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What do cats want?

What do cats want?

Cats can be mysterious creatures. Like many cat lovers, you may be wondering: What does my cat want?

Though there are certainly many individual preferences among our feline friends for fun and comfort items, there are a few basic necessities we believe all cats require.

Ethology is the study of animal behavior under natural conditions and it has shown us much about the needs of the smaller felines like our companions. We know they need food and water but did you know that most cats prefer not to have their food and water sources near each other? While convenient for us to clean and change the dishes in one spot, we suggest you locate water in several other rooms in the house. The location for the food and the water should be calm and free of foot traffic or intermittent noises like water heaters that may click on or vents that might suddenly blow air. Many cats prefer bowls wide enough that their whiskers don’t touch or rub while eating or drinking so feeding on a flat plate or saucer may be preferred, and you might consider a dog-sized water dish. Some cats move their food out of deep bowls and eat on the floor. They may also move food to gain their own space when sharing a dish with another cat or as a habit when brought up feeding with other cats (perhaps in a shelter). We think cats should have their own bowls at feeding time so they are not forced to share with another. Why do cats like to drink out of your water glass where their whiskers are clearly squeezed? Cats may prefer water that has recently run or moved. Changing their bowl often prompts them to come get a drink! Fountains work for some cats and quiet ones seem most favored.

Another basic need is an elevated resting site or perch. Studies of what cats do with their time show they spend about 30% of it on a high perch, awake and observing! Cat trees and towers fill that need nicely. But if you don’t have room for one of those, perhaps provide access to the top of a stable book shelf and replace any bump-able items up there with some soft bedding or an observation box. Check out our Pinterest page for ideas on how you can meet this need for environmental enrichment even in the smallest of living spaces (or google cat wall furniture, or check out As your cat friends get older and possibly less mobile, they may need more of your creative input to help them get off the ground and gain a little altitude. A favorite reference for off-the-ground feline habitats is The Cat’s House by Bob Walker. Bob and his wife Frances wanted to provide more space for a growing indoor cat family but had only so much floor space so they used the non-floor space in clever and artistic ways. We have several copies of that book to loan you for brainstorming! Another idea from The Ohio State Indoor Cat Initiative is a simple wooden ladder from the hardware store left standing open. The group of researchers and faculty at Ohio’s Veterinary School work to enrich the lives of indoor felines through their website and outreach.

Finally: the litter box. When it comes to this biological imperative, your needs and your cat’s needs are probably very similar so think of yourself. Like the food and water station, the litter box should be away from foot traffic, noise, machinery. (Would you like to be observed? Startled by sudden noises? Buffeted by puffs of air?) And there should not be access by dogs, other bully cats, or children to ambush your feline during or after the sacred squatting. (How well do you go when someone is pacing outside your door?) Most cats have been shown to prefer an open box instead of a hooded box, presumably due to odor accumulation. (Hmmm, sort of like a Porta-potty?) The box size varies with the cat size and should be large enough that the cat can turn around without brushing the walls. (Would you want an airplane bathroom in your home?)

The litter boxes should be scooped at least once a day and preferably twice. (Surprised? Really? Do you settle yourself over a vat of stale product? Or worse, nudge through it with your tootsies?)

In fact, studies of litter box use show a strong correlation with the amount of time a cat spends in the litter box and “litter box satisfaction.” (How long do you hang out in gas station rest rooms?) So if your cat is a landscape artist in his/her box, you are doing something right!

– Dr. Sharon Blouin

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