By Dr. Becker
Most people owned by a cat don't realize their favorite feline is actually a captive animal.
It's true. Your kitty, especially if he lives entirely indoors (which I recommend), can be loosely compared to a zoo animal held in captivity. But don't be tempted to throw open a door or window and encourage your pet to run wild and free.
While it's true living indoors isn't an entirely natural environment for your cat, letting him run around loose outside actually presents much more risk to his health and longevity than keeping him 'captive.' Housecats with free access to the outdoors are much more likely to be exposed to viruses and other agents that cause serious disease. They can also be inadvertently poisoned.
They become prey for dogs and wild animals like coyotes.
Fighting among outdoor cats is common, and someone has to come out the loser. Usually it's the kitty who doesn't live outside full time and hasn't honed his street-fighting skills.
Cats with access to the outdoors in winter are apt to look for warmth in hazardous places, like the wheel well or up inside the hood of a parked vehicle. Kitties have also been known to dart out into traffic after being startled or because another animal is chasing them.
So I absolutely do not recommend you set your captive kitty free. A much smarter, safer alternative is to learn:
- What to look for in a cat who may not be feeling comfortable with his living arrangement
- What you can do to help your favorite feline feel more at ease living indoors with you
Feline Sickness Behaviors
Cats are known to demonstrate sickness behaviors in response to elements of their environment that make them uncomfortable.
Sickness behaviors are nonspecific symptoms and behaviors that can include one or a combination of the following:
- Vomiting, diarrhea
- Decreased interest in eating, grooming or interacting with people or other pets
- Lethargy; sleeping more than usual
- Eliminating outside the litter box
- Behaving as if in pain
Sickness behaviors develop when an animal isn't able to interact in a natural way with her environment. Instead of performing a normal behavior like hunting prey, for example, a cat will be motivated to behave in ways that promote recovery from illness, even when no illness exists.
The same physiologic and behavioral response a kitty would have to an infection can be brought on by undesirable changes in her environment. And recent studies have linked psychological stress to immune response and the release of cytokines, which promote inflammation in the body.
Sickness behaviors are considered a functional problem, which means they tend to come and go in response to changes in a cat's environment. The way to help your own Fluffy or Garfield enjoy life as a captive kitty is through environmental enrichment.
Environmental enrichment is generally understood to mean improving the living situation of captive animals to enhance their health and quality of life. Studies show enriching the environment of both healthy cats and those with idiopathic interstitial cystitis reduces their sickness behaviors
Enriching a kitty's surroundings usually involves doing less and more.
It is about creating minimally stressful living quarters and reducing or eliminating unusual external events that cause anxiety. Any change to her daily routine is experienced by your cat as a stress-inducing unusual external event. The goal is to minimize change and maximize the amount of control kitty feels over her situation.
Enrichment may also mean adding or changing things in your pet's environment that encourage her to perform or mimic natural feline activities like climbing to a high spot or hunting 'prey' in the form of a cat toy.
Because change is unnerving for your cat, nothing should be forced on her. If you decide to purchase a climbing tree, for example, place it in an appropriate spot and let your cat discover it on her own terms.
The Five Key Areas of Your Cat's Environment
There are several components to a cat's environment, and each should be considered from the viewpoint of a feline, including:
- A safe, secure food and water station, and a safe, secure litter box location. In the wild, cats not only hunt prey, they are prey for other animals. They feel most vulnerable while eating, drinking or eliminating. This vulnerability is what causes a fearful response when a cat's food dish or litter box is in a noisy or high traffic area.
The basics of your kitty's life – food, water, and his bathroom, should be located away from any area that is noisy enough to startle him or make him feel trapped and unable to escape.
- An approved place to climb and to scratch and places to rest and hide. Cats are climbers and scratchers. It's what nature compels them to do, and those urges don't disappear because kitty lives indoors. Your cat also needs her own resting place and a hiding place (sometimes these are the same spot) where she feels untouchable.
In case you hadn't noticed, your favorite feline prefers to deal with the other creatures in her life on her terms, and according to her schedule. Happy captive kitties are given the opportunity to feel in control of their environment.
- Consistency in interactions with humans. Your cat feels most comfortable when his daily routine is predictable. Performing little rituals, for example when you leave the house and upon your return, can help your kitty feel more comfortable with the comings and goings of humans in the household. A ritual can be as simple as giving kitty a treat each time you leave and a bit of petting as soon as you come back through the door.
Playtime should also be consistent. Discover what type of toy (prey) he responds to and engage him in play, on his timetable. You can encourage him to play, but it's useless to try to force the issue. And when he's had enough, he's had enough!
- Appropriate sensory stimulation. Think eyes, ears and nose. Some cats love to look out the window. Others are mesmerized by fish in an aquarium. Some even enjoy kitty videos. Also provide auditory stimulation similar to the ambient sounds your cat hears when you're home – music, a TV on in the background, etc. You can stimulate your pet's keen olfactory senses with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones.
If you happen to have a safe, fully enclosed porch or patio area that prevents your cat from getting out and other animals from getting in, your kitty might enjoy spending time outside in good weather. I don't recommend you leave a cat in an outdoor enclosure if you're not home though.
Alternatively, you could take your cat outside on a leash to provide some additional sensory stimulation.
- The company of other cats. This is a tricky area. The way cats interact with each other is very different from humans and, in fact, most other animals. Trying to predict how two or more cats will get on living under the same roof is nearly impossible.
Female kitties tend to get along better with other cats than males do, and intact males can be a special challenge in a multi-cat household. Problems with inter-cat aggression can arise when a new cat is brought home, when two cat owners blend their feline families, and even among cats that have lived peaceably together for years.
Because of the complex nature of feline social structures, if you have a multi-cat household and there are problems, or you're hoping to add a new cat to the family, I recommend you talk with your veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist. Often there are things you can do to minimize problems with aggression or other undesirable behaviors. Sometimes, unfortunately, re-homing one of the cats becomes the only option to preserve the health and quality of life of all the kitties involved.
Captive But in Control!
I know you want to do everything you can to help your captive kitty have an excellent quality of life.