The three largest contributing factors to a cat’s lifespan and quality of life are genetics, environment and nutrition. Cat owners have the ability to influence the latter two of these factors. Providing an environment and an appropriate diet can make all the difference to your cat’s life. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Contrary to popular belief, many cats enjoy rich and fulfilling lives as indoor-only dwellers, and the risk of illness and injury is greatly reduced in indoor cat populations.
However, it’s not enough to simply close the doors and windows and expect your cat to be happy (imagine how much they would complain about their living conditions if they could communicate their dissatisfaction in our own language! How long would you be happy in solitary confinement with nothing to do?)
They key to making your indoor cat happy is remembering that they are both a predator and a prey species. Given free reign, cats will roam and exercise a lot more, marking out their territory and hunting for food. In a home situation, they are physically restricted and their food is provided for them with no effort on their part (except for a lot of miaowing and not-so-subtle hints at meal times).
Also consider that cats generally don’t like to socialise with other cats the way dogs socialise together. Unless cats are raised together in the same family from kittenhood, they see other cats as foes and as competition for valuable resources such as food, sleep areas, litter tray and attention from human family members. In a multi-cat household, there are dynamics at play which aren’t always evident to us as humans. Dominant cats will overtly or covertly bully submissive cats, preventing access to resources and basically making the lives of submissive cats miserable because they live in constant fear and spend their lives trying to avoid trouble in a confined space. Many unwanted behaviours, such as house-soiling, hiding, excessive grooming and fighting are caused by the stress of cat politics in the home.
Therefore, if you have 2 or more cats, it’s crucial that you provide enough resources for all of them. For example, if you have 3 cats, there should be at least 4 litter trays located around the house (not all together). This ensures there’s a tray available for each cat, wherever in the house they might spend their time.
Clean litter trays regularly – would you want to use a dirty toilet? This principle should also be applied to sleeping areas, toys, food and water. Also ensure you spend 1-on-1 time with each cat, rather than just with the most outgoing of the colony.
Regardless of whether you have one cat only or a multi-cat home, here’s some simple ways you can enrich their lives and tap into their natural instincts:
- Provide scratching posts or scratch mats. Scratching serves multiple functions such as stretching the legs, marking territory and removing old sections of nails. Some cats are vertical scratchers and others are horizontal scratchers (and some are both) so give a variety of options. This also reduces the incidence of your cat deciding to add fringe to your favourite furniture.
- Make meal times interesting! Get your cat to hunt/chase/work for their food, rather than plonking a bowl under their nose. For some ideas, see the Q&A “How can I make meal times more interesting for my pet?”
- Don’t over-feed your cat. Inside cats exercise much less than outside cats. It’s also easy for us to compensate for their restriction by feeding more treats. There are better ways to show your love, so feed a diet appropriate to your cat’s life-stage, health and environmental conditions. Obesity is sadly a common problem in our pets and is actually classified as an incurable disease (once you are overweight or obese, you remain so for life, even if you manage to return to a normal weight). Obesity is a contributing factor in some cat diseases, such as diabetes and urinary tract disorders, and complicates other health conditions such as osteoarthritis and skin disease.
- Provide a selection of boxes, cubbies and shelving for your cat to explore. Cats like to be off the ground (it helps them feel safer) and they enjoy the challenge of negotiating an obstacle course. Remember that this is how cats came to earn the “Nine Lives” label, so ensure whatever you provide is safe for them, and keep breakables out of reach (no cats swinging from the light fittings, please!) Keep it interesting by moving boxes and tunnels around the house periodically.
- Provide a selection of interactive toys and games. There are oodles of toys commercially available, but you can’t beat a peg on a piece of string or a rolled-up piece of paper. Some cats “forget” how to play with toys so get on the floor and show them how it’s done…at a minimum your cat will be entertained by how silly you look.
- Tap into your cat’s natural intelligence and curiosity with online cat games such as fish tapping or download a fish tank screen saver for your computer or television. Search your app store for ideas.
- Create a cat-friendly indoor garden, with pots of cat grass and cat mint.
- Play calming music at times when you are not home. Cats appear to enjoy classical music rather than head-banging metal and punk rock.
- Ensure you have dedicated pat/stroke/cuddle times each day (unless your cat really is not the touchy-feely type). Sometimes just sitting in the same room with them is enough.
- If you have dogs, children or visitors in your home, ensure your cat always has a place to hide if they choose. This might be a special cupboard or under a bed.
- If possible, provide a view to the outside world. This could be window ledges or chairs positioned by windows, where your cat can be entertained by the neighbours. A bird-friendly garden can be appreciated by your cat from behind a window.
- If your cat is mature or senior, ensure they can access chairs, furniture, litter trays (use trays with lower sides) and areas with steps. Older cats are more likely to have some degree of degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis) which can make climbing and jumping more difficult.
- Prevent access to toxins and potential foreign bodies (non-food items which are swallowed). This includes, but is not restricted to, plants (living and flower arrangements), cleaning products, food items, essential oils/burners, button batteries, candles, medications, sewing needles and small toy parts.
- Continue to attend all recommended veterinary checks and preventative care. Risk of illness and injury is greatly reduced for inside cats, but there are still always risks. Veterinary prevention and treatment should be individualised to your cat’s circumstances to ensure their needs are met and adapted over time as your cat ages. As a prey species, cats are experts at masking illness and injury (the weak get attacked). Don’t assume your indoor cat is immortal; many people fail to identify signs of ill health in their pets, leading to delayed diagnosis and treatment of problems.
The take-home message is that your cat can live a very interesting and stimulating life indoors, engaging in their natural instinctive behaviours. As further reading, you might like to look up the RSPCA’s Five Freedoms, and think about how you can incorporate these into your cat’s life.
While cats give the impression of being “low maintenance” pets, this assumption can lead to their basic needs being neglected, leading to lower quality of life and shorter lifespan. Become your cat’s champion by providing them with a home environment that is safe, stimulating and enjoyable!
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