Cats’ Im-purr-fect Homes are Stressing Them Out, Study Says

Behaviour issues because of a poor home environment are the biggest welfare concern for cats, experts say.

A  poor home environment is the biggest issue for pet cats, study says.
Photo: Anna Luopa/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Cats are incredibly popular pets. There are an estimated 95.6 million pet cats in the US, 10.9 million pet cats in the UK, and 9.3 million in Canada. They have a reputation as being easy pets, but is it possible that means we aren’t doing enough to keep our cats happy? New research published in Veterinary Record suggests that is the case.

Cat experts were surveyed for their opinions on the most important welfare issues for pet cats, and asked to rank them according to severity, duration, and prevalence.

Cat owners can avoid these issues by making sure they know about cats. Prof. Cathy Dwyer (Scotland's Rural College), co-author of the research, told me in an email,
“I would most want cat owners to understand more about cat behaviour – why cats do what they do, what they need for good welfare and how we can provide that for them. To be honest (and as an ethologist I might just be a wee bit biased here), if we paid more attention to animal behaviour then a lot of the other issues (relinquishment to shelters for behavioural issues, not recognising pain, not seeking veterinary treatment, etc, etc) might just go away as well!”
The results of the study show that for individual cats, social behaviour issues because of a poor home environment is the most significant threat to their welfare. This is because of the severity of the problem and the fact it can go on for a long time. If cats don’t have what they need, it can make them stressed, and anxiety and stress can contribute to a range of behaviour issues including house-soiling. Ultimately, this can result in people giving their cat up to a shelter.

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A poor environment for the cat can simply mean it is not set up right for them. For example, cats need hiding places, and the opportunity to express normal behaviours (such as scratching and play). To learn more about cats’ environmental needs, check out the five pillars of a healthy environment for cats.

In homes with more than one cat, if the cats have to compete for access to things like litter boxes, it can result in stress and inter-cat aggression. The scientists point out that there is no evidence that cats living in groups are necessarily more stressed than those who are singleton cats. But it is important to ensure all cats have access to what they need. However many cats you have, it’s also a good idea to give them lots of enrichment.

Keeping cats indoors means that any deficiencies in their home environment are all the more severe, because the cat has nowhere else to go. It’s worth noting that the study took place in the UK, where allowing cats to roam (at least during daylight hours) is the norm.

Behaviour issues due to a poor environment is a big issue for pet cats
Photo: Lario/Shutterstock

The second most serious welfare issue for individual cats is diseases of old age, which includes dental disease, arthritis, diabetes, and cognitive dysfunction. The scientists say there is a risk that both owners and veterinarians will put things down to old age. This means cats may not be taken to the vet and may not receive treatment for potentially treatable issues. This results in them suffering pain or ill health.

Obesity is the third most serious welfare issue for individual cats. It is estimated that up to 45% of cats are overweight or obese. This can have serious consequences for the cat’s health (it is known that in dogs obesity reduces lifespan by notable amounts). People need to recognize (or be told by their vet) when their pet is overweight, and help their cat lose weight.

Another serious welfare issue for individual cats was not taking them to the vet when they need to go. Many owners struggle with getting their cat in the carrier (see eight tips to help your cat go to the vet) or don’t realize when their cat needs to see a vet. Other welfare issues mentioned are poor management of pain (despite veterinary improvements in this area in recent years), and issues with shelters and unowned cats.

Welfare issues were also ranked in terms of how common they are believed to be. The most common welfare issues is neglect and hoarding. Hoarders have more cats than they are able to take proper care of, although they are often in denial about this and believe they are helping them. Hoarding is a complex issue that requires a multi-agency approach to resolve (see the results of an integrated approach to hoarding in Wake County, USA, for more info).

Other common issues affecting cats include delayed euthanasia when there is a poor quality of life, inherited diseases (including issues to do with conformation e.g. brachycephalic cats), restriction of the environment leading to behaviour problems, and poor pain management.

The welfare issues were identified through an iterative process including a discussion forum, a survey, and a workshop at which experts discussed the topics identified during the survey and forum.

Most of these issues arise because of people not understanding cat behaviour or what their cat needs, although there are also issues where more research is needed.

The results show that better education for cat owners is essential.

What’s your tip for cat owners who want to improve their cat’s life? If you want inspiration, see what experts told me would make the world better for cats.

The full paper is open access and can be read via the link below. You can follow Prof. Dwyer on Twitter along with one of her co-authors, Dr. Heather Bacon.

P.S. Sign up to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Cat.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
You might also like:
Five things to do for your cat today
What are the five freedoms (and what do they mean to you?)
The Five Domains model aims to help animals thrive

Rioja-Lang, F., Bacon, H., Connor, M., & Dwyer, C. M. (2019). Determining priority welfare issues for cats in the United Kingdom using expert consensus. Veterinary Record Open, 6(1).
(open access)

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  1. Wow, I fully agree! Lately when people ask me for help with issues in their cats I find myself answering, "First, cats are far closer to their original biology than we thought," meaning that nature has as a strong pull as nurture and possibly stronger, and it's best to understand what underlies your cat's needs instead of just looking a marketing and advertising.

    I feel that in the push decades ago to get cats accepted as pets and adopted at shelters we pushed the "easy care pet" idea a little too hard, leading people to believe that cats had no needs at all. We also took cats away from their mothers far too soon and so many generations went by with little or no real socialization for kittens that we gave cats their "bad reputation" for all the negative points people produce about cats. We need to work much harder to make sure cats get full socialization before they are even adopted, and then teach adopters what they need in their environment.

    1. Those are great points, Bernadette! Thanks for your comment. I agree in particular about the importance of socialization and not taking kittens away from their moms too soon. These are things people often don't think about.

  2. Thanks for this article Zazie! I think one thing that really helps me - I hope so anyway! - understand what my cats might need is really training myself to understand the more subtle aspects of their body language, and what our home, my partner's and my own body language and energy (e.g. stress, which seems easily internalised by our cats) might seem like to them - facial expressions, scents, variations in routines...

    1. I'm glad you like the article! I agree with you. Paying attention to cats' body language is very important - and as you say, sometimes it is so subtle. It's always good to think of the cat's point of view!


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