Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS, European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine (Companion Animals)
In a domestic environment many natural feline behaviour systems are compromised and cats find themselves living in groups of unrelated individuals, being made to share important resources and being denied the opportunity to hide or retreat from situations of potential conflict. In addition their human companions place social demands on them which are at odds with their own natural behaviour and often fail to provide for many of their basic instincts. Such constraints on normal behaviour result in stress and tension in our feline companions and, in many incidents of reported behaviour problems, an understanding of feline ethology not only helps to explain how and why the more common problems develop but also offers practical methods for dealing with them. In addition it is increasingly being recognised that stress can be a major factor in the onset and progression of medical conditions and ensuring that the domestic cat is as well adapted to its environment as possible is therefore an important element of preventative medicine.
The Challenge of Multi-Cat Households
Over recent years the cat has increased significantly in popularity and at the same time the number of multi-cat households has also increased. Some of these households are made up of sibling pairs, mothers and offspring and other combinations of related individuals but in many cases there is no such basis to the feline community and cats are being expected to live with total feline strangers. Owners have often acquired the cats as companions for one another and when problems of inter-cat aggression begin to surface within the household they are genuinely dismayed and perplexed by the situation. However, natural feline ethology provides no basis for toleration between unrelated felines and while the high proportion of neutering in the domestic population undoubtedly reduces hostility between strangers, and enhances the chances of feline integration, it by no means guarantees it. In some cases the aggression between housemates may be manifest as outright physical confrontation and the cats may be taken to the local veterinary practice with torn ears and puncture wounds to prove it but feline tension can also result in more subtle signs of unease and can result in chronic low grade stress which in turn contributes to obvious behavioural issues such as indoor marking and over grooming but may also be factors in medical conditions such as feline idiopathic cystitis.
Pressures From Neighbourhood Cats
Multi-cat households are not the only implication of increasing feline popularity and social tensions within local neighbourhoods are also heightened by the ever increasing population densities in urban areas. In feral situations the size of feline territories and the density of feline inhabitants will be dictated by the availability of vital resources such as food and shelter, but in domestic situations each cat has both of these resources provided for it by its owner and therefore relatively small geographical areas can sustain relatively high numbers of cats without obvious problems. However, such populations are often very unstable and any minor challenge to their stability, such as the introduction of a newcomer, can result in significant levels of inter-cat aggression and an increase in fear related behaviour problems in many of the individuals.
Human Demands on Feline Companions
Increasing feline populations both inside and outside the home undoubtedly influence the incidence and nature of behaviour problems in the domestic cat population but another very important factor to consider is the effect of changing human expectations on the behaviour of this ideal modern pet. One of the reasons for the cat's popularity is its relative independence and its ability to cater for its own needs, but while most owners are happy to know that their cat is getting on with its life while they are at work they also expect their pet to provide companionship and social interaction for them when they get home. This desire to engage in low frequency but high intensity interaction with cats raises very specific challenges since the normal pattern of cat to cat interaction is one of very frequent but low key communication. Such a fundamental difference in approach to social interaction is bound to bring inevitable tension and education of cat owners in the unavoidable restrictions of natural cat behaviour is essential. Remembering that the cat's primary defence strategy is flight it is not difficult to understand why the acts of being picked up and restrained are so potentially threatening and periods of lifting, gently restraining and touching the kitten all over its body should therefore be routinely incorporated into any programme of early handling for kittens. Even when this has been done effectively it is important to respect the cat's natural behaviour and keep highly restrictive handling to a minimum, learning instead to respond to feline greeting behaviour and to use vocal interaction to enhance the relationship.
Pressures of a Domestic Environment
In addition to the effects of other cats and people there are also specific constraints of the domestic environment which lead to further compromise of natural feline behaviours. The successful integration of kittens into an average human household is therefore something that requires a certain amount of preparation. After all the sights and sounds of human existence are not ones that a cat is innately prepared for and, while genetic influences will help to determine how an individual reacts to novelty and challenge in its adult environment, adequate exposure to a wide range of stimuli during the early process of behavioural organisation will also be crucial in ensuring that the cat has a broad frame of reference with which to compare its later experiences. Kittens which benefit from an inherited boldness, a varied early environment and ongoing mental and physical stimulation in adulthood will undoubtedly benefit most from the diversity of the domestic environment and will be less likely to exhibit behaviours which compromise their life as a human companion.
