Happy Healthy Cat

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Signs of a Happy Healthy Cat

cat giving 5 with its paw

Every Month is Cat Month but September even more so...

Dog Person or Cat Person?

My 6-year-old nephew once told me that he is more of a cat person than a dog person. Mind you he’s never had a cat or a dog as a pet, but I found it interesting that even at 6 he is taking sides in the great divide between pet owners. Eddie was much too young to see Meet the Parents, but I was reminded of the exchange between the actors Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller in the movie where DeNiro’s Jack slyly (and hilariously) judges Stiller’s Greg for his preference of dogs over cats. I don’t agree with Jack, but I can’t argue with the fact that the scene is well written and hysterical. 

For the record I don’t identify as either. I love dogs and cats equally for their unique characteristics. In many ways, cats are lower maintenance pets than dogs. Dogs are pack animals by nature and therefore they are hard-wired to interact with us. Cats are more solitary but able to form small social groups – if their ‘rules’ are adhered to. 

By some accounts we have been keeping domestic cats as pets for over 10,000 years and yet largely due to their solitary nature, they remain mysterious to many of us. How many of us have ever wondered whether our cat was happy? A happy healthy cat might seem like an oxymoron to some of us. Can a cat be happy or are they perpetual malcontents who just tolerate us because we feed them? I have shared my life with many cats throughout my adult life, and while I still feel they are a mystery to me in many ways, I am no stranger to the ways in which our cats convey their ‘love’ for us.

Jack: Greg, how come you don’t like cats?

Greg: I don’t not like cats. I-I just – I just prefer dogs. I mean, I’m just more of a dog kind of,  you know – Come home, wagging their little tails, happy to see you kind of –

Jack: You need that assurance? You prefer an emotionally shallow animal? … A dog is very easy to break, but cats make you work for their affection. They don’t sell out the way dogs do.

              from Meet the Parents, 2000 Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg 

Signs of a Happy Healthy Cat:

  • Slow blinking – while dogs will avoid direct eye contact, due to the hierarchical nature of their packs and the aggressive signal that direct eye contact sends, cats actually look directly into the eyes of those they trust and love. Cats often make eye contact with lowered eyelids and steady, slow blinks. This is a way of showing affection and can even be reciprocated by their human companion.
  • Headbutting – when a cat bumps their head against you or rub their cheeks against you– they are engaging in behaviour that begins as kittens with their littermates and mother. The belief is that this behaviour allows them to mark you with their scent to claim you as their own. All I know is that it is that it makes me feel good when they do it. 
  • Grooming – I have a friend who jokes that when they engage in grooming behaviour with their human, a cat is sampling you to see if you will taste good when they turn on you. This behaviour begins when they are kittens and is a feline way of showing love and affection to each other, so when they do it for their human companion you should feel honoured (and loved). 
  • Kneading – in a behaviour associated with nursing, cats may knead blankets, clothing or even your skin. The behaviour brings comfort and releases endorphins in the cat’s brain that make it feel safe and content. The behaviour can sometimes be done prior to laying down to create a softer sleeping spot (like a dog spinning). This is one of the clearest signs of a happy healthy cat.
  • Showing their belly – while displaying their most vulnerable part of their body is the ultimate display of relaxation and trust from a cat, you should heed the following WARNING: don’t mistake this for an invitation to actually rub their belly or you might end up getting a bite or scratch. “Don’t mistake my proffered underside as an invitation to touch it!”
  • Meowing – a cat will often vocalize in short quiet meows when we speak slowly and softly to them, and they feel comfortable. Some say that this is an attempt to ‘talk human’ by the cat. 
  • Purring – one of nature’s great antidepressants at 25HZ, a cat will show contentment when they are laying near you or you’re petting them by making a purring sound. We aren’t entirely sure of the how’s and why’s, but I don’t know too many people who don’t like it. (And if you don’t, well that’s okay too.) 
  • Greeting at the door – cats will greet you at the door to show you that they missed you. This is often followed by walking between your legs and curling their tails around your legs or “rattle-tail” behaviour, which is a quick and rhythmic shake of the tail. 
  • Following you – similar to greeting you at the door a cat may follow you and keep you in sight at all times (often around mealtimes).
  • Tail Language – a content cat may extend their tail upright and curl it into a ‘C shape’ or hook which they slowly wag tail back and forth. If a cat allows their tail to touch you when they are lying next to you, chances are they are keen on you. 
  • Bringing you presents – skilled hunters, outdoor cats will often kill birds or rodents and bring the carcass back for you as a gift – to show you their love and appreciation. Indoor cats will often bring you toys and other items they have hunted for you in the house.
  • Sleeping near you – much like the line in that song “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”, just by being relaxed enough to sleep near you is another way a happy healthy cat has of showing you trust and love. 

