A conversation on new ideas for helping prevent boredom, lethargy and obesity.
They’re not little people in furry suits. Nor are they a version of small dogs. Today’s cats, felis sylvestris lybica, are descendants of African wildcats with behaviors and needs we are uncovering with new perspectives. In an interview with Dr. Andréa Tasi of Kingstowne Cat Clinic, we were given new insights into ideas and strategies to enrich the home environment of our felines.
PetSage: After years of campaigns citing safety and health issues, many caregivers today choose to keep their cats indoors. In our efforts to protect them against harm, you now express concerns that we are forsaking their ancestral needs and may be opening the door for behavioral and unforeseen health issues.
Dr. Tasi: The belief is that the cat is domesticated. However, in studying feral cats in the wild and our companion animals at play, their hunter, predatory instincts are still very much intact. Yet, the time budgets - how cats spend their time - between these two groups shows behavioral contrasts. In the wild, cats spend 60% of their time sleeping and resting, 15% grooming, 15% hunting and less than 10% eating and “frittering” about. With indoor cats, the sleep and rest time shifts to 80%, leading to neurochemistry changes in the brain and the potential for compulsive behaviors.
PetSage: How does this translate into the care of our cats?
Dr. Tasi: We need to acknowledge that a cat’s whole being is attuned to hunt. With a sense of smell that is 1000% greater than ours, eyesight that can target small prey on the move, and hearing that can triangulate on demand, we need to engage and encourage the predator within. This requires us to enrich the home environment, to develop emotionally and physically challenging games that will help prevent boredom, lethargy and obesity.
PetSage: But many of us already offer a wide selection of toys for their amusement. What’s the difference with the playtime you’re describing?
Dr. Tasi: The single most important concept in enriching our cats’ lives is the concept of frustration. We need to create games that allow them to be predators and “complete” the sequence of the hunt, simulating the process of hunting for food: see-stalk-chase-pounce-bite. Trail a fishing rod style toy with feathers or roll balls of paper past your feline and you will see what they are born to do! A key here is the length of playtime. In the wild, it’s estimated that cats stalk prey 30 times a day. It’s also important to recognize that some cats will like one type of toy, while another may find it imposing. Various types of toys need to be offered to encourage even the meekest feline.
PetSage: Looking at playtime as part of an outdoor adventure makes me curious of other ways you can expand the indoor cat’s environment. What are some of the ideas you find you’re recommending and do you find they are adaptable in multiple cat households?
Dr. Tasi: I suppose I’m encouraging cat parents to bring the outside world in, to create a changing environment that will require inspection and the use of senses. The empty grocery bag becomes a new hiding place; rocks, flowers and leaves offer information on the changing seasons; or stacked boxes or strategically arranged furniture offer new perspectives. Not only are these ideas adaptable in multiple cat households, they are indispensable and need to be expanded upon because social and territorial anxieties can develop. An environment of plenty needs to be established. What I mean by this is that there needs to be variety of feeding stations and waterbowls, litter boxes, and hiding places. Vertical spaces are particularly important in multiple cat households, because a cat’s instinct for security is a high perching place - where they are not vulnerable to attack.
PetSage: Let’s back up a minute. Most of us understand territorial anxieties, what do you mean by social anxieties?
Dr. Tasi: Socialization is very important to our cats: social contact between you and your cat and between your cat and other cats in the house. Let me stop here and say, that while I’ve come across cats in practice that prefer to live alone, I’ve come to feel strongly that indoor cats shouldn’t live alone. We find that if a cat is raised alone, he or she never acquire feline social skills. But in pairs or multiple households, they interact by practicing their hunting behaviors in play and learn the affection of one another.
PetSage: The concepts you describe seem easy to implement with great benefits for meeting a cat’s social, hunting, and exploration needs. Any closing thoughts?
Dr. Tasi: Make your cat work for its dinner. I don’t mean doing tricks, I mean make feeding more difficult. If you feed dry food, create ways to mimic the natural foraging cats go through hunting for food. This can be as simple as dividing a daily serving into portions and hiding throughout the house. Or using foraging toys, where the cat needs to manipulate for the food to fall out. Two hints though: hide only dry food and remember where you’ve hidden it!
Andrea Tasi graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1988, and has been in feline exclusive practice since 1991. She lives with her husband and 4 cats in Fairfax Station, VA. A member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, she credits their excellent continuing education conferences for many of the ideas she expresses in this interview.
We need to acknowledge that a cat’s whole being is attuned to hunt.