Behaviourist Peter Neville looks at the ethical dilemmas of keeping our cherished cats safe vs allowing them to behave as nature intended and gives some practical advice on keeping the indoor cat stimulated and active.
As far back as 1985 a survey revealed that 99% of both dog and cat owners considered their pets to be members of the family and 97% talked to their pet at least once a day. There are many levels of attachment but factors which contribute to very high levels of owner attachment to cats are being single or childless or being in need of emotional support. Many studies over the years have also classified pet cats and dogs as ‘substitute children’. Some owners describe their relationship with their cat as being closest to ‘mother’, some occasionally talked to their cat in the same way as they would talk to a child, others talk to it exclusively in this way. However, to describe the relationship as substituting for a child simply on these grounds overlooks many other important factors and is a gross over-simplification. Owners are merely stating how their cat fulfils particular needs for them. To be ‘a child’ to its owner means that a cat satisfies a need to look after a dependent. Dogs and cats are perhaps more commonly seen by their owners as ‘close friends’ and most of us would say that they are aware of our moods. So it’s not a surprise that we want to keep them as safe as all the other members of the family.
The indoor cat will enjoy toys of all shapes and sizes
Psychologists studying human relationships, such as marriage, have found that difficulties are more common when partners fail to regard each other as separate individuals with their own personalities. This is because they are then more likely to project their own needs onto their partner. Usually, the greater a person’s state of anxiety and conflict, the greater will be their need to do this. If this happens in the cat/human relationship it may cause owner dissatisfaction with a cat and underlie many behaviour problems in the cat that are brought to veterinarians for help or referred on to behaviourists. Suppression of a cat’s emotional needs in favour of the emotional requirements of the owner tends to produce a less satisfactory relationship for the owner and usually for the cat as well. One study found that the more owners (in this case Swiss housewives) responded to their cat, the more likely it was to respond to them; and the more interactions initiated by the cat, the longer these interactions lasted. We can fail to comprehend our cat’s true demands of life. Expecting the cat to be able to fulfil human psychological demands lies at the heart of many feline behaviour problems.
Hunting catnip provides entertainment which could be duplicated indoors
Most owners in Europe allow their cats the freedom of the great outdoors to do whatever it is that cats do all day outside, and then care, feed and enjoy social interaction with them when they return home. Only about 10% of cats are believed to live permanently indoors in the UK, although the figure is increasing and already much higher in the USA, where keeping cats indoors is encouraged. Much of the recent growth in cat keeping has occurred where our lives are busiest, in the city, where many owners live in high rise apartments. The cat may simply be unable to get to ground level, but other owners in the city have concerns about their pet’s safety outdoors and choose to keep them indoors even when they live at ground level. One in four cats will perish under the wheels of a car in the UK, although, as with other causes of mortality, death on the roads is highest in the first year of life. If a cat survives its first year and learns about dangers in his environment, he is very likely to live a long life of 15 years, or even 20 and beyond, and even in a busy tarmac territory. A cat in the city is thought to be at even greater risk from being injured or killed on the road than one in suburbia or the countryside, simply because of the greater volume of traffic and numbers of roads, but many cats in the countryside also fall prey to cars. The surprise solitary vehicle per day passing down a lonely road can often catch out the relaxed and unwary cat, and so some owners in rural areas also choose to keep their pet indoors for safety reasons. This may also save young cats from what may be risky competition with wild predators such as foxes and birds of prey, and also from any risk of being poisoned by baits left out for countryside vermin. Indoor cats are also unlikely to catch diseases that cats communicate one to another, are protected against injuries and resulting infections that might arise from fighting, and are far less likely to contract parasites, such as fleas and worms. And of course, some timid and older cats may also prefer to stay indoors anyway, warm, protected and well away from all the startling things that can happen to them outdoors.
As more and more people opt for keeping a pedigree cat (about 10% in the UK), the perceived risks of theft also encourage many owners to confine their cat to the home for its own safety, even though the chances of domestic shorthairs being stolen for their fur, or to be made into glue etc are probably vastly over-estimated. The fact is that many cats with outdoor access simply move home for one reason or another, or just get lost or accidentally shut away in yard sheds and garages, and then get taken in by someone else, or are passed on as strays to humane societies to be found new homes. Concerns to confine a cat in the home where it is loved and avoid the possibility of it wandering away also prompt many people to keep their cats indoors even though there may be a relatively safe and interesting environment outdoors for it.