How can we show our love for our cats?

First off, just say no to declawing…

After our first cat turned our new leather couch into a pin cushion, we took him to the vet and asked them to declaw him. This was nearly 30 years ago, and I had no idea what the procedure entailed. I naively thought it was just the removal of the claw in a way that ensured it doesn’t grow back. 

In actuality, the procedure known as onychectomy (declawing) involves the amputation of the last bone of each toe of the cat’s four paws. In human equivalency, it would be like cutting off each finger at the last knuckle. 

Using a scalpel or guillotine clipper the last knuckle of each toe is amputated and the wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue and the feet are bandaged. There are other methods involving lasers which only differ in the means of amputation (lasers cut and simultaneously cauterize the wound) but the toes are still amputated. There is another method which involves severing the tendon to each claw so that the claws can’t be extended or controlled, but this is no better for the cat’s overall wellbeing. 

I have heard people say that declawing is a controversial decision. I was once blissfully ignorant about the long-term negative consequences it has on cats and had all our cats declawed to save the furniture. Had I been aware of the constant pain in the paw, infection, tissue necrosis, lameness, and back pain (it changes the way the cat’s foot meets the ground when they walk and can have consequences on the cat’s spine) I would have stopped worrying about scratched up couches. Regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage and bone spurs are all far more common with declawing than we once knew. By removing the first knuckle of their feet, we are forcing cats to walk on soft cartilage that was previously a part of their joints. The chronic pain can cause cats to chew the stubs of their paws habitually for the rest of their lives (as it did with at least one of our cats).

Researchers have found that declawed cats are 7x more likely to pee in inappropriate places, 4x more likely to bite people, 3x more likely to be aggressive, 3x more likely to overgroom themselves and 3x more likely to be diagnosed with back pain and/or chronic pain in their paws. 

The use of shredded newspaper in the litter box after surgery- accompanied by pain when scratching in the box – may lead to some cats to stop using the litter box entirely. Not to mention that it is less painful to urinate on soft surfaces because the gravel in litterbox irritates their sensitive paws. 

I once believed that scratching was a bad cat behaviour but now understand that scratching is a natural impulse that you can help direct to more appropriate areas than couches. Cats begin scratching at around 8 weeks old and do this to remove dead husks from claws, mark territory and stretch their muscles. If you have a young kitten, you should get a head start to train them to use a scratching post and tolerate regular nail trims. 

Options to stop them from scratching furniture:

  • Keep their claws trimmed 
  • Provide stable scratching posts and boards in a variety of materials (carpet/sisal/wood/cardboard) and different styles (horizontal and vertical) and entice them to use them with toys and catnip.
  • Position the post or board near your cat’s favourite sleeping spot and/or near furniture your cat likes to scratch the most.
  • Reward your cat with cheek scratches or treats when they use their post. 
  • You can have your veterinarian glue soft plastic caps over each nail, however these need to be replaced very six weeks.
  • Attach a special tape (StickyPaws is one brand) to furniture to deter unwanted scratching.
  • If your cat scratches the sofa or some other piece of furniture just say “no” firmly and relocate the cat to the scratching post and reward it for using that instead.

cat in chair showing some sharp looking claws

Inside or out? Let’s put the debate to rest: INSIDE ONLY 

Even the most domesticated of cats have a strong drive to get outside and explore. If you’ve ever tried to turn a cat that previously had free reign outdoors into a strictly indoor cat you will know how difficult this can be.

