I have just read an interesting article in the Feline Conservation Federation magazine from March/April 2012. Yes, I was rather slow in getting around to it. It is about behavioral enrichment for captive wild felines. Although it is about wild cats in cages the principles discussed are very close to those that are applicable to domestic cats in houses, particularly full-time indoor cats. They do live in a sort of cage, don’t they? I would like to quote the people who know wild cats better than anyone probably, Mel and Fiona Sunquist. At page 1 of their marvellous book, Wild Cats of the World
When you have a cat in your home, you live with the essence of tiger. Indeed, the appeal of domestic cats may be that they are just a whisker away from their wild relatives.
One of the most significant stressor for a cat, wild or domestic is an environment that is unresponsive. An environment over which the cat has no control. I would like to quote Professor Chris Tromberg if I may:
When animals perceive that they have some control over their surroundings (when their behavior “means something”), symptoms of stress, including stereotypical behaviors, frequently decline. Reduced stress responses are associated with more normal behavior and improved long-term health.
Putting that into simple language I believe this means a cat that is unable to express normal behavior in stimulating surroundings may develop abnormal behavior and possible health problems. I think this is a very important point because a lot of unhappy relationships between cat and human comes down to the human not ensuring that the environment is sufficiently stimulating (of the right kind). The reason may be because the person does not know enough about cat behavior. Often stimulation could be as simple as interacting with their human companion or another cat with whom they are friends. I think it is important that if another cat is brought into the house that the existing cat has some say in choosing the cat.
Cats are basically high powered “fuel guzzling athletes”. They sleep a lot and then burn up energy a lot after they wake up. When wild cats are active they are finding, stalking and chasing prey. This is a challenging task. If a cat is to be able to express natural drives they should be linked in some way to these activities. Domestic cats (and lions in a pride) also get some stimulation from interacting with other friendly cats and of course us.
Chasing prey is stressful for a short time. That is healthy for a cat as it helps keep the cat sharp and stimulated. A cat needs to use its brain and skills just like people. But if the stress is chronic (long term) and due to an unresponsive environment it can lead to anxiety and cause health problems such as a compromised immune system.
I am reminded by Professor Tromberg that cats have good memories in relation to storing information about…
“extremely averse experiences. Felines do not forget. Never spank a cat…..They respond well to reinforcement but do not respond well to punishment”.
If you do punish a cat like a child he might become wary of you. You’ll lose a friend if you ever were a friend. This echos what I wrote years ago about not punishing your cat. If you do punish your cat and he becomes wary of you but at the same time is forced to live with you he is living in an unsuitable environment. A stressful environment rather than an enriched one. I feel certain that a lot of relationships break down this way.
A cat might become “sensitized” to what the professor calls a “provocative stimulus” in their environment. “Sensitised” means the cat will become jumpy to a stimulus that resembles the original one. The cat will generalize. A “provocative stimulus” would be something that frightened or startled the cat. I recall my dear late lady cat. She was always jumpy when she heard the sound of a lorry outside and noisy footsteps. This indicated to me (possibly incorrectly) that she had had a bad experience with a man with heavy shoes or boots, perhaps a builder. This is just one rather simple example. Charlie my current cat companion is nervous with blonde women! What happened? He is generalizing.
I guess the moral is to avoid a stimulus that creates a marker in the mind of a domestic cat because he won’t forget. The damage will be done. Correct stimuli in a reliably predictable environment is the aim. I wonder sometimes if the human race is totally missing the point on how to keep a domestic cat happy and healthy.