My daughter Phoebe and I are absolute animal lovers. We ogle dogs in the street, melt at Instagram animal posts, and love to watch every animal video available. But we both agree and would argue that among the nearly 9 million animal species on Earth, the species that is the pinnacle of evolutionary design and beauty, the one species that is closest to perfection would be the cat. There is a sublimity and totality to their sleek design, their agile dancer-like grace, steely confidence, and preternatural predatory skills that places them above all other species. Cats are, as they say, the total package. We love the videos of small house cats scaring away larger dogs or even bears, often with just a look, or watching the ease with which a cat can launch vertically from floor to the top of a shelf without a hint of effort. With their delicate chins, big watchful eyes, velvety coats and long expressive tails, cats are living artwork and they know it. Like royalty, they admit us into their company and we all know who really owns the place.
House cats began their close association with humans between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago with the development of agriculture in the Middle East. The storage of grains brought hungry rodents and attracted the cats that hunted and fed on them. Cats and humans became mutually useful in these more settled societies and eventually cats made their way indoors, domesticating themselves. I suspect early humans appreciated the vermin control offered by cats, but then were just honored to have these exquisite creatures enter into their households after a night of hunting to lay purring by the fire.
There does seem to be some debate about whether cats can truly be called domesticated. House cats, more than other domesticated animals, still have an essence of the wild, maintaining an independence and self-sufficiency that allows them to survive and reproduce apart from humans with relative ease. They also closely share the anatomical features of their larger wild counterparts in their dentition and skeletal form compared to other domesticated animals that retain more juvenile characteristics as humans intervene in their reproduction. So while we have lived mutually for thousands of years, humans have had less of an impact on shaping feline form and behavior.
This takes us to modern living with cats. More recently, and especially in more urban areas, there has been a shift in attitude and awareness about allowing cats to roam freely. Whether to protect populations of birds and small mammals from feline predation, or to protect cats from the potential dangers of living outdoors, more and more cats are living a fully indoor existence. In recent years, veterinary behaviorists have begun to focus more closely on indoor feline behavior and health to evaluate the stresses that many cats endure living with their human companions. Of course we ask, what could be less stressful than being a cat— sleeping all day, wandering to the food bowl between naps, being stroked by our human admirers? Other than hunting mice, which many well-fed indoor cats can’t really be bothered to do anymore, cats aren’t generally required to work in exchange for living with us. They may no longer have the opportunity to express their instinct to hunt and roam. Behavior experts have identified the stress of cats not acting on their natural instincts as being an underlying cause of various medical issues such as urinary problems, irritable bowel disease and possibly allergic conditions.
So while we’ve made our indoor cats safer, how can we make them happier? It’s all about environmental enrichment. There are websites from a variety of experts that offer tips for enriching a cat’s indoor environment, including one from the Ohio University College of Veterinary Medicine which has instituted the Indoor Pet Initiative to help owners get started. Specific recommendations include providing a variety of spaces both low and high for cats to perch. Using puzzle feeders instead of bowls to stimulate the natural predatory behaviors of cats makes them work for their food. For multi-cat households, separate feeding and watering areas should be designated for each cat in the house. This may be surprising to most multi-cat owners — often cats go between bowls, but apparently, cats don’t necessarily enjoy this and having separate feeding and watering stations for all cats is an important component of keeping the peace within the household. Because cats tend to be fastidious, scooping the litter box once or twice daily and completely clean it weekly, in addition to having separate litter boxes for multiple cats, can go a long way to prevent litter box issues. Most importantly, spending regular time with your cat, whether grooming or playing with them, will benefit you both. Happy National Cat Day!