Take a (Cat)Walk on the Wild Side
By Dr. Marci Koski, Feline Behavior Solutions
I want you imagine a hypothetical situation. You live in your home – it could be a house, apartment, condo, or adobe hut – and you have sole discretion of what goes on there. You’ve placed your furniture just where you want it, you put pictures on the wall, you cook food for yourself, you watch the evening news on tv. But because you want some company, you decide to invite someone to live with you. Well, actually, “invite” isn’t quite the right word; rather, you bring someone to live with you. And this someone happens to be a wild animal. This animal has claws and teeth because it is a carnivorous predator. This animal tends to be most active during dawn and dusk, when its prey is out and about. This animal also hunts up to 20 times per day, which equates to about 30% of its time awake. But, this animal also happens to be lap-sized, covered with fur, and absolutely adorable. This animal we are speaking of is a house cat.
Cats are incredibly popular pets, and now outnumber the number of dogs in homes in the United States. Part of the reason that cats are so popular is that people believe that they are low-maintenance: you don’t have to walk them, they go to the bathroom in a convenient box, they sleep a lot and don’t constantly bother you for attention, and they can live in urban areas – like apartments – without needing to go outside. And, as our urban areas grow (as well as suburban areas), more cats are being brought indoors almost exclusively. This is great for the safety of cats (and wildlife), and even my own cats are 100% indoor kitties. However, keeping cats indoors deprives them of nearly everything that they have evolved to be – skilled predators who are adept at exploring their environment in search of food and mates, and avoiding being prey themselves.
Don’t get me wrong – if your cats are indoor cats, I don’t want you to start letting them outside. But a cat who does not get to express its highly evolved predatory nature can be prone to boredom and stress. When I was a kid, we had two cats who were indoor/outdoor felines. Their only litterbox was in the dark garage under a work bench (it was my assigned chore to clean it out once a week each Saturday), and we didn’t have a pet door – we simply let them in and out as they desired. Did we play with them inside? No – we tended to snuggle more when they were around. But Theresa and Brownnoser got plenty of exercise, enrichment, and their predatory needs filled by being outdoors for a significant period of time during the day (Theresa was an especially adept predator, bringing mice and birds right to our back door).
Today, fewer people are allowing their cats to go outside, without understanding what cats do outdoors and why it is so important. They assume that cats lay around and sleep much of the day, and don’t need very much attention, exercise, or play time. This is absolutely incorrect! In fact, I believe that this is why the number of cat behavior consultants (such as myself) are on the rise. People simply don’t understand the biological needs of the small, wild (ok, I’ll concede – “barely domesticated”), carnivorous predators in their homes.
When a cat is bored because it has nothing to do in its environment, it becomes stressed. And stress can lead to behavior issues such as urinating outside of the litterbox, spraying and marking, aggression (with other animals or people), obsessive compulsive behaviors such as overgrooming, and/or destructive behaviors like scratching or knocking things off of tables and digging in plants.
Cat guardians aren’t without tools to solve this problem; this is where environmental enrichment comes in. Enrichment means putting things in your cat’s environment to elicit natural behaviors. Cat trees and shelves encourage cats to perch up high, as they might in the wild when they climb trees to survey their domain. Food puzzles and hiding food will give your cat the opportunity to forage and find their meal instead of it just being conveniently provided to them in a bowl. And having interactive play sessions using a wand toy with a lure that resembles a realistic prey item (bird, mouse, snake, or bug) allows your cat to be the ferocious predator she is, which reduces stress, increases confidence, and provides necessary physical exercise.
Humans have only had a relationship with cats for about 10,000 years, compared to the 30-40,000 year relationship we’ve had with dogs. And the relationship we’ve developed with cats is very different from the one we have with canines. Historically, dogs have served as protection and hunting partners. In return, we’ve provided them with food and shelter. Dogs have learned to work closely and cooperatively with people. On the other hand, our relationship with cats has been a little more hands-off; it developed out of opportunity. Researchers believe that cats were “domesticated” (again, I use this term loosely) because we had rodents that we wanted to keep away from our grains. We didn’t need direct interaction with cats for them to do their job killing mice and rats. As a result, cats have maintained their naturally evolved behaviors as predators – their instincts and physiology has remained fairly intact relative to both their ancestors and living wild cousins.
As such, it is necessary that we understand the needs of our cats. Cats respond to their environment. If we give them acceptable substrates (like fine-grained sandy litter), cats will use that for urinating and defecating. If we give them the proper type of scratching surfaces, they will use them to stretch, maintain their claws, and leave their scent. If we provide them with a more natural diet that is high in meaty protein, they will thrive. And if we provide them with prey (or a toy prey substitute), they will hunt. Nearly everything our cats do can be explained by what they would naturally do in the wild, and if they start doing something that we deem unacceptable, our cats are simply telling us that the environment that they’ve been given isn’t quite meeting their needs.
So what is the number one thing I recommend to my clients help their cats live a happy, fulfilled life? Play. Play with your cat. Acknowledge and appreciate that she is a skilled and unstoppable predator. Give your cat an opportunity every day to go through the prey sequence: staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and performing a kill bite. Use a wand toy with a realistic prey lure. It may take your cat a while to learn how to hunt if she has not had much opportunity, and it may take you a while to learn what triggers those predatory instincts. But don’t give up! Your cat may be furry and adorable and a great snuggler, but she’s a carnivorous hunter at heart. Discovering your cat’s wild side will be fun for both of you, and as a result you’ll both live richer lives.
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Dr. Marci Koski is a certified feline training and behavior consultant. She serves clients in-person in the Southwest Washington and Portland, OR region, and provides video consultations for clients across the US and internationally. The mission of her business, Feline Behavior Solutions, is to keep cats in homes and from being brought to shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. Marci lives with five amazing felines, a small fish, and a very supportive husband. You can learn more about Marci at www.FelineBehaviorSolutions.com.