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Episode S3E6
What to know about keeping cats safe and happy

Why is keeping cats at home important? And what does that look like? How do we provide an environment at home that meets all a cats needs including enrichment and the ability to express natural cat behaviours while making them safe and comfortable?
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Monday, 6 May 2024
Join Sarah Zito - Senior Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia (and cat enthusiast!), to discuss these and many more cat related questions in this episode of RSPCA's Great and Small Talk.


Sarah: Exploring and scratching, resting, stalking and perching and ironing these are all things that cats need to be able to do and that they find rewarding.

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk where we discuss the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia. I'm Brian Daly, and today we're talking about cats how to keep them happy, healthy and safe at home. And to give us the rundown on just what our furry feline friends need to live their best life. We're joined by RSPCA Australia's Senior Scientific Officer Sarah Zito. Welcome to the podcast, Sarah.

Sarah: Thanks, Brian. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Brian: Now Australians love their pets, we know that, so much so in fact that there are more pets in Australia than humans, and cats are in the top two most popular pets - no prize for guessing the other one. With estimates of over 5 million lovable moggies who are part of Australian families. That's a lot of fun, affection and furballs, but also a lot of responsibility to keep them and their environment safe. Sarah, we know the RSPCA encourages people to keep their cats at home. But why is that so important?

Sarah: The RSPCA believes that keeping cats safe at home in an environment that meets their physical and mental needs really strikes the right balance between cat welfare and safety, but also the potential negative impacts that roaming cats can have in the community, including on wildlife. Keeping cats safe at home can reduce risks to them, such as getting sick, like if they were to get an infectious disease from another cat. It also prevents them from getting injured by other animals like in a cat fight or if a dog has a go at them outside of the home. And a big one is car accidents, which unfortunately affect a lot of our cats. It also reduces their risk of getting lost or straying away from the home and being impounded or trapped, and maybe just not being able to make their way home to you. It also does minimize the risk of them hurting other animals like wildlife, and a lot of cat lovers are wildlife lovers too, and so this is really important to us. We do want to also try and help people to minimize any cat related problems that they might have with their neighbors. And an example of that might be the annoyance that people feel when someone else's cat comes into their yard and uses their garden as a toilet, which is you know, something that most people don't like very much. But most of all, we think of it from our cats perspective, it does increase their chance of having a long and safe life with us by just keeping them safe from some of the dangers that they face while roaming away from home. And I think it's also important to just realise that making sure cats have a cat-friendly environment is really key to maximizing the benefits that can come from keeping them safe at home, while minimising some of the potential problems that can occur if we do confine cats in an environment that doesn't meet their needs, and that's extremely stressful to them.

Brian: And what does it look like keeping a cat at home and safe?

Sarah: Well, there's lots of ways to keep your cats safe at home. It does depend on people's living situations and circumstances, but it's very flexible approach that we take. The ideal situation is to keep your cat confined to your property and make sure that they have access to both the inside of the home and a safe and interesting outdoor environment. And there-that's because there are lots of benefits for cats are associated with having access to the outdoors as well as the indoors. And this can be achieved with cat-proof fencing, or cat proofing modifications to existing fencing so that your cat can have access to your garden. There's the option of building a purpose built fully-enclosed cat enclosure and it can be done using materials like netting or wire. This can be done by a company who does this as a business or even as a DIY project, if you're someone who's handy. But you don't even need a garden. You can provide your cat with a safe outdoor space by cat proofing your patio, your courtyard, your verandah or even your balcony. And it's ideal if they have free access to their outdoor space just so that they can choose where they want to spend their time. But also just in case they feel threatened outside, they can retreat back inside to somewhere that they feel safe immediately, rather than being stuck somewhere that they don't feel safe. You can keep your cat completely indoors and it can work just fine, but it does take more effort to make sure that the environment meets their needs in an indoor-only environment.

Brian: And you talk about their needs and we know the basics like food and water but what else are we talking about there?

Sarah: It does include good nutrition as you've talked about, so food and water, but also a safe and comfortable environment. They need good health and veterinary care and the opportunity to choose how they spend their time, how they behave and how to interact with the environment and others, including people and other animals. This includes ensuring that they have a complex and stimulating environment that encourages them to express normal feline behaviors like exploring and scratching, resting, stalking, and perching and hiding, these are all things that cats need to be able to do and that they find rewarding. And all of these factors really impact how a cat experiences the world, their feelings and their mental state. And as much as possible, we do want to try and prevent or minimise negative experiences and feelings like hunger or thirst or feeling too hot or cold fear from unpleasant interactions with other animals or even people. But really importantly, we want to promote positive experiences, such as feeling full and satisfied after a good and tasty meal, feeling comfortable and safe in a warm cozy bed in a peaceful place where you can sleep uninterrupted, and feeling physically fit and healthy, so you can do zoomies around the house whenever you feel like it, and jump up to the top of a cat scratching post and sort of hang off the side of it if you want to and bat at shadows on the roof. But you also want them to be able to enjoy companionship and having the choice to snuggle with their favourite person, or enjoying the fun of playing with a toy that they enjoy. That's also like, extremely important. And I think this kind of leads to the fact that I just want people to realise that understanding what's important to cats and approaching it from that perspective, so putting ourselves in their paws, so to speak, helps us to meet their physical and mental needs and is really key to them experiencing good welfare.

