Help for House Cats

No matter how adventurous your cat, it’s confronted by many risks the second it steps foot outside. The Humane Society of the United States estimates a free-roaming cat might live as few as three years, compared to 12 to 15 years for an indoor-only cat.

For much of feline history, cats roamed freely, serving as handy rodent-catchers around grain crops. As the years went on, people brought cats indoors, again relying on felines to reduce numbers of unwanted vermin. The cat’s role today has primarily evolved to that of a beloved companion, which needs and deserves our protection. The situation benefits both people and cats, since an indoor cat is a safer cat. Most feline fanciers are getting the message. About two-thirds of the estimated 90 million cats in the United States alone reside indoors.

However, cats need more than just the security of staying inside. It’s up to you to provide an environment that meets the needs of your indoor cat. The Indoor Cat Initiative, an Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine project, is designed to help you understand just what your indoor cat requires and how you can easily help it live a happy, healthy life. “As long as we’re going to have cats indoors, we certainly have the responsibility to keep them in the most enriched situation possible,’’ says Tony Buffington, DVM, Ph.D, director of the Indoor Cat Initiative.

The Initiative’s website offers basic advice for meeting your indoor cat’s requirements. You can also order a DVD from the site. You’ll be in tune with your cat’s needs, says Dr. Buffington, if you provide your house cat with these eight inside essentials:

  • Exercise Many veterinarians, such as Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, of Chico, Calif., are concerned about the number of overweight felines they see in their practices. Dr. Colleran suggests providing “an abundance of cat toys. Having just one cat toy is silly.” The Indoor Cat Initiative advises understanding your cat’s prey of choice. Would your pal rather romp after an object that moves in the air? A furry toy? A laser light? Pay attention to your cat’s playtime preferences and buy accordingly.
  • Mental stimulation Playing with your feline during the day offers additional benefits, says Dr. Colleran. You’ll engage your cat mentally, which will help to keep your pal alert and involved with its surroundings. Your cat, nocturnal by nature, will also be less likely to keep you up during the night. Allowing your cat to hunt for food you’ve placed around the house also provides stimulation, she says. Don’t forget to offer your pet at least one room with a view. Cats love to watch outdoor activity.

  • Something to scratch Determine, just by observation and experimentation, what material your cat enjoys under its paws, says Dr. Colleran. Some cats scratch vertically, while others prefer to scratch horizontally. A scratching post needn’t be fancy. It can be a simple homemade device, created by nailing or stapling some scratching material, such as a carpet remnant, to a piece of plywood. Just be sure no sharp nails or staple points protrude before you present it to your clawed friend.

  • A place of its own Your cat needs a space where it feels safe and secure. Make sure food, water and litter are not located where another animal or person can sneak up or surprise your cat. The Indoor Cat Initiative suggests placing dishes and the litter box away from appliances or air ducts that might suddenly turn on, startling your cat.

  • Something to climb “People don’t think about cats operating in three dimensions,’’ says Dr. Buffington. “They need to climb. That’s part of their natural behavior. But people often don’t want them to climb on certain things.” Dr. Buffington believes cat owners often neglect to provide their cats a suitable alternative. You can purchase commercial perches and roosts for cats or, suggests Dr. Buffington, a six-foot pine ladder, if you don’t mind the unusual addition to your décor.

  • Clean, fresh litter Litter should be scooped daily and cleaned regularly, with each cat provided with its own box. Offer an ample-sized box, advises Dr. Colleran, who has written several papers about indoor cats. Select one of the bigger litter boxes you find on the shelf at your local pet store. Most large boxes measure around 18.5 inches in length and 15.25 inches in width, or more. Keep clutter and debris cleared from around the box. “Cats are really fastidious. They like their bathrooms clean, and they need a great, big litter box.”

  • Fresh grass or catnip Offer your cat something green to graze on, as it would chomp on grass outdoors.

