At a glance
Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), as well as The International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM), have joined together to create the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment as a way to educate pet professionals and pet owners on how to create a safe, secure and happy environment for cats.
Cats are not small people or dogs; they have unique needs. When we choose to bring a cat into our home, we must be willing to meet those needs as much as is practical, and if we meet their needs, many common behavioural issues will be significantly reduced, if not eliminated.
Provide a safe place
The first of the five pillars is one many pet owners overlook. A safe place (or better still places) for a cat to retreat to if he is feeling stressed, anxious, unwell, or to avoid confrontation, withdraw and have some alone time. My parents set up the cat carrier next to a warm radiator, and the household rule was if the cats were in their carrier, we were not to disturb them. It was their safe retreat away from us all. Cardboard boxes and enclosed cat beds can also provide a sense of privacy and safety for cats.
The cat carrier is a great retreat and is best left out all the time and not brought out only to transport the cat to a veterinarian. Many cats also like to be up high, two of mine love to sit on top of the bookshelf and display cabinets. An interesting observation I have made is that since placing large cat-safe plants (a Boston fern and a spider plant) on them, their popularity has increased. Cats like to be up high and somewhat hidden.
Tall cat trees or shelving specifically for cats can also provide safe places. The more options, the better as each cat is different. Norman can almost always be found outside in the cat run perched on top of the cat tree. Monty and Melody love to sit up high on the shelving behind the plants.
There should be enough safe spaces for the number of cats you have in the home.
Some cats will tolerate sharing resources, but most would prefer not to, and it is better, where practical to provide multiple and separated resources for cats.
What are the key environmental resources?
- Food and water bowls
- Litter trays
- Cat beds and resting places
Place litter trays away from the eating and sleeping areas. The general rule for litter tray numbers is one for each cat and one for the house. If you have two cats, provide three litter trays. There should be at least one litter tray on each level of the house.
Separate feeding stations for each cat provides the opportunity for a more reserved cat to eat or go to the toilet without the worry of a more dominant cat pushing them out of the way and provides a sense of security. Place water bowls in different locations around the house.
Provide multiple sleeping areas which include high up perches, enclosed beds (cat carrier or bed).
Outdoor enclosures are a great way to give cats access to the outdoors in a safe and controlled environment. Provide cat-safe plants (to nibble on and hide behind), scratching posts and/or cat trees and beds. We have found logs are a great and cheap scratching post for the outdoor cat run.
This doesn’t mean we should let our cats out to hunt the wildlife, but we can provide the opportunity for cats to express their natural predatory nature safely and humanely. Engaging in playful predatory behaviour exercises the mind as well as the body and reduces boredom and obesity, which has become a chronic issue among pet cats.
Several cat toys can meet your cat’s needs. Toy mice and wand-like toys both provide the opportunity to stalk and catch the target. Don’t leave these toys out all the time, so the cat doesn’t get bored. Bring them out at playtime, let the cat engage in his predatory behaviour, and once he’s killed his prey, feed the cat and remove the toys. Interactive toys (such as those which the cat has to work at to get treats) can be left out all the time, but prey-like toys should be brought out at designated playtimes.
Cats thrive on regular, predictable and friendly interactions with their human family. Always make interactions with your cat positive. Some cats want to be by your side all the time; other cats are happy with their own company. Don’t try to change the behaviour of either type and always let decide when it wants to initiate and end contact with you. Respect boundaries and learn what your cat’s likes and dislikes are. Most cats like a scratch on the head, under the chin and on the back close to the tail, but don’t like having their belly rubbed.
How do you know a cat is relaxed around you?
- Head rubbing
- Rubbing their cheeks and tail around and on your legs
- Slow blinking
Behaviours to avoid around cats include yelling, aggression, punishment and instability. You can read more about things we should never do to a cat here.
Cats mark objects in their environment that they want to claim by rubbing them with their cheeks and tail, which releases natural pheromones. These marked objects make cats feel safe and at home. When we introduce strongly scented products, they compete with the cat’s own scented areas and their sense of well being.
Ways to help
- Use unscented cat litter and always rinse detergents from litter trays to remove the odour as well as a detergent residue which can be toxic if ingested.
- Avoid the use of essential oils or scented candles around the home, or at least allow the cat to get away from the smell by leaving the room.
- Try not to remove areas the cat has rubbed (scented) with his face. These promote a sense of security and well-being for your cat.
- Provide plenty of places for your cat to scratch, not only do cats scratch to remove the loose outer layers of their claws, but they also have scent glands on their paws which deposit feel-good pheromones onto objects they scratch.
By following the five pillars, you are providing your cat with a safe and happy environment in which to flourish. I know not all points will be practical for all home situations, but try to follow through with the suggestions where possible. Your cat will thank you for it, in his own unique way.