Brian: Because that's the thing, isn't it? We see them as, as this other species, but thinking of what they need, from their point of view is so important, you know, so how do we give our cats that opportunity to express those behaviors? What are some of the tools that we can implement there?

Sarah: Well, a really helpful way to think about how to meet cat's environmental needs are guidelines, which are called the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment. And these guidelines were developed by an expert panel from the International Society of Feline Medicine and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. The first pillar is providing a safe place. And cats really need a choice of private, safe and quiet places that they can retreat to, and this helps them to feel secure and protected and happy and in control. And you'll get this feelings of coming through what I'm telling you is cats like to be in control. And they like to have choice. And this is really important to them. They're highly sensitive to potential threats. They are a small predatory species, but they are very vulnerable to potential dangers from other animals too. So they really want to avoid or evade threatening situations. And they need to be able to retreat to a place where they feel safe and removed from whatever threat they perceive. And we just need to remember that it is actually a perceived threat. So it's what the cat thinks is threatening, not necessarily an actual or immediate danger. So if they see a dog outside the window, we know that that dog is not a danger to them, because the dog can't get to them. But to the cat, that's still a potential threat, and they need to be able to get away to somewhere that they feel safe. And it's really important that cats have both observational and resting safe places. So this would look like an observational resting place would be a high perch that the cat can go up to where they can survey their environment and see what's going on. But also feel safe because they know that nothing can get to them easily. But they also need these sort of quiet, cozy private comfy beds in places that they can go and rest in and sleep comfortably.

Sarah: The second pillar of a cat friendly environment is providing multiple and separated key environmental resources. And it's a bit of a mouthful, but basically we know that there are essential resources that all cats need. And these are feeding and drinking stations, toileting areas, places to scratch, opportunities to play and areas to hide, sleep and rest. And they have a real innate need to protect resources which they feel are essential to their survival. And so it's really important that they can access these resources in places where they feel safe and away from perceived threats like other cats or other animals, busy areas and even people. If they do end up having to access these essential resources in places where they feel threatened or they might have to compete with with other animals, they can get pretty stressed out and that can have a really negative impact on on their well being. So what we need to do is provide cats with a variety of each of the essential resources. And these need to be in multiple and physically separated locations, this makes sure that they have that choice and control that so important to them. It helps to minimize stress, and particularly in a multi animal household it, it reduces competition, it also actually provides them with some opportunities to explore and be active as they move between those resources. And just as an example, or just talk about litter trays for a second. So you do need one for each cat and at least one extra and physically separated locations. And if you have two cats, for example, that's three litter trays which need to be in separate places, having three litter trays in more or less the same place. So in one room, you know along a wall is basically one giant litter tray, it's not three separate litter trays when it comes to the cats perspective, because if there's something that makes them feel unsure about accessing the litter tray in that place, it might be another cat who is sitting there and controlling access to the litter tray by staring at the other cat and telling them that they're not allowed to come here. Or it might be something as simple as a weird smell that makes a cat feel unsafe or a loud noise in that area. We want them to be able to choose to tootle off and use another litter tray exactly when they need to go to the toilet, because otherwise they'll get stressed, they may end up toileting in areas that we don't want them to toilet, and it's just not good for their well being.

