UK Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cats

This is a comprehensive but highly understandable guide to the caregiving of cat companions based on the well-known Animal Welfare Act 2006 in the UK which is a high quality animal welfare law. All cat owners would do well to read it and digest it, particularly in countries such as China where there is in general a sub-optimal attitude towards domestic cats at best.


Guidelines for cat caretaking have been carefully crafted by Defra based on the Animal Welfare Act 2006
Guidelines for cat caretaking have been carefully crafted by Defra based on the Animal Welfare Act 2006
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.


Code of Practice

Note: this page was published in 2012 but remains relevant and will remain relevant for decades to come.


The UK Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cats (the Code) is a fantastic document. I think that it is a world first but I am not sure. It is proactive and enlightened and I hope that it leads to less cat cruelty and a better understanding of cats generally.

It has been prepared by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as a guide/standard upon which the duty of care towards a cat can be measured.

There are 5 headings, areas where the duty of care needs to be discharged. These come from the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (the Act) itself at section 9 (2) – Duty of person responsible for animal to ensure welfare. The headings are taken directly from the Act are (these can be published verbatim as the Crown has waived copyright on legislation):

Section 1: Environment
Its need for a suitable environment

Section 2: Diet
Its need for a suitable diet

Section 3: Behaviour
Its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

Section 4: Company
Any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals

Section 5: Health & Welfare
Its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

The UK Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cats is not part of the Act but provides a guide to which the courts might refer when deciding if there has been cat cruelty. It is therefore important that a person who has permanent or temporary responsibility for a cat reads the Code. This page is a good starting point!

Note: I am not following the UK Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cats verbatim (I can’t as it is copyright). I summarize, use the Defra recommendations as a framework and if appropriate add some of my thoughts to expand the discussion. I also link in to some more information to expand it further. If you’d like to see the full Defra version, click here.

Section 1 – Suitable environment

This heading is broken down into 4 sub-headings:

  • Sleeping and resting – cats need a place to go to rest or sit still and a place to hide (under or in some safe enclosed space). They find their place or places. It needs to be cat friendly, warm, dry and draft free and with full-time access. Cats like to jump up to high vantage points sometimes. Some cats like this more than others (e.g. Norwegian Forest cat and Bengal cat). We should get to know our cat’s likes, dislikes and habits and provide for them. Rarely in the UK some cats might like to live outdoors. This type of cat will require care of a different sort but care nonetheless. It should go without saying that the environment should be hygenic and clean.
  • Hazards – there are quite a lot of potentially harmful substances in and around the home. Cats are inquisitive and explore. They may get a poisonous substance on their coat and lick it off. One source of poison is house plants poisonous to a cat, for example. Garages have some things in them that can be harmful such as antifreeze (see cat poison). Garages should be out of bounds in my view. Quick action is important if we suspect poisoning. Medicine should not be given to a cat without veterinarian advice, particularly pain killers. See feline pain relief. Other hazards are high places (high apartments with balconies). Great care is required. Cats will live dangerously and can fall off. Washing machines are potential hazards – nice warm place and a dangerous place for a cat. 
  • Travel – cats often dislike travel and should be transported safely. This will usually mean in a cat container. Cats can become hot in a car exacerbated by the stress of the environment (leading to panting). This should be taken into account. For long journeys food, water and litter should be available. In warm weather cats should not be left in car. The car interior becomes very hot and can kill.
  • Going to the toilet – a clean, well set up, cat litter tray is important for both the cat and the person responsible for the cat. It should be well sited away from cat food, quiet and be cleaned frequently. When there is more than one cat each should have an individual tray well separated (Defra says in different parts of the house). Handling of cat litter needs to be sensible. Washing hands afterwards is sensible and children should avoid it as should pregnant women. See cat feces and pregnancy. If a cat goes to the toilet outside the litter it is probably due to either stress, a poor litter tray or illness or a combination of these.

