The 7 best ways to care for your cat
We all know cats are drag queens of the pet world: fabulous, graceful and just a little bit bitchy.
I’m gong to tell you something. Despite what you’ve heard, cats aren’t all about their glamorous selves (seriously! though some are).
Like all animals, Cats have their own personalities. In their own language, many will love you to the point where they pop a gasket. Most of the time we don’t even notice, or think they’re just acting weird.
With the help of Kim McLeish, AARCs Cat Foster Coordinator, here are seven things fosters and general cat owners should know, but probably don’t.
On a quick side note, what is fostering?
Fostering lets you be a faux pet owner, caring for a shelter animal (or two) in your own home until they find a permanent home.
Most of the time you’ll be given everything you need including advice, pet food, toys, general pet supplies, and did I mention advice?
You think you know cats? Ha. You don’t know cats until you’ve had hundreds of the little fluffers come through your home with every kind of past you can imagine. Even then they’ll continue to surprise you.
The World According to Felines
1. Whizzing outside the Box: “Please help me!”
Peeing around the house is a big issue. Possibly the biggest.
Bourbon was not only abandoned by his owners, he was returned by the first person to foster him for ‘going outside the box’.
To communicate, cats don’t have opposable thumbs or the ability to speak human. All they have is their body, which is where peeing comes in.
According to Kim, around 75% of the cats turned in because they won’t stop ‘peeing around the house’ receive treatment for things like urinary tract infections, kidney stones or crystals. These are easily dealt with using antibiotics and/ or a special diet.
Let that sink in for a second. Most cats dumped at the shelter for peeing where they shouldn’t simply need a trip to the vet and some drugs.
Of the remaining whizzers, most are struggling socially. Another cat may be bullying them in subtle (or not so subtle) ways, a new baby is taking all the attention, or maybe they’re trying to mark their territory.
After two years of grandmother-style feeding, Bourbon is built like a grizzly bear. Despite his size, he’s so socially awkward he was once cornered by a pair of 6-week old kittens.
The kittens thought it was great fun. I thought it was hilarious. Bourbon hissed and growled and started ‘going outside the box’.
To reduce anxiety-induced peeing, try keeping your cats separate. Gradually introduce them over a period of days or even weeks.
Give your kitty some quality time to show them they’re still special.
Also consider the cat’s bathroom set up. Ideally you want one easily accessible, clean litter box per cat.
“Usually their peeing tells a story that can point to the problem” explains Kim “for example a cat that starts peeing, but only on the baby’s stuff”.
One of my pet-sitting clients had a cat who started going outside the box, and took her straight to the vet. The vet diagnosed a kidney problem, which was easily managed if caught early.
As a first step, talk to your vet. They’ll address any physical issues, and provide support for managing social challenges too. In Canada, Vets To Go offer an in-home service, if you’d like someone to give your house a once over, and a vet that comes to you.
2. Deep Bowl : “Whisker bender”
All night, Archie the Ginger Ninja would silently make a giant piles of toys, plant-branches, and snacks. He could steal an entire pie faster and more quietly than you can say “gimmeapiece”.
Archie also drank water by scooping it out with his paws instead of drinking from the bowl.
If you’re a cat, you were born with sensitive whiskers to help you gauge distance, and want to avoid having your precious little width-sensors being bent. Archie would drink with his paws to avoid bending his whiskers in the water bowl.
Wide, shallow bowls of water tend to be more comfortable for kitties, allowing them to drink while their whiskers fly free.
If this is a new habit, reaching out with a paw could also be due to eyesight issues, or changes in the household. Contact your vet if you have any concerns.
3. Water Near Food: “Contaminated Kill Site”
Yep, more about water. Most cats (and people), go through life chronically dehydrated, increasing the risk of urinary tract and kidney disease. Water is important.
Sapphire is an affectionate Himalayan who would inch his way onto your lap via the table. He would also rarely drink.
Then one day I left a bowl near the patio door. In Sapphire’s furever home, he continues to drink from a shallow bowl kept away from his food.
In the wild, where food is pounced on, wrestled and devoured, a water source close to food may be contaminated, so most cats prefer to drink water that isn’t near their food source.
For similar reasons, they also prefer running water instead of stagnant pools.
To encourage plentiful drinking leave wide, shallow dishes of water around the home, or purchase a fountain to keep the water moving.
Give your cat wet food, preferably with a dash of water. Before cat biscuits, most of a cat’s fluid was consumed through meat and the occasional plant, not through tepid pools of H2O.
By keeping your kitty hydrated and feeling like a hunter, you’ll also help keep them happy and healthy.