The best solution for a happy healthy cat is to never let your cat get a ‘taste’ for living outdoors. Allowing your cat the freedom to roam the neighbourhood is a lose/lose for not only your cat but for the wildlife they will inevitably hunt and kill. Conservative estimates are that at least 4 billion birds and 22 billion mammals are killed each year by domestic cats that are allowed to live outside. If this isn’t enough to deter you from letting your cat roam freely outside, keep in mind that the lifespan for outdoor cats is much less than for indoor cats as outdoor cats face threats from predators, cars, and diseases that indoor cats don’t.

As much as your cat may try to convince you otherwise, it is better for your cat to remain a strictly indoor cat. Of course, this begs the question of how can you ensure that your indoor cat is as happy as it can be?

Keep them stimulated and challenged. There is a saying that a happy cat is a tired cat. Cats are naturally athletic and require stimulation. Even an indoor cat can be provided with stimulation and exercise.

Try the following options for stimulation and exercise:

  • Provide them with toys and teach them to play.
  • Ensure that they have opportunities to look out windows, create bird-viewing stations by creating a place for them to watch out the window and place a bird feeder or bird bath directly outside the window. The birds will remain safe, and the cat will have hours of entertainment and stimulation right outside the window.
  • Make your cat go hunting for its treats – hide them around the house.
  • Use cat treat puzzles and toys or freeze treats in ice cubes to make them work for the reward. Similar enrichment opportunities are provided to keep lions, tigers, and other predators in good mental condition in zoos.
  • Even though they may not appear to be the most social of animals, it is proven that having a second cat for companionship will make your cat happier and healthier.
  • Provide them catnip. This plant from the mint family contains a natural oil – nepetalactone – which when inhaled acts as a natural cat pheromone and when rubbed or chewed induces a mild natural ‘high’ that is both temporary and harmless. While not all cats will be affected by catnip (those under 6 months will get no effects from it), for those that do, catnip can be a nice treat for them in moderation.
  • Provide them ample opportunities for climbing. Have you ever tried to stop a cat from climbing on your table or cupboards (cue the water spray bottle), you know that climbing is a natural impulse for them. If you don’t want them on your cupboards or tables, provide other opportunities for climbing, such as floating shelves mounted to a wall or purchase or build cat apartments to give them opportunities to climb and exercise. 
  • Take them for a walk – my sister-in-law loves the sweet barn cat she rescued so much that she has strollers, bike baskets, travel baskets, and harnesses for her cat. She has trained Charlie to walk on a harness and inside special strollers and baskets that provide him with a safe screened-in vantage point to experience the world. I didn’t think it was possible to get a cat to walk on a harness, but I see this more and more now and the fact is that cats can be taught to walk on a harness. 
  • Provide your cat with a catio – you can purchase or build enclosed structures that can be installed in a yard, on a deck, or even on a patio that are safe and allow your cat to have some freedom to explore. This can be as small as an enclosed playpen or as extravagant as a cat run in the backyard. These are gaining in popularity and can be a great workaround for cats that had previously been allowed to have free reign outdoors.
  • Join a Facebook group that offers ideas such as Feline Enrichment 

There are so many more options available to us nowadays to help make our cats happier and healthier. More important than anything you can build or purchase for your cat is your love and attention. Provide your cat with as much love and attention as you can. You will find with a cat that a little goes a long way. 

I’m not really high maintenance. All I really need is love, attention, food, water, places to climb, things to do, catnip, birds to watch, a human to nap near, catnip, someone who clearly understands my boundaries, catnip…
Happy Cat Month!
Love, The cat
a white long-haired cat with yellow eyes sitting in front of a light blue background.

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