Pet Connection: Have to honor cats' complicated ways

06/04/2013 12:00 AM

06/03/2013 4:01 PM

Sometimes when I talk to a pet owner about her cat's stress, I can almost hear what she's thinking.

"Stress? You must be kidding. This cat sleeps 20 hours a day, gets handed food to him twice a day and never has to lift a paw for anything," I imagine her saying. "Now if you want to talk about stress, listen to what I deal with every day."

It's true that cats aren't dealing with long commutes, tight budgets and all the other modern strains that we people have.

But it's also true that many of them feel stressed. You need to care about that, because when a cat is stressed, it is more likely to get sick or develop behavior problems.

My colleague and longtime friend Dr. Tony Buffington leads the Indoor Pet Initiative at Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Here are some of his suggestions for keeping your cat calmer – and healthier, as a result.

Understand that cats do not respond to force and that they do respond to praise. Punishment that follows an action by more than a few seconds won't stop the cat from doing it again, and may even cause the animal to become fearful of the owner or the surroundings.

Provide a room or other space that the cat can call its own, complete with food and water, a bed (a cat carrier with a soft pad inside is a good choice), a litter box, a scratching and climbing post (cats need to be able to scratch and climb), a window to look out of and some toys.

Offer vertical space as well as horizontal. Even a small apartment can become a good-sized place for a cat if you provide cat trees, feline stairways and other ways for it to enjoy living the high life.

Place food and the litter boxes away from appliances and air ducts that could come on unexpectedly, and locate them so another animal (or human) cannot sneak up on the cat while it's using the box. Food and water should be kept fresh, and the litter box should be scooped every day.

Give your cat something to scratch on to ensure that it can engage in this normal behavior without damaging furniture. A cat can easily be enticed to use scratching structures by placing them in places the cat likes, pairing with treats, feeding and playing near the structure, and praising profusely when the cat is seen using it.

Remember that cats seem to prefer to feel like they are "in control" of their surroundings, so allow them to choose the changes they want to make. When you make changes (food, litter, toys, etc.), offer them in a separate container next to the familiar one so your cat can decide whether to change.

Take your cat to the veterinarian regularly. In addition to providing preventive health care through regular checkups, your cat's doctor can help you troubleshoot and resolve issues before they become problems.

There's more to keeping a cat happy and healthy indoors than putting down food, water and a litter box.

Learn more at the Indoor Cat Initiative website, indoorpet.osu.edu, where you will find more ideas and a free video to download that will help you turn your home into a feline spa.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at petconnection@gmail.com or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.

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