Is your cat happy? Are you sure? We wanted to take the time to find out straight from the experts just what to do to make our kitties happy.
“Many people look at cats as “latch-key” pets – you can just leave them at home all day and they are perfectly content,” explains Dr. Frank McMillian, Director of Well-Being Studies at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. “But we now know that cats are simply not as expressive in their states of unhappiness. Like people, cats require a certain level of emotional fulfillment and engagement in their daily lives, and it is up to those of us caring for them to provide the conditions that meets their emotional as well as physical needs.”
McMillian has been very involved in enriching the lives of the cats at the sanctuary, including building agility equipment in his own wood shed.
“What can we do to make sure our cats are happy? A lot,” he answers. “But it is also crucial to understand that all cats are different and there is no more a way to make a list of ‘how to make a cat happy’ than there is for ‘how a make a child happy.’ With that in mind, let’s look at what we can do.” Below his list of things to look for to ensure your cat is happy.
#1 – Proper nutrition
Feeding good quality food that the cat enjoys eating, and in the right amounts. This makes mealtime enjoyable, helps keep the body healthy, and prevents the cat from becoming under- or overweight. One important new consideration is that it appears that some cats, like some humans, may overeat in an effort to cope with unhappiness (stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, inactivity), which is called stress-induced or emotional eating. The importance here is that some overweight cats may have become overweight by resorting to this coping mechanism, so it is crucially important when a pet is overweight to make every effort to find a possible source of unhappiness or stress.
#2 – Good health care
A healthy body is essential for a healthy mind, which translates to happiness. Cats should get a full examination by a veterinarian at least once a year, and twice a year if they are more than 7 years old. Especially important is the cat’s dental health, which, if compromised, can cause severe discomfort or pain without the cat showing any outward signs. Consider how you would ever know if your coworker had a terrible toothache without them telling you. The cat with a toothache obviously can’t speak.
#3 – Clean litter box
Cats are clean animals and are not happy when their living space is untidy. Most important in this respect is their litter box. Be sure to keep all litter boxes cleaned daily. Litter boxes should also be placed in quiet areas of the house.
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#4 – Good grooming and hygiene
Make sure to brush or comb your cat as often as needed to keep the hair from matting and to reduce the amount of hair the cat ingests from self-grooming. Keep the front toenails properly trimmed so that they don’t get snagged on fabrics and carpets, which can cause injury.
#5 – A safe haven
The single most important thing for your cat’s comfort, peace of mind, and happiness is to provide a reliable, safe hiding spot – a safe haven – where the cat can go whenever anything in life becomes upsetting. When animals (including people) know they can “shut off” the unpleasantness whenever it becomes too much, life is much more pleasant and enjoyable. Cats need to know they can easily get away from rambunctious children, other household pets, or scary noises. Don’t bother to create a safe haven, as the cat will usually choose their own preferred space. Once you know where that space is, “fortify” it by draping or surrounding it with blankets or other sound-proofing materials, and when needed configure any entrance to the space that other pets in the house can’t enter. Cats often choose an elevated space for their safe haven, such as an upper shelf of a bookcase. This choice makes it easier to prevent access by other cats, as you can make the space small enough to where only the one cat can jump onto.
#6 – Human touch, interaction, and companionship
Research is showing that the gentle touch of humans is beneficial to many animals’ physical as well as mental health. Give you cat as much petting, gentle scratching, and cuddling as he or she seems to enjoy. Cats have wide preferences for how they want to be touched, so tailor your contact to their desires.
#7 – A 3-D living space
Cats live in 3 dimensions, meaning that they like to move around on ground level but also like to climb upward and view their living space from up high. Make sure your cat has plenty of ability to climb and perch up high, which can be achieved by purchasing a “cat tree” or “kitty condo” sold at pet stores or by just arranging furniture in a way that allows climbing and perching. Perches at windowsills accomplish several things: allows climbing, gives the cat a place to view the activity of the outside world, and provides a surface to bask in the sunlight.
#8 – Mental stimulation
Monotony is one of the biggest enemies of happiness. Providing an enriched, stimulating life is crucial. An enormous array of methods will help achieve this, such as playtime with people, toys for self-play, interactive toys, and clicker training. Exploration of new things is stimulating, so bringing in objects from outside the house (branches birds have perched on, empty food boxes thrown out by the local grocery, etc) once or twice a week gives the cat new things to check out. Toys should also be rotated so the cat doesn’t become bored. There are endless online resources for finding and making cat toys, and you should go online at least once every month or two to look for new cat toys and stimulation, as new products and do-it-yourself ideas are constantly being dreamed up. Everything from clever iPad apps to challenging puzzle toys are available for your cat.
#9 – A pet cat for your pet cat
Consider getting a feline friend for your pet cat. This can provide social companionship and provide some relief from boredom, but it is important of course that the cats get along peacefully with one another. If you aren’t sure how your cat would do with a new cat, consider fostering cats from your nearby shelter or rescue organization. This allows a “test-trial” before making a full commitment.
It’s important to know, however, that even when two (or more) cats get along, cats having a companion cat is not by any means a total answer for a cat’s happiness. Adult cats will not play together like two children. They won’t be thoroughly entertaining each other all day while you’re at work – for the vast majority of the day a typical pair of cats will not even interact with one another. So while having multiple cats will usually improve the cats’ quality of life, it does not mean there is no need to do anything else for your cat.
#10 – Let your cat safely experience the outdoor world
There are numerous ways to allow your cat to enjoy the fun and stimulation of the outdoors without him or her running free. Building a screen-enclosed porch or cat patio, providing “walks” in a pet stroller, “real” walks using a harness and leash all provide the cat with the exciting novel smells and sights of being outdoors. Some cats can be harnessed and tied with a long leash to a stationary object to enjoy the outdoors while you are doing non-scary things, like gardening, nearby (but never leave the cat alone, even for a minute).
#11 – Make feeding an adventure
Cats evolved to be engaged for 3 and 4 hours a day in some type of activity related to food acquisition. This means looking for, stalking, chasing, pouncing, chewing, swallowing – is the cat’s “job” for several hours each day. When a cat is indoors, we want to help the cats do their “job” by providing a resemblance of their hunt. This includes using toys that involve a chase (you pulling objects on a string, or using a flying feather toy) and making finding food more challenging. Hiding small bits of food or treats around the house gives your cat something to search for throughout the day. Many food-dispensing products can be found online which require the cat to “work” for their food, which helps fulfill their need to do the job their brains are designed to do.
#12 – Assure recovery if cat becomes lost
The last thing for your cat’s happiness is to make certain that if he ever gets lost, you’ve made it very easy for those who find him to return him to you. Even the most household secure cats can get out for unexpected reasons, for example, burglars don’t take care to close the doors when they leave. This means providing a collar with a small ID tag and having your cat microchipped.