New Home with No Cats Present

  • Prepare a quiet room in the new home with food, water, a latrine, and familiar items from the cat’s previous home. This will be the room into which the cat will be initially introduced, so it is best if this place has not recently been occupied by other cats.
  • Install a F3 diffuser (Feliway) in this room at least 1-2 hours (ideally 24 hours) before the cat arrives.
  • Install additional diffusers throughout the home at a rate of 1 per 50-70m2.
  • Before moving the cat to its new home, some of the cat’s flank and facial odours should be harvested onto a clean cloth and placed into a sealed bag ready to use in the new home.
  • Use the cloth to transfer facial and flank odours to furniture in this room of the new home.
  • When transferring the cat, other items that will carry some of the cat’s facial and flank odour marks (bedding, resting places) should be brought with the cat.
  • Allow the cat to explore the new room by opening the cat basket. The cat should be able to return to the basket if it desires. The cat should not be pulled out of the basket or coaxed.
  • Do not allow access to the rest of the house until the cat is completely relaxed in this first room. This may take several hours or even a few days. The cat should be relaxed, playful and approachable.
  • The cat should then be allowed free access to one or two additional rooms in the house every few hours until it has explored the whole house. The cat should be allowed to do this in peace, not with people rushing around or trying to distract it.

Introduction to a New Home with Cats Already Present

General Preparations for the Arrival of a New Cat

  • Start with the new cat in its own room, containing a litter tray, food, water and a several comfortable places to rest and hide. Installation of a Feliway diffuser in this room makes it seem more familiar and secure for the new cat.
  • The new cat should be allowed to become completely confident in this new room and with all members of the family before allowing it out of this place. This may take a week or more. The cat should be eating, resting, playing and approaching people normally and without signs of fear.
  • The resident cats should be provided with several extra places to get food, as well as places to drink and extra places to rest and hide. A Feliway diffuser will increase their sense of security.

Introducing the Cats to Each Other

Stage 1: Scent introduction:

  • Prepare several disposable cloths, each labelled with one cat’s name.
  • Use each labelled cloth daily to collect the scent from the face and sides of the body of the cat with whose name it has been labelled. Do this each day. The cloths must not be mixed up and should be stored separately in plastic bags or wallets to prevent scent transferring between them.
  • Whenever a person goes to greet, feed or play with the new cat it should be briefly presented with the cloth belonging to one of the resident cats to smell and investigate. The cloth should be wrapped around the person’s hand. Initially the cat may seem unhappy (it may back away, hiss or freeze). At this stage, it is important not to force contact as the cat may become aggressive.
  • If there are multiple cats in the household then the resident cats should be presented with the new cat’s smell in the same way, and the new cat with odours from each of the cats in the home.
  • With repeated presentation of the scent on the cloths each cat should come to ignore the smell and should start to react positively to it by rubbing against the hand wrapped in the cloth. When all cats are reacting in this way it is time to move on to stage 2.

Stage 2: Scent swapping:

  • After collecting the odour from the cats in the usual way (from face and flanks), the cloths should be put together in a single bag so that scent from them mixes.
  • This combined scent is then used in the same way as in stage 1.
  • Once you can see that there is a positive reaction to this combined scent you can mark yourself with the mixed scent by rubbing the cloth on your clothes. This way, when the cats greet they will pick up the combined scent when they rub against you to say hello. The cloth should also be rubbed against objects that the cats usually rub against, such as furniture and doorways.
  • As long as each cat accepts being rubbed with the scent from the others you can move to using a single cloth for rubbing the cats to collect their scent.
  • Once all cats are accepting this new odour and are actively rubbing against the cloth and the other objects that have been marked with the cloth then it is time to move on to stage 3.

Stage 3: Allowing the new cat to explore:

  • The new cat should be allowed to explore the rest of the house while the resident cats are excluded or shut into a separate room. This allows the new cat to learn all of the hiding and escape places so that, as the cats start to meet in person, it does not feel vulnerable.
  • Once the new cat is confidently using the feeding, resting and toilet places in the rest of the home then it is time to move on to the next stage.

Stage 4: Limited face to face introduction:

  • The cats need to begin to see each other in a way that minimises the risk of aggression. A glass door or mesh screen are best, but some child gates are made from mesh that provides a partial barrier. Mesh barriers are the best, because they allow the cats to smell each other. If neither is possible then a partly opened door may be used (open just enough that the cats can see each other but not get through).
  • Give the cats their food on either side of the screen or doorway at their normal feeding times, or distract them with a game.
  • It is also useful to rub the door or screen with the scent from the cats so that there is maximum chance of recognition of the smell.
  • The cats are encouraged to play and feed progressively closer to the screen as long as there is no aggression between any of them.
  • Once the cats are showing no aggressive or fearful behaviour they can be allowed to meet face to face after an initial meeting through the door or screen.

It is important to continue mixing odours between the cats and applying their “group scent” to yourself, other people living in the home and on common marking places in the house until the cats have begun to rub against each other or groom each other. At this point, Feliway diffusers and other environmental changes may be taken away gradually. The total time for the introduction process may vary from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, but there is no shortcut if harmony is to be achieved.





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