Medical Implications of Environmental Stress
In addition to the potential behavioural implications of chronic stress for the domestic cat it is important to recognise the interplay between emotional pressure and physical symptoms. It is now well established that emotional factors play a central role in the condition referred to as feline idiopathic cystitis and that cats suffering from this medical disorder have abnormalities in terms of their response to stress. In addition there is an increasing awareness of the effect of chronic stress on immune function and subsequent vulnerability in terms of infectious diseases, as well as the effect of unresolved stress on specific medical conditions such as feline orofacial pain syndrome, feline hyperaesthesia and diabetes mellitus. Providing a social and physical environment which is compatible with normal feline behaviour is therefore not only essential from a prophylactic perspective in behavioural terms but also should be considered a major factor in the prevention of some of the most important conditions within the field of feline internal medicine.
Modifying the Environment to Minimise Feline Stress
Studying the nature of feline territories helps to highlight the qualities that cats value and illustrate the importance of things like privacy, choice and hygiene in a feline context. The need for access to vertical space not only applies in multi-cat scenarios but also in single cat households and provision of elevated hiding places is important in achieving the feline aim of minimising fear and anxiety within the home. Failure to cater for the natural feline defence strategies of flight and hiding can result in cats feeling threatened and increase the risk of developing problems related to aggressive behaviour, but it can also result in chronic feline stress which is manifested in inappropriate self-appeasement behaviours such as over grooming and overeating. Simple alterations to the home in terms of providing radiator cradles and pieces of bedding on tops of wardrobes and kitchen cupboards can make a considerable difference to the quality of the environment from a feline perspective and in situations where anxiety is causing obvious behavioural changes the addition of a pheromone diffuser to the home will also be beneficial (Feliway).
Changing to Natural Feeding Patterns
The provision of immediate and unhindered access to resources is an important feature of feline existence and is equally important in both single and multiple feline households. In order to achieve this in relation to food it is advisable to adopt a policy of ad libitum feeding rather than stick to a rigid system of two meals a day and this also makes more sense in relation to natural feline feeding routines as well as feline anatomy and physiology. After all hunting behaviour is a time consuming activity in the wild and cats undertake between 100 and 150 hunting attacks per day over a period of six to eight hours. These attacks lead to relatively small meals and interestingly the success rate of feline hunting behaviour is surprisingly low with only 10% of them actually resulting in the acquisition of consumable prey. Consequently the ratio of energy expenditure to energy consumption is high and this leads to a very effective level of natural weight control. However, in the domestic environment when food is provided without any need for feline effort the ratio of energy input and output is likely to be altered and problems of unsuccessful weight control may result. In addition the tendency to provide meals on a twice daily basis over extends the cat's relatively small digestive tract and results in cats failing to eat all of their food in one sitting. Such behaviour is readily interpreted by caring owners as a sign that the cat is not happy with the food and selection of more palatable and more energy dense diets is often the result. Not only does this increase the tendency for cats to hold out for a more palatable option but it also further upsets the balance between energy input and output and runs a very real risk of inducing problems of feline obesity.
Providing Adequate Mental and Physical Exercise
Ensuring that cats expend sufficient mental and physical energy during the day is not only important in terms of weight control but also in terms of maintaining physical and mental fitness. Cats are designed to engage in short bursts of energy consuming activity, which is often related to predatory behaviour, and intersperse these with significant periods of rest and relaxation. Failure to provide the opportunity for such activity is not only a predisposing factor for obvious behavioural issues such as misdirected predatory behaviour but also contributes to the possibility of frustration related behaviours and an increase in feline stress as a result of unresolved emotional responses.
Catering for Feline Toileting Preferences
Hygiene is one of the important features of a natural feline territory and one of the most positive aspects of cat behaviour for many owners is their fastidious approach to toileting. The fact that they are already house trained when they arrive in their new home at just a few weeks of age is something that people find very appealing. However, this reputation for cleanliness leads to high expectations and it is important to recognise that provision of appropriate toileting facilities is a pre-requisite for acceptable and appropriate toileting behaviour. When litter facilities are going to be provided so that cats can urinate and defaecate within the boundaries of the home it is important to ensure that the location provides all of the qualities that a cat will search for in a latrine in the great outdoors and attention to the provision of adequate privacy is essential. Cats will naturally eliminate at the periphery of their territory, away from other resources such as feeding stations and resting areas, and select locations where they will be undisturbed. Indoor latrines must therefore also offer seclusion and sites which make the cat vulnerable or force proximity to other resources must be avoided.
The increasing popularity of the cat as a companion animal has led to a significant alteration in the role that it is expected to fulfill within human society and, whilst the majority of cats adapt well to the challenge, there are others that find the constraints of domestic life difficult to adjust to. Minimising the discrepancy between feline needs and human expectations is therefore essential if cats are to be relaxed in their companion animal role and if behavioural and physical manifestations of feline stress are to be avoided.