Feline emotional wellbeing
Such is the depth of the modern cat owner’s attachment, that many cats will now live their entire lives indoors. There is no doubt that indoor cats live longer and safer lives than cats allowed to go hunting and exploring outdoors. But what of their mental welfare? The cat began to evolve 13 million years ago and ultimately became a top-of-the-food chain, obligate predator, and a solitary hunter at that. This means that a cat is designed to move through its hunting environment, on the one hand avoiding danger and, on the other, detect its prey, then approach and catch it. To do this, cats have had to evolve astonishing sensory capabilities, with specialised eyesight that functions at low light levels when their usual prey of rodents is most active and birds are roosting, and a sense of hearing that extends way up into the range employed by bats so that they can hear the very high frequency chattering of rats or mice. Their sense of smell, although largely reserved for social organisation rather than hunting, is also far superior to ours, and that of most dogs. Along with their very touch sensitive whiskers and coat guard hairs, cats can be regarded as super-sensory compared with social hunter-gatherers like man, or hunter-scavengers like dogs, that find much of their food as part of a team and can rely on one another to detect and respond to danger.
The outdoor arena
More than just being able to detect so much more of what is going on around them, cats actually NEED to have their senses stimulated during their waking hours, and have the opportunity to organise the behaviours that go with detecting, stalking and catching their prey. Being socially dependent on their mother when young, and, as adult pets, often sociable with each other, they may also have social contact with other cats, and all will certainly need to have such contact frequently with their owners to remain content in a domestic setting. This is where the keeping of cats allowed the freedom of the outdoors is so easy. The cat simply goes outside when he feels the need to exercise, or to hunt, a need which is so emotionally fundamental to the cat that it usually persists very strongly even in the most well fed of pets. He goes out also to find stimulation for his highly advanced mammalian brain to keep it in fit responsive, working order. The opportunity to explore new things in a changing environment and fulfil the desire either to be sociable, or to be highly territorial and even defend resources against other cats in the neighbourhood, are all part of a cat’s needs. They are just as important for his psychological health as being loved, played with and fed the best food indoors by his loving owners.
Indoors is safe, but it can become boring?
A challenging prospect
Far from being easy and convenient to keep a cat permanently indoors, it is a highly challenging prospect for owners to do so properly from the cat’s point of view. The challenge is exactly the same when it comes to keeping animals in cages or small enclosures in zoos – how best to keep them happy and stimulated in a small and rather unchanging environment when every aspect of their protection, feeding and physical health is managed for them?
Frustration is not always bad!
The key, as many zoos have discovered over the last 20 to 30 years, is to introduce the animals to the emotion of frustration in their day-to-day lives. This is just as vital to the contentment, mood balance and wellbeing for the indoor cat, as the love and attention on demand that a pet can be offered. Yet it is frustration and challenge that is often missing from all confined environments, whether or not the resident is cosseted and handled individually. If there are no problems ever to have to resolve in terms of play, acquiring food, or access to novel items, then a cat can simply become bored or obsessed with some minor aspect of life as a compensatory mechanism. It is the relief of mild frustration by overcoming little difficulties and exploring new things that brings a feeling of reward and wellbeing. Indoor cats can otherwise all too easily become lazy and unfit if they only ever have to walk a few paces to their bowl for food and become unmotivated to carry out normal motor patterns of behaviour. Instead they may sleep even more than the two thirds of life that cats, like many predators, normally sleep anyway, simply as a means of recycling neurotransmitters such as dopamine that are associated with engendering feelings of wellbeing. Hence simply leaving a cat alone to get on with his life indoors with all the food in the world among a range of unchanging toys that never move, in an environment that never changes, and with just an occasional, or even lots of, cuddles, is to neglect his real needs and increase the likelihood of many behaviour problems developing. It is also to miss out on the true joy of owning and living with one of the planet’s most astonishing creatures.
