We asked Mikkel Becker, a certified trainer and behaviour consultant and head trainer for Fear Free Pets (fearfreepets.com and fearfreehappyhomes.com) for her top 10 things you can do in your home to improve your cat’s life and general happiness. She readily shared her list. Mikkel uses positive reinforcement and non-force based training strategies rooted in scientific learning theory to help pets and their people live better lives together through kind training and bond building. Read on for her top tips to reduce fear, stress and anxiety in cats for an all-around calmer and happier cat!
1. Create a predictable routine. Cats thrive on knowing what to expect, when, and how it’s going to happen. They’re in large part creatures of habit and relish some amount of control by having an idea of what to expect and when. (Hey, they sound a whole lot like us humans!) Reduce your cat’s anxiety by offering as regular a schedule as possible, especially for important events like mealtimes. You can even consider feeding your cat out of automatic feeders like Portion ProRX that monitor your cat’s daily intake and alert you to changes in your cat’s appetite. By doing so, you offer a predictable schedule that alleviates the angst your cat may feel wondering when their next meal might be fed—and reducing the need to wake you up if your cat is an early riser that disturbs your sleep to remind you it’s mealtime!
2. Consider Feliscratch. If you’re tired of your cat clawing up the drapes, the couch, or the bedspread, you can help to direct your cat’s clawing instinct to a more acceptable outlet like their scratching post. Feliscratch is a pheromone spray that uses an attractant that chemically signals for the cat to scratch in a given area, thereby drawing the cat away from less desirable scratching spaces.
3. Offer acceptable scratching posts. Too often the scratching posts that are offered to cats aren’t the ones that cats want. Ensure that the scratching post offers your feline a full stretch. Ideally, look for posts that have a three foot height to allow for the cat to fully extend their legs, paws, and dig in their claws as they stretch their body. In addition, ensure it’s stable and doesn’t wobble or tilt when the cat digs in and scratches.
Encourage positive scratching behaviour with Bootsie’s Combination Scratcher by SmartCat. Made with woven sisal to naturally promote scratching, it allows your cat to fully stretch out! ($25, pioneerpet.com)
4. Hide portions of your cat’s regular meal or tiny pieces of treats in different places around the home that encourage your cat to explore. Try placing a catnip toy, a few treats, and a food puzzle on different levels of your cat’s climbing spaces.
5. Pet the way your cat enjoys. Unfortunately, people often pet cats in ways that are overstimulating or upsetting. Most cats prefer to be pet or scratched in less offensive areas that include the sides of the cheeks, top of the head, or for some, the base of the tail, as opposed to a head-to-tail pet or, worse yet, the tummy. For cats that tend to get over-the-top if pet too long and move to bite, consider other ways to show your cat affection, such as through play. When petting, limit touch to the places your cat actually wants to be pet and limit the time. If in doubt, stop petting and see what the cat does. If the cat leans away or moves away, or if other signs of irritation are present, such as pupils widening and looking darker, ears going back, the tail swishing or starting to wag, note that the cat has had more than enough, and aim to avoid pushing the cat to such a point in the future.
6. Trim the cat’s nails in a Fear Free way. Whether you’re trimming your cat’s nails at home or they’re being done at the groomer or vet, it’s important that the cat’s emotional wellbeing is taken into constant account throughout the experience. The nail trim should be more akin to a relaxing pedicure than a hold-em’-down struggle-and-fight event that is all too often the common experience for both cat and person during nail trims. There are ways to minimize the struggle and stress, including through the use of food distractions, towel wrapping techniques for those cats that are calmed by their use, and through training the cat to remain calm and comfortable when paws and nails are handled. You can find a Fear Free Certified Professional or Fear Free Certified Veterinary Practice to work with you and your cat by visiting fearfreepets.com or fearfreehappyhomes.com and searching the directory for those certified in your area.
7. Switch it up! While cats enjoy routine, they also appreciate variety that’s structured around that schedule. Variety keeps their minds challenged and offers exciting novelty to their day. You can rotate your cat’s toys or create homemade puzzles or toys on the cheap (see page 66) to keep your cat’s keen interest peaked and the mind engaged in healthy challenges.
Incite a frenzy of play with the adorable Frisky Furball from P.L.A.Y.! ($7, petplay.com)
8. Remember that cats are trainable and they love to learn! Just like people, cats like to be caught doing something right and rewarded for their efforts. In fact, your cat is already trained, you just might not realize it! Cats are constantly pairing their behaviour with the outcomes they experience. For instance, meowing incessantly can result in their person walking to the kitchen to deliver their food. Instead of focusing on what you don’t want, focus on what you do want, and build on the good by rewarding the desirable behaviour your cat already does. Or, teach your cat to do what you want them to do by setting them up for success through teaching in tiny steps that build success upon success to achieve the final behaviour you want your cat to perform. Not only will your cat look like a genius to your friends when they’re able to perform a high five, but it offers a practical form of mutual communication that you can use with your cat that strengthens your bond and offers a way to tell your cat what you want them to do.
9. Scoop your cat’s litter daily. Cats, just like people, don’t like to do their duty in a restroom that stinks to high heaven. Just as we would seek to avoid a porta potty that contains the smells of everyone before us, so too are cats likely to avoid going in litter boxes that contain previous smells and contents of their own eliminations and/or those of their feline housemates. Daily scooping keeps the spaces clean and limits odour buildup. It also provided your cat fresh litter to walk in that’s less clumpy and gross to step on, allowing the cat to freely sift and dig to cover up where they left off—all important pieces for successful litter box use.
The secret to easier, faster, and cleaner scooping? The revolutionary, award-winning Litter-Lifter. It’s designed to catch even the smallest waste with the first pass without scooping up the clean unused litter. (From $5, litter-lifter.com)
10. Give your cat the type of care that’s protective both physically, as well as mentally and behaviourally. Fear Free veterinary care, grooming, and training is focused upon protecting a cat’s emotional wellbeing throughout all of their care experiences, including those at the vet, groomer, as well as in the home. A cat should never have to suffer emotionally in order to receive the physical care they need. In other words, the vet, as well as the care you provide at home, can be comforting and feel safe for your cat, rather than scary or threatening, as your cat may have experienced past vet visits. Ensuring emotionally safe experiences allows for better quality care to be provided in a less stressful, safer way, protecting cats and the people working with them. It’s a win-win for all involved.