The Five Pillars of a Healthy Environment for Cats

How to set your house up for your cat. Do you provide these five things that your cat needs?

The five things to do to set your house up right for your cat. Photo shows ginger kitten
Photo: Sue McDonald/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Every morning at about the same time, my tortoiseshell cat Melina jumps on the bed with a chirrup and comes up to sniff my nose and ask to be petted. She purrs while I pet her on the head in the places where cats like to be petted, and a very short time later my alarm goes off and it’s time to get up. This sweet morning interaction is part of her daily routine.

Cats are wonderful pets, but people don’t always understand them well. If we provide a cat with the things they need in their environment, it helps them to be happier and healthier. This applies not just to the physical environment, but also to social interactions with us and any other animals in their space. If these things are not provided, the cat may become stressed and show signs of behaviour problems.

The five pillars of a healthy feline environment are described by the International Society of Feline Medicine and the American Association of Feline Practitioners, based on the scientific evidence on pet cats. They take account of the fact that cats evolved as solitary hunters, and that they can be solitary or live in groups (depending). They also reflect what we know about the cat’s senses, and that kittens have a sensitive period for socialization.

Read on to find out if you are providing these for your cat.

A safe space

Cats like to feel safe. They prefer to avoid confrontation and their natural response to something stressful is to hide. In fact, one study that gave shelter cats a choice of different enrichment items found they preferred the hiding place.

From a cat’s perspective, a safe space is somewhere that is enclosed and just the right size for them. Cats also like to be high up where they can see what is going on around them, so good hiding places can also be high up, like enclosed spaces in a cat tree or a perch at the top of a cat tree. The good news is that a safe space can be as simple as an upturned cardboard box with a hole cut in for them to get in and out.

If you look around your home, you may identify other places that will make good hiding places. Maybe there is a shelf where you can clear a cat-sized space and put a fleecy blanket to make a nice perch. Maybe you can leave the wardrobe door ajar and make a nice little hiding place in there (or perhaps your cat, like Melina, will learn to open the door herself and burrow into the pile of nice clean laundry waiting to be ironed).

Five things to set up your house for your cat. Cats can feel safe in a cardboard box (pictured)
Photo: kmsh/Shutterstock

You can make places feel safer by having a cat bed or blanket that smells of the cat, or even putting some of your own (already worn) clothing down for them to relax on. They will feel comforted by your smell.

Ideally, the cat carrier should be a safe space for your cat, and can be out at all times as a space for your cat to relax in. See eight ways to help your cat go to the vet for some tips.

Multiple and separated key environmental resources

The things that matter to your cat should be in different places, and there should be enough of them that the cat does not have to compete with other cats (or even the dog) to get access to them.

The key environmental resources for your cat are their food bowl, water bowl, litter tray, scratching post, somewhere to play with their toys, and cat beds or other nice places to rest. Every cat should have a choice, so even if they already have one scratching post (for example), they should also have another. (As well, they should be scratching posts that the cat actually likes).

For litter trays, a general rule is to have one per cat plus one spare. They should not all be located in the same place, otherwise in a multi-cat house it would be possible for one cat to block the other cats’ access.

If your cat has outdoors access, these resources should also be provided outside if possible (although this may not be appropriate for food, which could attract rats, raccoons, and other animals).

If you have more than one cat in your house, they may form one or several social groups. Ways to tell if cats are part of the same social group include if they groom each other, rub their faces or bodies on each other, and tend to rest or sleep near or even next to each other. Each ‘group’ should be able to access their resources without having to compete with the other group.

Opportunities for play and predatory behaviour

Cats are solitary hunters, and if not cared for by a human would need to spend a lot of time each day hunting. Play is important for cats, and allows them to satisfy their predatory instincts, for instance by chasing a wand toy or catching a toy mouse. This also helps the cat to get some exercise (especially important for indoor cats).

Opportunities for play (like this kitten) is one of the five pillars of a good environment for cats
Photo: Mark Hayes/Shutterstock

Cats can have toys they can play with on their own, as well as toys for interactive play with you. Wand toys can be moved to mimic prey, and allow the cat to chase; bigger toys can allow the cat to hold it and kick with their back legs; and cats like smaller toys they can pick up with their mouth and walk off with, as if they just caught it. Food puzzle toys are also a great way to provide play opportunities.

Providing daily play opportunities has been linked to fewer behaviour problems in cats.  Toys can also contain substances like catnip or silvervine which many cats love. Be sure to pick toys that will be safe for the cat, as string or bits that fall off can be ingested and cause a blockage. Put wand toys away when not in use.

Positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat interaction

Cats like to have regular interactions with their humans, but being cats, they also like to feel in control. The guidelines say that,
“Many cats prefer a high frequency, low intensity level of social contact with humans, a scenario that gives them a good deal of control.”
You can help by giving your cat a choice of whether or not to interact with you, either by calling them to you (and waiting to see if they come or not), or getting down to their level and putting out a finger or hand to see if they approach. See how to pet cats and dogs for more info.

Kittens need to get used to being handled, and it is best if at least four people handle them during the sensitive period to help them learn that people are safe. It is important to ensure these are positive experiences in which the kitten has a choice, as bad experiences at this time can have a serious impact and may make the kitten fearful.

Kittens and young cats tend to prefer longer interactions and play sessions, and as they get older they may prefer shorter sessions.

An environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell

Cats have amazing noses, as well as a vomeronasal organ that allows them to detect pheromones (chemical signals). Cats use pheromones in several ways. When a cat rubs their head on you, for example, they are actually depositing pheromones. They also deposit pheromones when scratching (one of the reasons scratching is a normal behaviour for cats, and why they need us to provide suitable scratching places).

Cats can find strong smells very unpleasant. One of the ways we can respect their sense of smell is to avoid using cleaners with strong smells and avoid bringing strong smells into the house. Don’t use scented litter, as most cats do not like it.

Remember that the cat’s scent on their bedding helps them to feel secure, so wash their bedding on rotation instead of all at once.

If you want to learn more about the importance of smell to cats, see what the cat’s nose knows. You can also find some ideas for using scent when training cats in my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis.

Summary: Five Pillars of the Environment for Cats

Providing these five pillars is important for cats, and will help your cat to feel more secure in their home. Research shows that behaviour issues due to a poor environment is the biggest welfare issue for pet cats.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. “Purr is a must read for anyone who shares their life with a cat and wants to provide the most fulfilling, enriched, and happiest existence possible for them” says Kate LaSala of Rescued by Training.

Almost everyone can find things they could do to improve the environment from the cat’s perspective, so take a look at your home and see what you can do to meet your cat’s needs. I’d love to hear about what you do to make your cat even happier.

The guidelines are open access if you want to read them in full.

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read, and the cover of Purr
Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., Sundahl, E. & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230.

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