A four point plan for the indoor cat
The following four point plan can help to keep an indoor cat psychologically healthy.
1. Play the right games
The first key for exercising the mind and body to promote best mental and physical health in indoor cats of all ages is lots of action that allows your cat to express its innately rewarding predatory sequence of behaviour: ‘eye-stalk-chase-pounce-bite’, so as to make up for the lack of opportunity to practise on real prey in the process of acquiring food. Instigate hunting type chase games with a range of moving toys that you activate up to 30 times per day for solitary indoor cats. This is because cats are designed to need to catch about 10 mice per day for survival but would perhaps, even with a very generous estimate, only catch a mouse one time in three approaches (initiations of the hunting sequence), so dangling a fishing rod type toy and rolling balls of paper past your cat’s line of vision and then up and over furniture to chase and pounce on, needs to be offered frequently. It doesn’t take long, it’s great fun to see a cat co-ordinate all those marvellous senses and little muscular movements and it really makes the difference between a cat that is happy indoors and one that is just plain neglected and bored.
2. Social contact
This is the easy part! Always respond to your indoor cat if he comes to you in search of a cuddle or a cosy chat and make time in your busy schedule, especially when you return home after some hours away, to say hello for at least a few moments and re-establish that bond. Indoor cats tend to coincide their activity and waking patterns around the presence of their owners and rest and sleep when they are alone, so it is very important to ‘be there’ when they need you. But don’t wake him or chase him around trying to be nice to him – you will probably have less contact with him if you do and he may see you as a disturbance and even a threat and avoid you. Let him dictate the relationship and always respond, but don’t rely on affection as your only form of contact, however much you both enjoy it. Play hunting is probably more important to a normally solitary predator, but equal measures of both are required. Of course, indoor cats should never be kept singly if at all possible so that they have this vital social contact even when you are away. Some cats may be very territorial and anti-social and prefer to live alone, but if they can be kept in pairs or more, they will not only hopefully enjoy being affectionate with each other, but also practise their hunting behaviours in gentle form on each other. This means that the number of chase games that you should instigate with each individual cat could perhaps be reduced to a couple of sessions of about five chase and pounce games each.
Left: Always lots of territory marking and patrolling to do outside Right: Some timid cats prefer to stay indoors
3. Territory size versus novelty
When it comes to territory, the amount of space available to a cat isn’t the main factor. One study suggested that an indoor cat should have at least two rooms to move around in and not be able to see all parts of his patch from all points, but this is rather meaningless. Although many people build an outdoor run for their cats, many cats soon get bored with that area in the same way as they get bored with the house once they have got to know all about it and all the people and animals in it. Free ranging cats, of course, encounter a changing environment every time they go out, and so to compensate for that lack of stimulation indoors, you must try to provide as changing an environment as possible in your home. Bring in lots of new objects with different smells attached for your cat to investigate every day. Make sure your cat’s vaccinations are fully up to date, and then bring him tree branches, rocks, cardboard boxes and tubes, newspapers folded into run through arches, natural platforms, cat furniture etc, as well as a steady flow of new toys. Everything will be new and demand an inspection, and help to ensure that he continues to use his senses to the full.
4. Introduce frustration: make feeding more difficult
Abandon thoughts of providing food in bowls as this cuts down a cat’s natural active foraging time to just a few minutes per day compared with the hours that he would need to spend hunting to feed himself. Instead, provide complete dry food in foraging toys that he must manipulate for the food to fall out – these are available in all good pet stores. Divide the daily recommended ration into as many refills as possible and hide the toys in different places every time, including in and around the new objects that you bring him for exploration. Divide the rest of his daily ration into lots of portions that you hide elsewhere around the home for him to seek out and discover before he eats.
There are many good reasons why you might choose to keep your cat indoors from the start, but with good daily attention to his diet, healthcare and his physical and psychological wellbeing, he will enjoy a long and healthy life. The opportunity to investigate novelty, forage, practise hunting behaviours and enjoy direct social contact and affection with you, and hopefully other cats too, is vital to keeping him happy and compensated for the lack of natural change, challenge and self organisation that goes with free access to the outdoors. As ever, the more effort you make to understand reach with cats, the more rewarding they are, indoors or out!