When you bring your new cat home I’m sure you have a picture of what life will be like with that furry family member. For most people that dream includes companionship, affection, playtime and fun. All-too-often though, some people expect the cat to be the one to do all the work. It comes from the misconception that cats are low maintenance and that they come pre-trained. Many cats end up in shelters because people misunderstand the motivation behind behaviors or they never really understood what cats need in the first place.
To have the relationship with your cat you’ve always wanted it will take some involvement on your part. Here is my list of 9 things that will help you strengthen the bond you share with your cat and increase his level of health and happiness.
If you’re starting off with a youngster, now is the time to gently expose him to the things he’ll come across in his life. Get him comfortable with being held and touched so medicating and grooming him later won’t involve the need for bandaging your hand afterward. Expose him to other people, sounds, traveling in his carrier, visits to the veterinary clinic and so on. If done safely and gently, it may make a big difference in how your cat adjusts to changes and new experiences as he grows.
2. Feed Good Quality Food
Good nutrition plays a big role in your cat’s health. Feed good quality food that’s appropriate for your cat’s stage of life and health condition. This is not the place to opt for convenience over quality. If you’re unsure what food to feed your cat or even how much you should be feeding, talk with your veterinarian.
Don’t allow your cat to become obese and don’t get in the trap of feeding one food exclusively. If you want to avoid the risk of having your cat develop a fixed food preference, feed a variety of appropriate foods so he learns to accept various tastes and flavors. Whether you decide to feed commercial cat food, raw or homemade, get educated on what your cat specifically needs.
3. Train With Love
Don’t assume your cat automatically knows the rules of the house. Cats need training and surprisingly, they’re easy to train. Use force-free methods that create a successful roadmap for your cat toward the behavior you want. Use kindess always. Never use punishment because that can severely compromise the relationship as well as actually making the cat afraid of you. Punishment can also increase the intensity of the behavior. For example, if you punish a cat for being aggressive, chances are there will be an increase in the aggressive behavior as he will now feel more threatened. When it comes to training, there’s no room for hitting, yelling, squirting with water or any other punitive method. Cats don’t intentionally “misbehave” so there’s no reason to punish. When a cat displays a behavior you don’t like, keep in mind, to the cat the behavior is normal. It’s your job to provide an alternative for him that will satisfy both of you. To do that, determine the cause of the behavior so you can supply a more appealing option.
4. Maintain Veterinary Care
The cat you rescued from the side of the room needs the same quality veterinary care as the expensive purebred purchased from the most high-end breeder. Your cat should see the veterinarian annually until he’s a senior and then visits should be twice yearly. Cats are very good at masking pain and illness, and often the only way cat parents know something is wrong is when there’s a change in behavior. If your cat shows a change in either behavior, appetite, water intake or litter box routine, it could indicate an underlying medical problem. Never skip that veterinary appointment because doing so could cause your cat to suffer.
5. Create the Right Litter Box Set-Up
It’s not about what’s appealing for you, it’s about what works for your cat. Too many times, people try to hide the litter box in a remote location in the house where it gets forgotten so it doesn’t get cleaned enough. The litter box should be easy for the cat to get to, the right size, filled with a soft litter that your cat likes and he should feel safe when he’s in there.
If you have a multicat household then there should be an adequate number of boxes scattered throughout the house. Having one more box than you have cats is a good way to ensure each kitty will be able to find a secure place to potty. And, here’s an overlooked aspect of kitty happiness when it comes to the litter box: make sure you scoop the box at least twice a day.
6. Make Time for Play
Interactive playtime is one of the best ways to build trust and bond with your cat. Being a hunter, your cat was born to move and use his incredible skill to stalk and capture prey. Engage in interactive play sessions at least twice a day with your cat. Sessions should last at least 15 minutes each. These play sessions are so important to a cat who has spent all day waiting for you to come home from work. No matter what type of personality your cat has, those interactive play sessions can double as fun and as training time.
To really increase the quality of your cat’s daily life, provide opportunities for him to play when he’s alone during the day or night. A little environmental enrichment can go a long way in terms of his happiness. Food-dispensing toys, puzzle toys, cat trees, tunnels, cat shelving and other cat structures can turn a boring, ho-hum environment into a kitty playground. Providing play opportunities doesn’t have to break the budget either. Some of the best puzzle feeders or climbing structures are the ones that are homemade.
For older cats or ones with limited mobility, give them the option to play within their physical ability and create easy access to favorite elevated locations through the use of pet stairs or ramps. Your senior cat may require more sleep and enjoy more time just lounging by the sunny window but he’ll still appreciate the opportunity to stretch those muscles and have some fun through age-appropriate playtime.
7. Pay Attention to What Your Cat is Saying
Cats are master communicators. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and observe whether he’s giving you the signal to come closer or he’s saying he’d rather be left alone. If you respect the signals he gives and don’t force the issue, your cat’s trust will increase and he’ll probably seek you out more often. There are times when we all want to be left alone, are in a bad mood or we really need to be close to the ones we love. Get to know what your cat’s body is saying and then respect those signals.
An important part of paying attention to your cat’s communication has to do with the type of affection you offer. If you’re petting your cat, be mindful of whether he’s enjoying it or whether he’s just tolerating it. Some cats like long strokes down the back, some are sensitive about having the base of their tails touched and some only like to be petted on the back of the head. Additionally, don’t insist your cat stay on your lap or try to hold him in your arms when he is clearly giving you the message that he’s not comfortable. Allow your cat the option to stay close or remain at a distance. If you pet him in a way he enjoys and don’t restrain him when he attempts to come close, he’ll want to be in your lap more often.
8. Respect the Need for Claws
A big issue for many cat parents is the worry that the cat will scratch the furniture. As a result, many cats get declawed when all that was really needed was some humane training and the availability of a good quality scratching post. Being able to scratch is a vital part of being a cat and it goes beyond just conditioning the claws. Scratching serves as an emotional outlet, a very effective method for stretching and a way to leave an olfactory and visual mark. Purchase a tall, sturdy, sisal-covered scratching post and place it where your cat enjoys scratching. Don’t put your cat through the painful and permanent declawing procedure. Let him retain the wonderful joy that comes from being able to scratch. A cat’s paws were meant to have claws.
If you’re worried about the cat scratching you or another family member, this is where effective, force-free training comes into play. Cats prefer to retreat when they feel threatened. If a cat parent puts a cat into a situation where the kitty feels he has no choice, that’s when he may use his claws in defense. If you read tip #7 above and you pay attention to what your cat is saying, you’ll notice he gives several warning signs when he feels threatened or in fear. Another issue I see in my house calls when it has to do with cats who scratch people is that very often, family members have used their hands when playing with the cat so kitty learns biting and scratching flesh is an acceptable form of communication.
9. Introduce Change Gradually
Cats don’t like abrupt change whether it relates to food, litter, new pets, new family members, housing or even schedule disruptions. Your cat will be much less stressed if you prepare him for upcoming changes. New pet introductions should be done carefully and gradually. Ease him through changes in food or litter by doing a slow transition over the course of several days. Making a move? Don’t just drop your cat into the new environment without first letting him get comfortable in one room. Remember, your cat didn’t get the memo that major shifts were about to happen so be gentle and patient as you walk him through any changes.
Need More Information?
For more specifics on cat behavior and training, refer to any of the books by Pam Johnson-Bennett, including Think Like a Cat, the ground-breaking book that changed the way people view cat training. Books are available through our website, at your favorite book store and through online book retailers.