  • Choice Cats enjoy choice, says Dr. Buffington. For instance, before you make a decision to change cat litter brands, place samples of both old and new for your cat to try. At mealtime, try offering two different-flavored foods side by side to see which one might be your pet’s fave.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do, according to Dr. Buffington, is to recognize when your indoor cat is healthy and engaged in its environment. If your indoor cat is alert and energetic, those are good signs that you are providing for its needs. “Learn to become a good cat observer,” he advises.

Cat Toys: When the Thrill is Gone

Pet stores don't sell dangling cable wires in their cat toy sections. But if they did, it may just be the next bestseller. The long cable that suddenly appeared from Jennifer Moore's apartment rooftop was all it took to keep her cat up every night for a week. "She seemed to be mostly staring, almost poised to pounce, but she also tried to bat it through the closed window," said Moore of her 5-year-old tabby cat Sari. "I hadn't seen her so excited about a 'toy' in a long time."

The newness of the wire -- as well as its split ends that could have looked like a trapped fly through the window -- probably entranced Sari. The toys in her basket were familiar to her, their behavior predictable in contrast to the new and exciting wire. It turns out that, like people, cats get bored with their old toys. But they don't have to lose interest. L.A.-based cat behaviorist Marva Marrow has suggestions on how to make every play day fresh and fun for you and your feline companion.

1. Limit the Options
"I recommend not having so many toys around, just a few at a time," says Marrow. Cats aren't great decision makers. When they have too many options, they become unable to focus and ultimately choose nothing hence, your untouched collection of stuffed mice. Too many toys will make each one unattractive to your cat. Keep interactive toys out of your cat's reach altogether when you're not home.

2. Rotate the Toys
If you already own more than a few cat toys, you don't need to purge the collection. Instead, put all but three in the back of the closet for a week or so. When that time has passed, hide those away and pull out three more. The three you choose should be as dissimilar as your toy stash allows. "For cats that respond to catnip, the toys that let you put fresh catnip in will be intriguing each time you refill them," says Marrow. Purchase the catnip in bulk and leave it in your freezer until you're ready to use it.

3. Know Your Cat's Turn-Ons (and Turn-Offs)
While cats have idiosyncratic tastes, some general rules apply. For example, most prefer texture to sound, making a furry stuffed mouse more enticing than a rubber one that squeaks. Cats are also smart, and not easily fooled by mechanical prey. "The mechanical motion of a wind-up mouse is generally not so interesting to them for very long," says Marrow. What will remain appealing to most cats is any toy they can bat around, especially those that are textured (e.g., plush toys and balled-up cellophane). "Those leave a lot to their imagination," Marrow explains.

4. Know Your Cat's Nature
Cat play is not just for fun -- at least not in your furry friend's mind. "When cats play, they're practicing their prey behavior," says Marrow. And if you've ever watched a cat actually hunt a mouse, you know that it doesn't make a quick kill. "They torture the thing, toss it up in the air, force it to move -- they like that aspect." Cats do the same thing with their toys. That is why they can spend hours batting a ball of tinfoil, which they can essentially make behave like a rabbit.

5. Keep It Real
Most cats are unable to follow quick movement. When interacting with your feline and its toys, don't swing them wildly through the air. "Drag a pole toy or string toy along the ground slowly, just out of your cat's reach. That will get it intrigued," says Marrow. You can also attempt to mimic the movement of their natural prey with their pole toys. "Hold it still so your cat can focus, and then wiggle it a little, stop, and then wiggle more. That's how a cricket would move." Once your cat is engaged, the movement can become more vigorous.

6. Use What You Have
Your cat's favorite plaything may turn out to be the plastic ring from a carton of milk, or the aforementioned ball of cellophane. Socks filled with catnip, small balls of yarn, or ping-pong balls let loose in a dry bathtub may also bring your cat more hours of pleasure than the most expensive store-bought toy.

As for Jennifer Moore's dangling wire, the cable company came to do repairs, and it disappeared forever. Not surprisingly, given the nature of cats, "Sari didn't seem to miss it," said Moore.

