You may not think so, but that flabby tabby sleeping on the couch probably has stress.
Consider how cats were designed to live, inhabiting an acre or more, primarily solo, occasionally interacting with another cat with an intersecting territory, eating mice and/or birds. (It takes a lot of mice to feed a cat – all of that hunting takes a lot of time.) Maintaining their territory and protecting their resources is essential to survival. They are naturally vigilant and neophobic (afraid of new things), and give suspicious objects and individuals a wide berth. If there is too much stress in a neighborhood, they move.
Now consider how indoor cats live with us. They are usually confined to an area of less than 2000 square feet, in close proximity to other individuals without the opportunity to select their roommates, sharing potty areas, sleeping spots, food, and water. Their environment may change at random (new furniture, new odors, favorite items stolen, strange people knocking down walls and altering countertops, etc) and they have no control over the access of other animals to the borders of their territory (windows, doors). The list of stressors can be endless.
Combine the elevated stress hormones with an endless supply of high-carbohydrate dry food (spaghetti with meatballs) and an almost empty calendar of events, and it’s no wonder most tabbies are flabby!
While this lifestyle does protect our feline friends from being hit by car, bitten by dogs, getting lost, and a host of other bad things, the obese and sedentary lifestyle comes with a host of negatives of its own. There is an intricate interplay between stress hormones, obesity, and inflammation that can influence pancreatic health and diabetes, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, interstitial cystitis (formerly known as Feline Urologic Syndrome), and probably every other inflammation-prone tissue in the body. There are also behavioral consequences of this lifestyle, including urine marking, inappropriate elimination, inter-cat aggression, and aggression redirected toward humans, other animals, or the environment.
So what can you do?
The most important thing to remember is that cats have less stress when there are more resources. Not more in bulk, but more in terms of access points. A larger number of resource clusters allows cats to exist in a smaller territory.
Food: Choose a high-protein dry (unless your cat’s medical status dictates otherwise) to supplement a canned base diet. Canned foods should be without added carbohydrates. An extensive review article published recently in JAVMA indicated that the protein content of the food drives water consumption and influences a number of other factors which are beneficial to urinary tract health, gastrointestinal health, and weight management. Dry food should ideally be distributed in small quantities around the house, either in bowls or in food-dispensing toys. Food can be elevated on a perch, on the floor, under the bed, in a closet… Or hidden under a box. The cheapest food-dispensing toy ever is simply a toilet paper tube with one end closed. Spreading out food like this decreases stress in multicat households and allows the cat to engage in some purposeful hunting behavior, mimicking a cat’s wild feeding pattern.
Litter boxes: Even a cat living solo may need more than one toilet, especially if the cat is arthritic or the house is especially large. Split level homes should have a litter box on each level – think one litter box per shared people restroom if you only have one cat. Multi-cat households need even more – a good guideline is one more litter box than you have cats, but here it gets tricky. Two litter boxes side by side, with no divider, is really one restroom with 2 toilets and no privacy. Kitty stress will be reduced and litter box access will be improved if the litter boxes are at least separated, and are arranged in a manner which prevents one cat from guarding access to them all at the same time.
Scratching posts and perches: People have people furniture in every room of the house. The cats should have some furniture, too – at least in shared areas. Scratching posts should be somewhat spread out, ideally with one per cat because the posts really are territorial markers. I personally find the combination kitty towers to be attractive to the cats, attractive to the people, and effective. Perches do not have to be limited to kitty towers and the tops of posts, however. Beds on the corner of a desk, on an accessible shelf, or in a window work well. The more cats you have, the greater the need for multiple elevated perches. Elevation provides the cat with a sense of safety and security, and in a multi-cat household reduces the likelihood of agonistic encounters.
Petting and play: To a great extent, your level of interaction with your cat will be dictated by the cat. However, your cat needs some interaction every day. Cats who “don’t like to be petted” may have legitimate pain issues which should be addressed. That being said, most cats are up for a good head rub now and then. Cats can be taught to accept grooming, if you are careful, use a matt rake, and keep sessions short. “Play” for cats can vary greatly, from actively running and jumping after a wand toy to simply watching an object move. If you keep play sessions short, and offer them often, even pretty lethargic cats can be induced to at least throw out a few swats now and then. Wand toys and laser pointers are the most popular toys among cats.
Outdoor access: For some cats, a little taste of the outdoors can make a big difference. There are a number of “window seats” designed for cats that can be installed even in rental units to allow your feline companion his or her own bay window. There are also outdoor units designed like hamster habitats that allow you to create a series of “kitty tubes” outdoor. Some companies make kitty kennels that can be placed outside a window fitted with a cat flap to allow outdoor access. There is often a concern about other cats having access to your cat through the mesh of these enclosures. The kitty kennels can be protected by strategic placement of a few Sssscat units. Motion-activated sprinklers can be used to protect larger areas, like the perimeter of a yard. In reality, as long as direct cat-to-cat contact, with bite wounds occurring, and access to areas used for potties by outside cats is restricted, the risk to your housecat in having this kind of restricted outdoor access is minimal.
In most cases, a few simple adjustments to the environment can make a huge difference in kitty stress.