Kitty in cat tree

As I mentioned in a recent article, "Understanding the Catness of Cats," the key to creating a happy, healthy environment for our feline friends (or any species, including ourselves, for that matter), is to accommodate their telos. To review, telos is a Greek word that essentially means we recognize an animal’s inherent “purpose” in life, and that we respect and value the unique qualities that make a fish a fish, or a cat a cat.

Physical Security Is Key

All animals need is to feel safe and feel that they have enough control and predictability about their surroundings to cope with daily life. How this actually plays out, however, depends on their heritage. In the case of cats, how do we in our homes accommodate the telos of an animal that lives more independently than most other species? An animal that is used to living as both predator and prey, competing with other cats for food and space, using scratching and climbing as survival strategies, and spending most of its time lying in wait for the next meal to walk by? Actually, we can do this quite easily. We just need to use the following strategies:

  1. Reduce anxiety
  2. Gain trust
  3. Establish communication
  4. Get them to “work” for you

Let’s take a look at how this can be accomplished.

Reduce Anxiety and Gain Trust

All we need to do to reduce a cat’s anxiety and gain their trust is to accommodate their independence and provide them with the resources they need where they need them so they can use their own things rather than ours. Accommodating their independence just means letting them come to us. I see my cat more as a valued visitor than as a member of the family. Taking this view reminds me that she is just a bit different, and not to be taken for granted. Visitors also are provided with more independence. For example, we usually give guests their own bathroom and we invite them to dinner rather than barging into their room to drag them to the table! Providing the same courtesy to cats goes a long way to helping them stay healthy and happy.

In addition to independence, cats also need some space, a source of food and water, and bathroom facilities that are located away from appliances or air ducts that could be activated unexpectedly while the cat is using the resource. Such locations acknowledge a cat’s sense of vulnerability while resting, eating or eliminating. If your cat is frightened at such a location, she may never use it again. This is true of all animals, and is called contextual fear conditioning. Cats also need safe ways to meet their claw care (scratching) and activity (climbing and play) needs. 

Like the guest room we provide to visitors, cats need a convenient resting space that provides some privacy and is located where others cannot sneak up on them. A nice cat carrier provides an excellent resting area, and incidentally decreases its threat potential when the cat needs to be transported. Resting areas also include elevated perches the cat can use to feel safe as it looks down on its surroundings.

Establish Communication

In addition to locating food and water in a safe place, how it is offered can contribute to making our homes cat-friendly places. This consideration brings us to the understanding that cats have different personalities and preferences just as we do, and that we can increase their perception of control and predictability by learning what those preferences are. How do we know what cats like? We just ask. We ask if they prefer dry or canned food, or a particular variety of each, by offering new foods as choices, one at a time, in a separate container at meal time next to the usual food. This approach lets the cat tell us what she likes, without forcing something she might not like on her by removing her familiar food, or by mixing in a new food (that she might not even recognize as food) with what is familiar to her. It also gives her a valuable perception of control.

We can use the same strategy to ask cats if they might prefer food from a food puzzle or a bowl, or if they prefer water from a dripping faucet or fountain rather than (or in addition to) a bowl. Just as with our guest, we invite them to try new things rather than forcing our preferences onto them. And guests, like cats, appreciate the predictability of consistently regular feeding and activity times.

The same general approach applies to the litterbox. Place it in a quiet location, away from food, water and resting areas, and make sure it is big enough (1.5 times the length of an adult cat) for your cat to enjoy. Most cats seem to prefer unscented clumping litter, deep enough so their feet don’t “hit bottom” when they paw in the box. We also can ask cats which litter they prefer by offering choices in separate boxes placed next to each other. Cats also like the “scoop (at least) daily, dump and clean weekly” strategy.

Get Them to Work for You

Like all animals, cats respond to praise. When you see your cat do what you want her to do, go overboard with reward and praise immediately after the action is performed, including small favorite treats. Eventually, you can give treats and rewards less frequently to help keep your cat interested in "working" for you.

With the basic resources in place, we are ready to move on to the topic of our next article, which will explain how we can provide safe, home-friendly ways to help a cat meet her claw care and activity needs. 

For more information on my philosophy regarding cat care, please visit our website, The Indoor Pet Initiative, at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, Ph.D. Diplomate ACVN, is a Professor of Clinical Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Urology at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the board. One of his primary areas of interest is the role of stress and disease in companion animals and humans. A frequent lecturer and author of numerous scientific publications, Dr. Buffington is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.