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.
Microenvironmental considerations: These 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. (Part One, Part Two to follow). (VLT)