Secrets to Cat Playtime Perfection Revealed

Pam Johnson-Bennett's two pet cats are a mother-and-daughter team. But despite the shared genes, the two felines couldn't be more different when it comes to preferences at playtime. The mother, Mary, likes to leap into the air after toys, as if hunting a bird. The daughter, Bebe, prefers stalking pretend prey on the ground, as if pursuing a mouse.

The one commonality: both cats like to play predator.

"All felines play the same way, whether playing with a speck of dust or a mouse," says Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat (Penguin). "They take on the same posture, slink down, stalk and pounce -- whether it's a tiger on the savanna or the tiger in your living room."

Domestic cats like to play the way a cat would behave in the wild. This type of play can both meet a cat's physical and emotional needs. For cats that don't get enough challenging playtime, life can become boring and lonely -- for them, an incredibly stressful reality -- making them lethargic and prone to illness.

In order to vary playtime specifically for your cat, there are two types of beneficial predatory play. Some felines favor ground hunting, while others prefer more aerial pursuits. Here's how to discover the predator in your furry friend for a positive playtime:

Finding the Inner Ground Hunter
Determining whether a pet prefers to stalk pretend prey on the ground, or in the air, is a matter of trial and error. See how your pet responds to ground play and aerial games, suggests Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior specialist at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA). Some cats -- but not all -- have very distinct preferences for one type of play or the other, Johnson-Bennett says.

There are right ways and wrong ways, however, to try to coax your pet into pouncing on a would-be rodent on the ground: 

  • Try a variety of toys Your interactive toys can be homemade or store-bought. Johnson-Bennett recommends toys on a wire that can spring back and forth. But a balled up piece of paper and a string might work, as well.
  • Simulate a variety of ground movements "I always tell clients to think like prey," Johnson-Bennett says. "Prey is not moving around wildly in front of the cat. Find a place to hide the toy and then another place. Use little, quivering movements."
  • Don't touch your pet with the toy "People are confused when they get an irritated response rather than a predatory response," Delgado says. "It's very unlikely that any mouse or bird, for that matter, would walk up to a cat and say, in effect, 'Come and get me.'"
  • Allow your cat to taste success Let them swat the toy with a paw. Allow them to pounce on the toy first before pulling it away. Little victories serve to build up your pet's confidence, Johnson-Bennett says.
  • End on a positive note Let your feline experience the thrill of victory. It will make them want to play again. You may want to end your play with a meal or treat -- a reward they would get in the wild.

There are some cautions, experts say. Don't use a hand or other body part as the pretend prey, warns Suzanne Hetts, an animal behaviorist in Littleton, Colo. who runs Helping Kitty, because you could end up getting hurt and confusing kitty when you use that same hand to try to stroke your pet. Also, never leave the cat alone on the ground with a string toy because they could swallow it and end up wreaking havoc on their digestive systems, Delgado says.

Identifying a Feline that Favors Aerial Hunting
If ground play doesn't engage your kitty, go airborne with your toys. Aerial play is often for the more athletic feline who likes to leap up, jump onto furniture and sometimes do flips in the air. Here are steps to create an inviting aerial hunting game for your cat:

  • Give kitty a warm up Little jumps are good before progressing to full-blown aerial leaps, Delgado says.
  • Try toys attached to a pole or wire They can allow you to simulate quick, bird-like movements.
  • Think like a bird A bird would not be in flight all the time, Johnson-Bennett says. "It lands on the ground. Walks a bit. Flies around again and walks again."
  • Let your cat climb You may not like to encourage your cat to jump up on the table, but climbing up a cat condo to get a better look at the prey might be fun and provide more exercise.
  • Let kitty reap rewards Allow your cat to catch its prey. As with ground-hunting, it gives your pet confidence to get their paws on the play toy every now and then. You may want to end with a food reward.

Once you discover which type of "hunter" your pet is, you can work to keep playtime active and help your feline's overall health. Also, be sure to put the special toys away between play times. "Leave out the balls and furry mice," Johnson-Bennett says. "But the interactive toys are special and shouldn't be handing around -- just as mice and birds aren't always hanging around."