Cat on scratching post
People often mistakenly believe that cats are low-maintenance pets. Though they may not need to be walked regularly or go outside to do their business, cats do need a stimulating environment that takes care of their basic needs, which include scratching, climbing and playing. Once you understand what your cat is getting out of different types of furniture and toys, you can better create an environment that aligns with your cat’s natural instincts — and your home decor. 

Cats Need to Scratch

Cats scratch for a number of important, instinctual reasons. According to Dr. Wailani Sung, "Scratching is a good form of exercise for them. They get to stretch out their bodies and extend and retract their nails. When they scratch, the movements help remove the outer nail sheaths."

Dr. Sung adds that cats also scratch to mark their territory. In addition to visual scratching cues, they also leave scents. "Their interdigital glands, which are located between the pads of their paws, leave odors behind so that other cats know that the ‘marker’ cat has been in the area," Dr. Sung explains.

The problem is that cat scratchers and posts, while truly essential to your cat’s happiness and well-being, have typically fallen into the "ugh" decor category. But if you don’t provide your cat with a place to scratch, odds are he will choose one that displeases you — your sofa, windowsill or lovely new ottoman — so you’d probably rather provide something. 

Tip 1: Buy something attractive to begin with. Today, there are plenty of cool-looking scratchers, like the ones from Imperial Cat, that will stand the test of time (and claws). Other resources for appealing scratchers include Hauspanther and All Modern

Tip 2: Transition carefully from an old, shabby scratcher to a new one. Cat trainer Mikkel Becker points out, “Some cats like posts they’ve scratched prior because they have their familiar marks and scents that draw the cat in to scratch in their familiar spot rather than other places.” So, if you’re going to trade in your ugly post for something sleeker, Becker advises to do it in a thoughtful way. “If you do replace, use the cat’s familiar scent in the area. Let your cat rub up against a towel or gently brush it across his cheek area while petting and then rub this on the post to place his scent in the area and help it feel like home. Just be sure to do this on a regular basis, about once a week, until the cat is regularly using the new scratching post.” 

Cats Need to Climb

Many cats enjoy being up high and looking down on their humans either from cat trees or perches, presumably because it feels safer to them, Becker says. "Cats easily learn that toddlers, dogs and other animals have a more difficult time reaching them. When you’re the size of a cat, it probably feels a lot better to be up away from the feet and more at the standing level of people in the home as well," she says.

Cat towers and trees are popular ways to give a cat this ability. They provide your kitty a sense of privacy and safety while he observes his domain.

Placed near a window, a cat tower or perch gives your cat a bird’s-eye view of everything, including the birds, outside. This strategic placement has dual benefits: The cat gets the perception of up-high safety, and it’s a form of entertainment. He can look out at the world to see the birds, squirrels and other things pass by all within the protection of his home.

Plus, on a bright, sunny day, the sun simply feels good. As Becker points out, "Cats like to enjoy the daylight and the warmth that comes from it, just like we do."

Tip 1: Find cat towers with style. Today, there are many types and styles of cat towers, depending on your preference. There are stand-alone options, floor-to-ceiling systems, modern designs and everything in between. Some have perches. Some have hidey holes. Some have built-in scratchers, so you can take care of two of your cat’s needs with just one piece of furniture. 
 
Tip 2: Get creative with perches. If your cat enjoys watching the world go by, window perches are a great option. As mentioned above, you can place a cat tree near the window, you can move a piece of furniture over to a window, or you can install a window perch designed specifically for this purpose, typically with a comfy seating area and sturdy base to keep your cat safe.

But perches don’t have to be by a window to be useful. Some cat owners install cat shelves that serve dual purposes: They allow your cat to hop from platform to platform and give him a comfortable resting spot, high above his minions (that’s you). Look for shelving made specifically for cats, as it’s sturdy enough to hold a cat and usually has a nonslide surface to help keep your cat safe while he’s cruising at a high altitude. 

lotus tower for cats

Cats Need to Play

It isn’t enough to just provide scratchers and trees, your favorite feline needs mental and physical stimulation, and playing with him, particularly focusing on play that taps into his natural hunting instincts, is rewarding for your pet. This is especially true for more sedentary cats or a cat who lives as the sole feline ruler of his home. Also, Becker notes, cats who bite at your hands or feet or get snarky with other cats in the home may just need some stimulation. “It could be a result of pent-up energy that needs to be focused on productive outlets,” she says. “Exercise helps the cat to mentally and physically feel better and to be better behaved in the house.”

Tip 1: Use a wand for "batting" play. Some cats like to bat and jump at objects swinging above them. Wands are perfect for this. You can swing it above them so they jump and grab at the feathers, bells or toy at the end of the line. Remember to let him catch it once in a while.   

Tip 2: Play a pounce game. Other cats prefer "pouncing" play, which appeals to their natural hunting instincts. They may follow a squiggly toy through the house (you can use wands for this type of play, too) and try to pounce on it. Some toys are made specifically for this type of play. And for those who love their iPads, there are even apps that have a mouse or bug running across the screen for the cat to pounce on.

Tip 3: Try a food puzzle. "Treat puzzles are excellent for cats because they keep their minds engaged and use up physical energy," Becker says. "Their natural eating is a multistep process rather than a one-step meal from a bowl, so the food puzzle makes it more natural and similar to a hunt for the cat," she says.

Tip 4: Let your cat "rabbit kick."
Some cats like to "rabbit kick," which is pretty cute to witness but actually mimics a cat’s instinct to wrap its front paws around its prey, while kicking with its back paws. Look for toys that are made just for this purpose

Different cats have various play preferences, so try a few types of toys until you discover what gets your cat in the mood for fun.

With a bit of education and effort, a dedicated cat owner can go from “bad” to “good” in no time. In addition to alleviating cat parent guilt, some easy changes can help make your cat happier and enhance your bond.

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