Cats Need the Right Environment

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on May 22, 2013

“Addressing environmental needs is essential (not optional) for optimum wellbeing of the cat.”

So says the Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines recently published by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine. I whole-heartedly agree. Evidence continues to reveal that inappropriate environmental conditions play a huge role in the development of stress, illness, and unwanted behaviors in cats.

The Guidelines are structured around five pillars of a healthy feline environment. To quote:

  1. Provide a safe place

    While cats can comfortably live alone or in social groups, they hunt alone. The risk of injury represents a serious survival risk. As a result, cats tend to “avoid and evade” rather than confront perceived threats. A safe place enables the cat to withdraw from conditions it considers threatening or unfamiliar. All of the cat’s senses are mobilized to detect threatening conditions, which are signaled by strange smells, loud or strange noises, unfamiliar objects, and the presence of unknown or disliked animals. The degree of sensitivity to perceived threats varies according to individual cats. By having the option to withdraw, a cat is able to exert some control over its environment, which it finds satisfying in itself.

  2. Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, toileting areas, scratching areas, play areas, and resting or sleeping areas

    Since cats are solitary survivors, they need to have free access to key environmental resources without being challenged by other cats or other potential threats. In addition to avoiding competition for access, separation of resources reduces the risk of stress and stress-associated diseases, and satisfies the cat’s natural need for exploration and exercise.

  3. Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior

    The cat has a strong instinct to display a predatory behavioral sequence consisting of locating, capturing (stalking, chasing, pouncing), killing, preparing and eating its prey. Predatory behavior occurs even in well-fed cats. For cats that are able to hunt, predation consumes a significant proportion of their daily activities, requiring considerable physical activity and mental engagement. Inhibiting or failing to provide cats with opportunities for predatory-type behaviors can result in obesity or boredom and frustration that can express itself as overgrooming, stress associated disease or misdirected aggressive behavior.

  4. Provide positive, consistent and predictable human–cat social interaction

    Cats are companion animals that benefit from regular, friendly, and predictable social interaction with humans. Consistent and positive handling of the cat from a young age leads to positive behaviors such as reduced fear and stress and a strong human–cat bond. Social preferences among cats vary widely and are influenced by factors such as genetics, early rearing conditions, and life experiences. Many cats prefer a high frequency, low intensity level of social contact with humans, a scenario that gives them a good deal of control. In this setting, cats are able to initiate, moderate and end their interaction with humans.

  5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell

    Unlike humans, cats use olfactory and chemical information to evaluate their surroundings and maximize their sense of security and comfort. Cats use olfactory and pheromonal signals through the use of scent marking by facial and body rubbing. This establishes the boundaries of their core living area in which they feel secure and safe. Wherever possible, humans should be careful not to interfere with a cat’s olfactory and chemical signals and scent profile.

I encourage all you cat owners out there to take a look at the entire Guidelines, which was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. It is written with an audience of veterinarians in mind but contains so much good advice that it’ll be worth your while to wade through the veterinary-specific bits.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Ellis SL, Rodan I, Carney HC, Heath S, Rochlitz I, Shearburn LD, Sundahl E, Westropp JL. J Feline Med Surg. 2013 Mar;15(3):219-30.

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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