Forums » Feline Medicine

Managing the domestic cat's environment and welfare

  • January 10, 2017 10:29 AM EST

    "Domestic cats are the most common companion animal in the United States. The numbers of cats has been estimated in different populations at 86 million owned cats, 70 million free-roaming, 13,000 research and 2-3 million shelter cats. Because such vast numbers of cats rely on humans for much or all of their care, it is preferable to have an understanding of their behavior and how to provide high quality environments since this can lead to improvements overall in cat welfare."

    A series of studies by The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy have identified several reasons for relinquishment and return of cats. These include abandonment/stray (31%), owner circumstances (19%), unwanted kittens (14%) and allergies (5%). Behavioral reasons, often thought considered to be another leading cause of relinquishment, is approximately 12% with the most common forms include house soiling, problems between pets, aggression toward people, unfriendliness, fearfulness and destructive behavior. The level of knowledge by owners regarding species-typical cat behavior also appears to be a factor in relinquishment. An example of weak owner attachment is someone who has not owned another cat as an adult and has expectations of a particular role for the cat to fill leading to surrendering of a cat.

    One study found the most common behavior problems of cats in U.S. homes to be scratching furniture (60%), eating houseplants (42%), aggression (36%), food stealing (25%), hissing/aggression to people (17%), house soiling (16%), excessive vocalizations (16%), fabric chewing (7%), and “shyness” (4%). Another study indicated the most frequent behavior problems cited by cat owners (via questionnaire) were anxiety (16.7%), scratching furniture (10.5%), inappropriate urination (8.2%) and defecation in the house (5.1%). A visit by strangers was the most frequently mentioned anxiety-inducing stimulus followed by the number of cats in the home (multiple cats) and the amount of available space per cat (limited space per cat). Many problem behaviors, particularly aggression and inappropriate elimination are not well tolerated by owners.

    These studies suggest that owner attention to meeting cats’ needs may be the most important determinant of welfare outcomes in homes, especially since the decisions owners make determine all of the cat’s environment or living conditions. One study found that 24% of cats in homes did not have their own food bowls and over 50% had to share the litter pan with other cats. Both of these scenarios may lead to resource guarding and defensive behavior in cats. The quality of owner-cat relationships is quite variable in spite of the finding that when people interact with their cats more often and regularly on a daily basis reported fewer behavior problems. The authors state these findings highlight the need for greater owner attention to cats’ behaviors and their overall needs.

    Macroenvironmental considerations: The macroenvironment refers for the housing space for cats (room, building or barn) and its surroundings that includes factors such as thermoregulatory environment, lighting, odors and sounds. For cats, the lack of resources may create a situation where they are unable to express temperature regulating behaviors. The thermal neutral zone for cats is 30-38 C. Thermal discomfort may be a common experience for cats and opportunities can be provided to allow them to behaviorally thermoregulate with the use of warm bedding, resting areas, boxes, or heating elements. Objectionable odors (dogs, alcohol, cleaning supplies, etc.) can also impact a cat’s well-being. Sound frequency range and intensity is another factor since the auditory frequency range of cats exceeds that of humans so this makes the assessment of high frequency noise difficult in a welfare sense.

    Macroenvironmental factors include usable floor space, food presentation, elimination facilities and outlets for the expression of species-typical behaviors. An important point is that the type, presentation and availability of these features of the environment can be a source for bad (stress) or good (enrichment). The quality and quantity of space provided for cats is of particular importance. More recent studies indicate that the quality of the environment is more relevant to the cat than the size of the space. It is worthwhile to consider providing furnishings that permit freedom of movement and also the ability of the cat to engage in species-typical behaviors for which they are highly motivated. Such behaviors include the ability for scratching and marking behaviors. Shelter that offers partial isolation from other animals and people plus a variation of height to allow movement in their environment is important (cats like to perch up at higher levels to monitor their surroundings). Additionally, another key feature is the availability, type and presentation of food offered to cats. Boredom can occur because food is typically provided in a formulated, consistent, uniform diet placed in a single location. Over- or under-eating may result. Interactive puzzle feeders can provide mental and physical enrichment, minimizing boredom and increasing exercise. 

    Cat-Human Interactions: One key factor noted from all the studies reviewed is that the quality and quantity of human-cat interactions experienced are relevant to their welfare outcomes in many different settings. In these relationships (positive or negative) that are dictated in number and nature by the human, the cat reacts to the human’s actions. A cat’s fearful responses can lead to negative caregiver attitudes to the cat. Humans can still give attention to offering consistent positive human-cat interactions, therefore reducing a cat’s fear of people. Low-stress handling techniques or feeding preferred food items are examples of positive interactions to employ. Predictability of caregiver behaviors is also important. A cat’s social environment is additionally quite significant.

    Welfare of Cats Confined in Cages:
    Confinement and the lack of ability to express species-typical behaviors may result in cats undergoing distress. This could lead to a decrease in appetite and withdrawal from social groupings, along with decreased grooming and increased attempts to hide. One way to help cats cope in this environment is to provide hiding and perching opportunities. One study showed that when cats were provided boxes approached more often and retreated less than cats that were not provided boxes. They were also noted as sleeping more restfully. Shelter cats provided a box to hide in or perch on were found to adjust more quickly to this new environment than ones without a hiding area. Cats housed with other cats spent more time hiding than single housed cats (26% versus 4%). Cats housed in enriched environments had lower stress levels than cats housed in traditional shelters. Being exposed to dogs may have a cumulative effect on a cat’s health with combined with other environmental stressors which leads to increasing stress levels more in cats that are obviously ill over cats with no signs of disease. Cats surrendered by their owners have higher stress scores than stray cats. Looking at stress levels and acclimation to boarding over two weeks and compared to control cats living in a shelter: the results indicated that two-thirds of the cats acclimated, one-third found boarding distressful and 4% never acclimated. The daily stress levels declined significantly from day one to day five, and overall stress levels continued to decrease during the first two weeks of boarding. This finding was considered significant since cats in shelters often may not have time to acclimate before being rehomed. It was stated that most failed adoptions and returns take place within two weeks of adoption. The greatest risk for cats falls within the time they are acclimating to a new environment, so the current protocols may not be enough to allow cats to fully adjust to their new environment. This will eventually impact cat welfare.

    Conclusions: This review publication states that in the long run, the environmental needs of the cat are similar no matter where they are confined (home, or a cage in a shelter, research facility, veterinary hospital, or boarding facility). The cat’s environment can be perceived as a possible threat or aversive stimuli whether involving the macro- or microenvironment, human-cat interactions, the social environment, or the predictability and control of that environment which then can all work together to influence a cat’s well-being. When poor welfare occurs, it can follow that there may be poor physical health, illness, and disease or behavioral problems (housesoiling, fearful or aggressive behaviors). Any of these factors can lead to a breakdown in the human-cat bond leading to abandonment, relinquishment to a shelter, or euthanasia. Further research is needed to refine the recommendations for quantity of space needed for singly housed or group-housed cats. Understanding the quantity and quality of space needed by cats while being provided is important. How all of these interactions and short and long-term effects affect adoption rates, retention outcomes, and infectious disease incidence needs further study to improve cat well-being. One other area needing further research is increasing the understanding of individual differences in coping styles of cats. Plus gaining more information about owners’ attitudes and knowledge about cats is definitely needed to not risk the human-cat bond and improve cat well-being.

    Reference:  Stella JL, Croney CC. Environmental aspects of domestic cat care and management: implications for cat welfare. (Scientific Review) Scientific World Journal. 2016, Sept.