Section 2 – Diet  –

  • Dietthe diet should meet a cat’s nutritional requirements. Cats are “obligate” carnivores. They have to eat meat and can’t be vegetarian. We musn’t impose our vegetarian principles on cats no matter how well founded they are. The question of diet can be confusing. I personally would not recommend just feeding dry food. There are arguments that it contains too much carbohydrate. I think a mix of quality dry food (good for grazing at night), quality wet food and raw food (fish, boiled chicken) and plenty of fresh water to hand is about as good as we can do. Providing just raw food prepared at home requies care as supplements are needed (e.g. taurine – see Bengal cats and taurine). Cats eat regularly so food should be available and our cat will ask. Here is a series of posts (18 in all and growing) on cat food.
  • Weight – A cat’s weight should be monitored and steps taken if needed (e.g. supplying smaller quantities). It is normally a matter of commonsense when deciding if our cat is over or under weight. If we can feel the back bone and ribs easily our cat is probably underweight. This might be a sign of illness. Overweight cats are predisposed to contract certain diseases such as diabetes (see symptoms of feline diabetes). Exercise (for the cat!) if possible should be organized. Vets routinely weigh cats and can advise.
  • Other dietary needs – some cats might have different dietary needs. This is for the veterinarian to decide, of course.

Section 3- Behavior

As stated, a cat needs to be in an environment where normal behavior can take place. In the USA cats are more frequently kept in permanently. This is safer but places an extra burden on the person responsible to ensure that normal behavior can take place and mental stimulation provided (see cat indoors or out this talks about whether we should or shouldn’t). If appropriate, possible and practical I favor cat enclosures in the modern world (this is not a Defra recommendation, just my thoughts).

Examples of cat behavior are:

  • hunting – substitutes can be utilized (i.e. play)
  • scratching – a necessity for a cat – a suitable object is sometimes needed or if you don’t mind your furniture being scratched that’s fine (see thoughts about scratched furniture). Declawing is not an option and in the UK might be considered an offence under this legislation. Here is a post about trimming cat claws.

A cat needs exercise. This may occur naturally if he/she is able to get out safely. I don’t actually believe that there are any really safe places left in Britain but it is a risk-to-benefit decision if we let our cat roam or not. The area should be suitable and certainly away from roads. If we keep our cat in that must mean good substitutes are available in lieu of natural exercise. Some people in the United States provide treadmills for example. Our input for play will be required.

Defra advise that we watch for signs of stress. One such sign is inappropriate elimination (peeing in the wrong place – see e.g. cat pee on the bed). Here are some more signs (provided by Defra):

  • subdued and going missing (if let out to roam)
  • nervous
  • aggressive to people and other animals
  • stops eating, drinking or grooming
  • over grooms – see feline endocrine alopecia
  • overeating
  • restless or over sleeping
  • panting (this can happen when travelling in car for example)
  • being unusually affectionate
  • patrolling
  • over reactive

Most cat stress is caused by us in various ways, in my view. See cat scratching for example. Here’s 2 posts on aggressive cat behavior. See happy cat  |  Cat prefer soft voices  |  Referred cat aggression  |  Cat behavior explained.

Section 4 – Company  

The domestic cat has adapted to live with humans but is essentially a solitary creature. Cats should be socialized and nearly all cat breeders will ensure that this is the case. Cats may become stressed in a multi cat household. A large number of cats in a household is unwise on several levels. There is added stress for one and transmission of disease for another (see cat health problems).

We as cat owners are the major influence on whether our cat is calm and content or stressed. Handling should be gentle and appropriate. Children should be taught how to handle cats. Dogs should be introduced carefully and sensibly (initially on a lead). Well socialized dogs and cats will get on fine but not all are (see dogs with cats images). Defra says that we must arrange for our cat’s needs to be met when we are away. Cats will become very accustomed to our presence. Going away can be stressful for the cat. We shouldn’t really keep cats if we are away a lot for in the long term.

Section 5 – Health and Welfare  

There are 4 subheadings:

  • health care – we should be aware of our cat’s health and act promptely when our cat is ill. See cat anatomy.
  • grooming  – regular grooming is good for us and our cat including flea combing and checking for fleas – see cat and dog parasite pictures, cat flea life cycle, cat flea treatment, cat fleas bite humans
  • identification  – our cat should be identified as belonging to us. This can be through microchipping or safe collars. (my personal thought is that neither is entirely safe). See:
  • If our cat goes missing, neigbors, local rescue centers and those further afield should be contacted including local vets. If microchipped that will greatly assist. People also put up notices and check outbuilding etc.
  • neutering – in the modern world all cats should be spayed (females) or neutered (males) unless you’re breeding cats (responsibly). See neutering cats.

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