4. Vacuum Cleaner: “Screameater”
It screams and eats at the same time. Enough said.
5. Scratch and destroy: “Play with meeeee”
Wrecking everything in sight is another big reason cats are turned in, most often with the catchphrase “cats are assholes”.
Feisty Ritz tore a hole in my screen door so he could grip the mesh, pull the door open and let himself out. He would get into everything, and meow furiously if you spoiled his fun.
You know how dogs need exercise, toys, playdates and the occasional trip to the dog park? Cats also need fun to keep them well behaved. Heck, so do I.
Ritz wasn’t a bad kitty. He was intelligent, alert, and bored. There are a couple of easy ways you can stop kitties like Ritz transforming your house into a torn-up pile of debris, and have some fun along the way.
First, play with your pet. Yes, it’s that simple. Active playtime not only helps your kitty keep slim and fit, it also strengthens your relationship with them, tempers their ‘hunt and kill’ instinct, and tires them out.
Get out the laser pointer, feather on a stick, crinkle ball, whatever they love.
Play hard for at least 15 minutes a couple of times a day and you should see their behavior improve.
Another outlet cats need is scratching. As well as saying “this is mine” with their claws, scratching is a cat’s way of sculpting their guns.
They need to be able to stretch straight up (or out) and scratch, which means a big adult cat needs a big adult scratcher - none of those piddly kitten posts.
If you find a post with a unique smell and texture, you’ll help them learn what’s Ok to scratch, and what isn’t. If they have a scratching post made from a similar carpet to the rest of your home…you can guess how that will end.
Plenty of opportunities to play and scratch work wonders with a cat’s behavior.
6. Climbing stuff: “Safe!”
Billy was my first kitten who’d clearly experienced a traumatic past. He would run from hiding place to hiding place with his body low, and his head and tail tucked down.
A few days after Billy arrived, the Christmas tree went up. Surprisingly, Billy was ecstatic.
He would sit in the safety of its branches all day, and demand attention by swatting at anyone passing by.
He was open to chin-scratches, as long as he was in his tree.
Next week I brought home a cat tower. Billy would sit, stand and lie on top of this thing day and night. When I tried getting him into his travel crate, Billy’s first reaction was to run up his tower.
He even loved the ghetto-tower, made from old fence posts and a cupboard door.
Cats are tree-climbing animals by nature, and often feel more comfortable up high. Scampering up and down trees, towers and even your shower curtain, jumping from shelf to shelf — it’s part of who they are.
Give your kitty lots of places to feel powerful and, more importantly, safe.
8. (Bonus!) Most importantly: Faux shyness
If you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for the most important piece of information yet. Here is is:
You can’t imagine what love, patience, and the right kind of care can do.
Oliver Twist had the flu when he arrived, and would sit quietly on the couch all day.
Being my first foster, I thought “sweet, cats are easy. They just sit there.” After Ollie recovered he was the most energetic kitten you’d ever seen. He now lives with his best friend, a giant Saint Bernard named Delilah.
Five days ago Benedict arrived and immediately hid. I knew he was in my house because every morning the food bowl was empty and the litter box was full.
Today you can’t go up the stairs without Fat-Benny purring and hugging you tighter than a gnat’s chuff.
No, the cat isn’t a nut-job. He’s adjusting.
Imagine if you were suddenly shoved in a cage, then taken to an unfamiliar house with weird smells and people you don’t know, and told to “behave”, without knowing what’s going on, or even what “behave” means.
Imagine if you were put next to someone and told “be friends”, just like that.
Relationships take time. Starting out shy, and even smelly (cats stop grooming when they’re stressed) is normal.
Everyone comes with their own quirks and baggage. Some you keep forever, some you change. Find out who’s inside that furry little body — bashful, feisty, it’s all good.
It’s not about you getting the best photo op, or being able to strut around talking about how fabulous you are for fostering or rescuing(though both those things are cool). It’s about making a lost little life feel safe, whoever they are.
The look a cat gives you when they start to feel comfortable…it’s worth it a thousand times over. Be patient.
As Kim notes, we have a long way to go:
“Everyone understands puppies need to be socialized… They understand dogs need exercise, toys, play dates…but those same people will say things like “it’s just a cat” and dump more Meow Mix in the bowl of their morbidly obese cat while complaining about the way it scratches the furniture, when the poor cat doesn’t even have a scratching post”
If you have questions, talking to your vet or (for fosters) the shelter staff is the best first step.
Hopefully now you speak cat more fluently, and are better equipped to empathize with the goofy, complex, loving feline within.
If you’d like to foster, or even get a kitty of your own, contact your local animal shelter. You’d be doing a great thing.