Writing by Dr. Sarah J. Cutler

Felines are fantastic friends. They’re the cat’s meow, if you will. 

While there are millions of cats in the U.S., no two are the same, and there is a wide range of temperaments and physical attributes. Still, most cats have retained much of the instinctual behaviors and physical attributes of their wild ancestor, Felis silvestris lybica (a.k.a. the African wildcat). 

Felines are both predators AND prey. This means their brains and bodies are designed to hunt and kill small animals, mark and maintain a territory, roam freely, flee rapidly and hide from view. Despite their wild side, many cats have adapted to living near or with humans, and even in our homes.  

Many cats are physically affectionate and extremely interactive with human beings. They often enjoy sleeping near or with their people, on their laps, on their pillows or even on the desk. But some cats are more reserved and prefer to live near humans, but not right on top of them. 

Living with cats can lower our blood pressure and release dopamine and serotonin, which reduce stress and improve immune functioning.  Physical contact with cats can also help release oxytocin, which is associated with the feeling of being in love. This is why petting a cat’s soft fur, having them lie near or on you, and hearing them purr can relax you.  

Even virtual cats can help us. According to researchers, cat videos can boost our mental health by increasing positive emotional states and decreasing negative emotional states. 

Finding the perfect feline

There are an estimated 100 million stray or feral cats in the U.S., so consider adopting from a local rescue group. Many of these groups place felines in foster homes until they are adopted, which helps them acclimate to domestic life.

“I have fostered over 75 kittens,” says Leah Pizer, a volunteer with South Salem’s Rock n’ Rescue. “Each one is adorable, and I am so happy when they find their forever homes. But when I fostered Molly, she became my first ‘foster fail.’ We adopted her within days because we just could not let her go. She is now family and joined Crazy and Daisy, whom we adopted eight years ago. So much love comes from such little things.”

When adopting, consider choosing an adult cat. Be patient with the acclimation process. You’d be amazed at how the human-feline relationship can blossom when you open your heart and home to a needy feline.

“I went to Rescue Right to look at Mattie’s sister, who I saw online,” Jeanne Windbiel explains. “They were practically twins, but her sister was strutting around, full of confidence, and approached me without fear, which surely was appealing. Mattie hung back and was so shy. I knew when I went there that I needed a cat. What sold me was that Mattie needed me.” 

Create a castle fit for a king 

Prepare to share your home and your heart to meet your little lion’s needs.  

“My two eight-year-old female rescue cats are a continual source of amusement and companionship,” says Patricia O’Donnell. “There’s Lily, who chases her invisible friend around the house, and Mariah, whose continued curiosity can get her into trouble. But in the evening, Lily will lay on my arm and Mariah will sprawl in my lap – pretending to be perfect little angels.”

Remember that by confining them indoors, which is the safest choice, we are depriving them of hunting opportunities and freedom to roam. There are many ways you can compensate for this within your home. By providing lots of vertical spaces, kitty condos, a variety of scratching posts, as well as toys and enrichment items, you can encourage your feline friend to keep active, be happy and not scratch your furniture.

Ideally you can also provide your little tiger with safe opportunities to spend time outdoors on a leash or in a secure outdoor enclosure such as a catio

The five pillars of a healthy feline environment 

(Per the AAFP and ASPCA.)

  1. A safe place.
  2. Multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, toileting area, scratching areas, play areas and resting or sleeping areas.
  3. Opportunity for play and predatory behavior.
  4. Positive, consistent and predictable human-cat interaction.
  5. An environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell.

Your majesty’s throne

Fortunately, cats don’t need to be trained to use a litter box, but they always need access to one. It is of utmost importance that you keep their bathrooms pristinely clean, and there must never be challenges to accessing the litter boxes (such as dogs, cats bullying each other, undesirable locations or undesirable architecture of the box). Always apply the “plus one” rule: you should have the same number of litter boxes as you have cats plus one extra in a separate location.

Cautionary tales  

While every cat is different, here are a few general things you can do to prevent most major catastrophes:

  • Some houseplants, especially the lily flower, are toxic to cats. 
  • Keep string, ribbon and dental floss away from your cat; if they find them, they might eat them. 
  • Cats have been known to jump in cozy, warm spots, including the clothes dryer or a bureau drawer. Keep them closed.
  • Windows without screens can result in what is commonly known as a “high-rise crisis.”  
  • Many cats are very sensitive to loud noises and chemical scents. 

To learn about common household toxins, visit the Cornell Feline Health Center website. 

Considering a multi-cat home?

If your love for cats pushes you to acquire a second or third, consider the feline(s) currently in your home first. Although some house cats are flexible with living arrangements once they’ve established a routine, most do not easily welcome new cats into their territory.  

Most humans do not pick up on the covert bullying that exists between cats until it has reached a point of overt crisis. With competition for resources, stress problems can occur, such as inter-cat aggression, territorial marking (spraying urine) or using other substrates for urination and defecation because of bullying. 

Please proceed slowly and seek advice from a shelter, cat behaviorist or your veterinarian before increasing the number of cats in your home. But if another cat is right for your home, the Humane Society’s website has some helpful tips on how to make it work. 

And, of course, enjoy your new feline companion. Once you have one, your life will never be the same.

“It’s simply not possible to know what joy cats bring to your life unless you live with them,” says Barbra Kagan. “They are loving, hysterically funny and non-stop demanding. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My husband and I rescued our first cat from the woods, expecting to bring it to a shelter. In ten minutes, we knew we would never part with him. He changed our lives forever, and we will never be without cats again.” 

 

This article was published in the November/December 2023 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Did you know?

Cats make a wide range of vocalizations, but the classic “hello” meow is reserved for their humans. 

Studies show that cats who live in close proximity to humans will pick up their tone and accents (which can explain the differences between international meows and even between regions of the United States).

Many cats are most active at dawn and dusk, which are typically the best hunting times. And some cats are busier throughout the night than during the day. But eventually, most cats adapt to their humans’ schedules.

The average housecat weighs between eight and 12 pounds and can live up to 18 or 20 years. 

It’s estimated that there are about 85 million pet cats in U.S. homes, or about 29 percent of homes in the U.S. have pet cats. 

The number of breeds varies depending on the association’s standards. For example, the International Cat Association recognizes 73 standardized breeds, and the Cat Fanciers Association recognizes 45.  

Popular cat breeds in the U.S. are Maine Coon Cats, Abyssinians, Bengals, Persians and Ragdolls.  

Terms such as tuxedo, tabby, tortoiseshell, calico and ginger are descriptions of coat colors, not breeds.  

A stray cat has been abandoned by its owner. A feral cat is born in the wild, either by other feral cats or by stray cats.  

Dr. Sarah J. Cutler
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Sarah J. Cutler is a veterinarian with a special interest in behavioral medicine.  Upon graduation, she took an oath to “first do no harm,” which is a guiding principle in her practice.  Sarah combines her scientific background with her respect for cats and dogs to help humans live in health and harmony with their pets. “I’m passionate about following safe practices for our pets and understanding where to find trusted professional resources,” she says.