Sarah: The third pillar is ensuring that cats have opportunities for play and predatory behavior. Cats have a really strong innate need to engage in behaviors, which are part of that predatory sequence of capturing prey. They need to find, they need to stalk and chase and pounce and capture. And we do want to avoid our cats doing this with live animals. But we must still provide them with opportunities to express all of these rewarding behaviors that are so important to them. And the really good news is that we can simulate all of these behaviors by playing with toys and food. And it's actually a lot of fun. And something that you can do with your cat multiple times every day. We have a variety of ways to do this. Puzzle feeders are a really great way to help cats to engage their mind and body and finding and manipulating the toy to get the food out. There's a huge variety now of puzzle feeders that you can buy of various difficulty levels for both dry and wet food. And you can also make your own using things like egg cartons and toilet roll inserts or plastic bottles where you just cut like little holes in the bottle and the cat rolls the bottle around to pieces of dry food fall out. And it is important though to remember that you might need to take things a little bit slowly to begin with when you are introducing puzzle feeders, because some cats do take a little bit of time to figure out how they work. But once they do, you can slowly increase the difficulty to challenge them, but just not so much that they get frustrated or can't get enough food out. I usually have a variety of toys available for my cats and I rotate them frequently so they don't get bored with them. I combine the toys as well to give them even more challenge because they've been using them their whole life. So they're they're pretty clued in to different toys. So, for example, I have these little toy mice that have a hole inside where you put some dry food and the cat has to bat them around and the dry food falls out. But that's way too easy for my cat, so I also hide them in other puzzle feeders. And I hide those around the house and then the cats wander around the house using all their senses to find the toy, get the nice little toy mice outside of the puzzle feeder, then move the little mice around and they get the food out and they absolutely love it and I love watching it. It's also important though to stimulate the stalking and chasing and pouncing parts of that predatory sequence that the cats need to go through. And this can be done with those interactive toys like the wands, and it's really important just a top tip to people to move those like a prey animal. So you don't want to be you know, moving them towards the cat there's not ... no self respecting prey animal would run towards the threat of danger. You know, you want to move them in a way that stimulates the cat to follow them. So if you have a sort of long wiggly snake like toy, you want to sort of move it and all along the ground away from the cat. If you have a like feathery toy type you want to sweep it through the air so that the cat can jump and pounce at it and each cat will have quite individual preferences for the kinds of toys that they like. Some might like the swoopy feathery ones and others may be more interested in the wiggly snake like toys and some of them just like all of the toys. Another little tip for people is just a reward a capture of the toy, so that they can complete the predatory sequence by eating something at the end. So once they've captured the toy, make sure they have a little little treat, so they can eat that afterwards. And something that I think is really important for people to understand is that the play session can be super short, it can be like 30 seconds, a minute, just as long as the cat wants, they still get what they want out of that interaction. And we shouldn't feel discouraged if the cat only seems interested in for a short period of time, that's okay. So you don't want people sort of buying all these different toys and saying, well, the cat looked at it for 30 seconds and just batted it at a couple of times. And that was it, so I threw it away, and I'm not going to use it again. The cat actually got something out of that interaction, so we want to keep doing that. And potentially do that multiple times a day, even a little short session multiple times a day. That's all they want sometimes.

Sarah: So the fourth pillar is providing positive, consistent and predictable human cat social interaction. And it's really important that we interact with our cats on their terms, so that they have choice about the interaction. And they feel like they're in control of the situation, that helps them to feel more comfortable and secure and enjoy those interactions with us. Every cat is quite different and their desire for and tolerance of interactions with people varies, I think most people who've had anything to do with cats know that there's a huge variety in their personalities and how much they enjoy cuddles or play. They generally prefer a low intensity and high frequency type interaction because that's how they would interact with other cats in their social group. So, for example, they might rub against or brush against each other briefly or do a little head bump, and then they move on. And we should let them choose how to interact with us too, even if we might want to pick them up and cuddle them really intensely, because we love them so much, and we just really want to throw them that love, they might actually prefer a lower intensity or shorter interaction like a brief stroke or just choosing to sit near you on the sofa, even if it's not on you. And they will probably choose to interact with you multiple times a day in that sort of more low intensity way. We really just need to follow their lead and cat should be the ones to initiate and moderate and end any interaction that they have with a person. And this helps to build trust and harmony between you and your cat. And actually the research tells us that cats who are allowed to control their interactions naturally tend to spend more time interacting with their people. And that's what we want, we want to spend more time interacting with our cats.

