Is Your Cat Happy? How She'd Answer if She Could Speak

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to keep your cat happy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Felines are mysterious creatures, so it can be difficult for pet parents to know whether their cat is happy and content
  • Three must-haves in creating a healthy, happy cat are an optimally nutritious, species appropriate diet; keeping kitty at a nice lean weight; and insuring he exercises daily
  • Since cats are very sensitive to their environment, your kitty’s litterbox location is important, along with providing her opportunities to “hunt” for her meals
  • Indoor cats also need surfaces they can climb and scratch, consistent interactions with their humans, and sensory stimulation

Cats are inscrutable little creatures, which is to say, they can be very hard to read. Is my cat comfortable? Is she happy? Who the heck knows? As New Jersey veterinarian Dr. Adam Christman tells online publication Mic, determining whether your feline family member is content is challenging because kitties are so good at giving "resting cat face."1 So, what's a cat parent to do?

Veterinarian and feline guru Dr. Tony Buffington an emeritus professor of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, a clinical professor (volunteer) at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol, School of Veterinary Sciences, and as his business card states, an "Effective Environmental Enrichment Evangelist" who has dedicated his career to improving the lives of cats.2

A few years ago, Buffington wrote a wonderful piece published in VetStreet titled Letter from Your Cat: Do You Really Love Me?3 that sheds some light (in a humorous way) on what our cats would ask of us if they could speak our language.

Letter from Your Cat: Do You Really Love Me?

Dear Owner,

Thank you for rescuing me and taking me in — I love our home together. Now that we have been around each other for a while and I have grown up, it's time for us to agree on what we like and need for a strong and healthy relationship. Even though we are different in many ways, we both like to be shown love and expect to be appreciated and understood for whom we are.

As you know, I come from a long line of solitary hunters of small prey, who were themselves prey for larger carnivores (dogs) and primates (humans), so I need to be able to trust you to be comfortable with you (I'm sure you understand). I can show you how I feel with my body language. For example, please let me come to you when I want attention. Like you, I feel afraid when affection is forced upon me or when unwanted "friends" (feline or otherwise) are moved into our house.

We both like to choose what we like to eat, drink and use in the bathroom (litter for me, TP for you). When we are offered choices, we can express our preferences and be happy to have them respected.4 And speaking of bathrooms, we both like them private and clean. Imagine having to depend on someone else to flush and clean your toilet when they feel like it! If you have questions about this, our veterinarian friends have recently put out some great information for you.5

We also need to keep our nails in shape, and in addition to keeping them beautiful, I need mine to eat with and to protect myself. You can get yours done; I need to do my own, so I need a good place to scratch to keep them healthy and a little help from you when they need a trim. You can help me find the best places to do this in our house by putting a reminder (foil, sticky tape, etc.) on things you don't want me to scratch and by giving me a great place that is OK to scratch close by and praising me for using it so I'll know what you want (and don't we both love praise, too?).6

Speaking of praise, neither of us likes to be yelled at or hit. It is scary and makes us feel bad. It also isn't helpful just to tell us what not to do; we need to understand what we want each other to do instead. So please show me what you want by using the "scratching post strategy": Put things on stuff you don't want me to scratch (climb on, sleep on, etc.) to remind me what not to use, but then give me places that are OK to use — and praise me lavishly for using them.

We also both like our things left alone. You have drawers to keep your things out of sight, and I like my things — food and water bowls, litterbox, resting area — in quiet, private places. And you know how we really don't love going to the doctor but know we need to? If one of my resting places also is a nice cat carrier, taking me to the veterinarian for my annual checkup will be a lot less stressful for both of us!7 You could even put a scratching post next to it so I can stretch after I get up from a nap like you do.

And we both like hunting for food. For you, it's finding that great new restaurant before anyone else does; for me it's prowling our house in search of prey. Just like you, I have my favorites, and I can show you what they are if you'll give me the chance.8 There also are toys that dispense food that I might like to play with while you are away (just do an Internet image search for 'cat food puzzle' to see all the possibilities to make or purchase for me).

I hope this helps you understand how much we have in common and how easy it is for you to show me you love me as I love you. Just follow the Golden Rule!

Sincerely,

Your Faithful and Devoted Cat

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How to Create a Happy Cat

In addition to feeding a nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate diet, keeping kitty at a lean-and-healthy weight, and providing exercise incentives, there are several components to her indoor environment that you'll need to consider from her uniquely feline perspective. These include:

1. Litterbox location — In the wild, cats not only hunt prey, they are prey for other animals. Certain activities make them vulnerable to predators, including eliminating. This vulnerability is what causes anxiety in your kitty when her litterbox is in a noisy or high traffic area.

Your cat's "bathroom" should be located in a safe, secure location away from any area that is noisy enough to startle her or make her feel trapped and unable to escape.

2. The opportunity to "hunt" for meals and snacks — Your cat, while domesticated, has maintained much of his natural drive to engage in the same behaviors as his counterparts in the wild, including hunting for food, which also happens to be excellent exercise. A great way to do that with an indoor cat is to have him "hunt" for his meals and treats.

Separate his daily portion of food into three to five small meals fed throughout the day in a variety of puzzle toys or indoor hunting feeder mice (available for raw and canned food, too!). You can also hide his food bowls or food puzzle toys in various spots around the house.

3. Places for climbing, scratching, resting, and hiding — Cats are natural climbers and scratchers, and those urges don't disappear when they move indoors. Your cat also needs her own resting place and a hiding place where she feels untouchable.

Cats prefer to interact with other creatures (including humans) on their own terms, and according to their schedule. Remember: well-balanced indoor kitties are given the opportunity to feel in control of their environment. Jackson Galaxy has written several books on creating feline environmental enrichment around the home that I highly recommend.

4. Consistency in interactions with humans — Your cat feels most comfortable when his daily routine is predictable, so performing little rituals when you leave the house and return can help him feel more comfortable with your comings and goings. A ritual can be as simple as giving him a treat when you leave and a nice scratch behind the ears as soon as you get home.

Playtime should also be consistent. Learn what types of cat toys he responds to and engage him in play, on his timetable. Of course, while you can encourage him to play, it's pointless to force the issue. Oh, and when he's had enough, he's had enough!

5. Sensory stimulation — Visual stimulation: Some cats can gaze out the window for hours. Others are captivated by fish in an aquarium. Some even enjoy kitty videos.

Auditory stimulation: When you're away from home, provide background noise for kitty that is similar to the ambient sounds she hears when you're at home, for example, music or a TV at low volume. Olfactory stimulation: You can stimulate your cat's keen sense of smell with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones (e.g., Feliway).