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Lack of choice can lead us to feel helpless, it can lead us to feel we don’t have control over our situation or our life. When we feel we have a lack of control over our situation we may feel stressed, angry or we may even display symptoms of learned helplessness – an inability to change or escape even where there are other options available to us. This can lead to stress and illness – the same can happen with pets and we can prevent it by making sure their core needs and met and there are enough resources available. Lots of people are likely to have felt that choices they had surrounding their business were limited during the pandemic and it’s likely that lots of negative emotions surfaced from this. I certainly felt stressed and worried when I could no longer do face to face visits and training but when I made changes to my environment – setting up my desk at home, creating videos to show and train others, having zoom training I felt safer and more at ease. I’m going to talk about choice and control from a cat’s perspective in their environment.

Looking down on ustortoiseshell cat

Cats naturally feel safe up high. It’s thought they feel safer up high so that they can look down on their surroundings. It’s really important that if our cat is going on places that we don’t want them to go (the kitchen counter for example) that we are giving them other options for them to go up high. Aside from the fact that it’s very reinforcing for our cat to go up there (perhaps there’s crumbs), cat’s feel safer if they’re up high. If they feel safe then this can prevent behavioural problems and stress bases illnesses.  I’ve heard people say that they spray their cats with water when they go up on the kitchen counter to get them down. However, emotionally there will be problems with this as a cat naturally feels safe up high, if we pair this with something unpleasant that they don’t like (the feeling and sound of spraying water – which can sound like a hiss) then this may lead the cat to feel conflicting emotions, with where they naturally feel safe with what they’re currently feeling, which can lead to a negative emotional state. It’s a better idea to make sure any plates are moved and crumbs thrown away. You can also even teach your pet to do something else such as stationing that meets the same need of getting food. If we supress needs they lead to unmet needs then they will pop up as problems somewhere else which can be hard to rectify. Cats internalise stress and it can lead to a host of nasty illnesses leading to expensive vet trips and unhappy cats.

The power of 5

The 5 pillars of a healthy feline environment are:

  1. Provide a safe space – an upturned cardboard box.
  2. Provide multiple separate key environmental resources such as food, water, toileting areas, play areas, resting and sleeping areas and scratching posts – have these spaced out so cats don’t have to climb on each other to get them, and so that no water and food is being contaminated with smells from the other or litter trays.
  3. Provide opportunities for play and predatory behaviour – toys that are large enough for them to bunny kick and flying feather toys they can pounce and chase.
  4. Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction – cat sitters when you’re on holiday for example.
  5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell – if your cat is going into a cattery then bring items that they would have slept on.

(Reference: Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., Sundahl, E. & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612×13477537

Do you have more than one cat at home?

Cats need to have adequate resources otherwise this can lead to competition in the home and they can resource guard items – this can lead to intimidation, hostility and even aggression between cats. With litter trays the rule is one litter tray per cat plus one. It’s really important cats have access to litter tray’s otherwise they may find other places to do their business such as under the bed.

Do you have a new puppy?White fluffy dog sitting next to a kitten on the grass

If you have a new puppy or dog, it’s imperative that your cat has somewhere to go and relax in private. They should have key resources that your dog can’t have access to including an unhooded large litter tray, food and water bowls, a sturdy scratching post (sisal or corrugated cardboard), and shelving or a cat tree. They should have somewhere to retreat to if they feel threatened (they should have somewhere private to go even if there’s no other pets in the house). Cats need a private space to retreat and relax because the ancestor of our domestic cats,  the North African Cat (F.S.lybica) – note that down for the next quiz answer! – would always hunt alone. As well as hunting they are prey species and any injury can involve a survival risk to them – so they will always flee rather than fight when possible.

One thing to do if your dog does chase your cat is to have a side table at the end of the sofa – depending on the size of your puppy or dog this will be a safe exit route for your cat to go behind and they can jump up and escape your dog’s demands (Dr Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw – The Trainable Cat.) Hire the help of a positive reinforcement dog trainer If you need help training dog’s not to chase and if your dog or cat have hurt each other or displayed signs such as growling, or teeth bearing please contact a clinical animal behaviourist as this could escalate into something dangerous such as bites needing veterinary attention and potentially irrevocably damage their relationship.

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