Sarah: So the fifth pillar is providing an environment that respects the cat sense of smell, and other senses. The physical environment and people's actions can both have impacts on all of a cat's senses. So their smell, their sight, their hearing their touch and taste. And the impacts on the cat can can be positive, they can have feelings like pleasure and engagement and calmness. But they can also be negative, leading to feelings like fear or frustration or anxiety. And these potential impacts need to be considered when we're trying to create and share a cat-friendly home, including when we interact with our cats. So just using the sense of smell as an example of this, if we don't allow our cats to scent mark, so they like to scent mark by scratching on scratching posts and sometimes furniture, they like to rub against things. And often you'll find a little face mark on the corner of a wall. If we remove their scents, so we don't like the way that it looks to have that little scent mark on the corner of the wall, and we're always removing it, and the cat's always putting it back and trying to show that this is their safe environment that smells right to them. And they just keep doing it but you keep removing it. That's quite stressful and confusing to them. The other thing that can be really stressful and you know, because smell is not necessarily a huge component of our communication systems. We don't think about it as much but we can bring unpleasant or scary smells into the cats environment on ourselves or our clothing. So they would be things like if you've been interacting with another unfamiliar animal, or even unpleasant smells that most cats don't like, like, you know, really strong citrus smells and a lot of cleaners for example have this really strong lemony or citrus smell to them. And cats find those quite unpleasant and that can cause them stress and confusion and negatively impact their well being. It can also potentially result in stress related scent marking like urine spraying which is not something that most of us appreciate very much. But it's important to remember this is actually the cat just trying to make their home smell more comforting, again, when they've had a scent introduced that they find scary. So hopefully, we can see how we can use these five pillars to help create a complex environment that promotes good welfare for cats. And it's just as important to consider and action these five pillars when we're creating a cats outdoor space. And this can be assisted by having the outdoor and indoor spaces linked to the cat can move freely between them. And when setting up the cat outdoor environment, you can actually have a lot of fun making it a place where they can have spaces to hide and be private. So one of my cats likes to make a little nest under some ferns and a raised garden bed and she can observe everything that's going on around her but she can't really be seen, and she feels safe, and she'll often have a nice long snooze there. We also can provide them with cat-safe plants that they can sniff and eat and fasik around and looking for, for things, we can give them grass that they can frolic around in and do zoomies in, we can make sure that they have access to sunshine, we most of us would know how much cat's delight and just rolling around lying in the sun and soaking up those rays, we can make sure they have things to climb and scratch on and safe places to retreat to. So it is quite a lot to think about. But we do have some pretty detailed resources available to people that can assist them to help create a cat friendly home environment for their cats. And really the sky's the limit, you can let your imagination run wild indoors and outdoors making these really fun cat environments.

Brian: Speaking about outdoors, a lot of people, you know, currently have maybe outdoor cats and would be worried about transitioning them to being more contained. What advice do you have for them?

Sarah: I think the most important thing to realise is it's a huge change for a cat to go from a lifestyle where they're roaming outside of the home to a stay at home lifestyle. So it's really vital to take it slowly and gradually and help the cat to adjust to their new stay at home life. The first stage is to set up an environment that meets their needs and promotes good welfare like we've just been talking about. And once you've got that in place, the next stage is to slowly increase the time that they spend at home and reduce their roaming. There's many ways that you can do this. But some of the ones that are quite helpful, like just gradually increasing the amount of time that you keep them at home around mealtimes, starting to keep them at home at night and then extending that time out to keep them at home at dawn and dusk, which incidentally are pretty dangerous times from the point of view of things like car accidents, and then just slowly increasing the amount of time that they spend at home, while still making the home very appealing for the cat. So making sure you have that great environment for them. But also using positive reinforcement and reward-based training to make them associate being home with good things like tasty food and fun play sessions and the opportunity to cuddle with their people and do all the things that they enjoy doing at home. I think something that we do need to think about is only making changes when your cat has adapted to the new status quo at each stage, it can take quite a long time for cats who are very used to being outdoors to feel like they're okay with this new lifestyle that they're trying to adjust to. And you want to watch out for signs that the cat might be frustrated or stressed. So these might be changes in behavior like being withdrawn, over grooming, a change in appetite, increased conflict with other animals in the house or even people. Inappropriate toileting is another one that happens quite frequently when cats are stressed. If your cat does show these kinds of behavioural signs of frustration and stress that don't improve or if they're serious, or they might be potentially associated with medical issues like inappropriate toileting or aggressive or disruptive behavior, it's really important to seek advice from your vet and they may want to refer you to a vet behaviourist. Many cats can transition successfully to a stay at home lifestyle, but they are all individuals and some may take quite a long time and we just need to go at their own pace. And some cats aren't really that compatible with with a contained lifestyle, and we need to recognise that too. It's important to just optimise their environment, take things slowly, monitor the cat's behavior and welfare, and just be responsive and respectful to their individuality and needs.

Brian: That's great advice there, thanks. And thanks for all your advice today. It's a ... it's a really important topic. Given the scale of pet ownership, you know, unrestrained and uncontrolled cats and dogs for that matter could do enormous harm to themselves and the environment. So it is the responsibility of all of us to do all we can to ensure we keep our cats in a way that keeps them safe and happy at home and also keeps all the other creatures great and small, happy and safe in their homes as well, if you like. So, thanks for joining us today, Sarah, it's been been great speaking with you.

Sarah: Thanks very much, Brian. I think sharing our lives with a cat or cats is really such an incredible privilege, and if we can do anything to help make sure you know we can help them live a good life, I really want to help people do that.

Brian: I couldn't agree more. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you.

Brian: We've been talking today with Sarah Zito, Senior Scientific Officer for Companion Animals at RSPCA Australia. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on how to keep your cats safe and happy at home, visit RSPCA Australia's website at rspca.org.au or the RSPCA's Knowledgebase at kb.rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA website or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly, and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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