With an estimated 11 million cats sharing our homes in the UK, it’s safe to say we’re a steadfast nation of cat lovers. Studies have shown how beneficial pet ownership can be to our wellbeing, so it’s really important that we return the favour by making sure our beloved furry ones are just as happy living with us.
Wild at heart:
The domestic cat is still very closely related to their wild, predatory ancestors, the African wildcat. Wildcats spend a large proportion of their day (about 50%) exploring and hunting. They will then seek out somewhere safe and concealed to rest. Cat’s senses are expertly developed to accommodate this lifestyle; their very broad range of hearing (from low frequency to ultra-sonic) and large mobile ears, allow for the detection of a range of sounds as well as the pinpointing of their origin. This is perfect for seeking out prey but also avoiding potential threats. Their eyes contain special reflective tissues that enable them to see well in low light conditions, again great for hunting purposes. The roof of their mouths even come fitted with a special device, the venomeronasal or Jacob’s organ. This helps them to detect and ‘decode’ various chemical signals within their environment, left by other cats.
The benefits of the great outdoors:
Our pets have inherited all these fantastic capabilities from their relatives, meaning they are often very sensitive to their surroundings and motivated to hunt and explore. Whilst some domestic cats will certainly seem more active and exploratory than others, nearly all cats will benefit from having an environment that lets them put all these specialist skills to the test. Providing your cat with an enriching, cat friendly garden is the perfect way to positively stimulate their senses, allowing them opportunities to perform many of the behaviours they are highly motivated to do. Most cats will also enjoy regular bouts of ‘me time’, with research suggesting access to the outdoors can be good for their wellbeing, reducing risks of obesity and stress.
Managing the risks:
There are also various risks associated with letting cats roam outdoors. These include road traffic accidents, poisons, conflict with neighborhood cats and the diseases they
may spread. These risks must be carefully weighted up against the benefits to cats of exploring outside. A suitable compromise for many cats can be reached by creating an enriching cat friendly space that is also ‘catproofed’. This will not only stop your cat from roaming further than you feel is safe, but also deter unwanted neighbourhood cats from entering, giving your cat a safer territory to explore and ‘be a cat’ in. If your cat is very active and used to roaming far, it’s very important that before you ‘catproof’ your garden, you make it suitably enriching for them. You should also try to give them as large an area as possible – a small ‘catio’ is unlikely to cut it for very active cats and may cause them frustration and stress if they are used to having a much larger space.
Providing outdoor access: common pitfalls
It can be common for people already providing their cat with outdoor access to say that he or she doesn’t like going out a lot or seems quite nervous when in the garden. It’s true that some cats are certainly more of the stay-at-home types than others. However, just because a cat doesn’t use their garden much, doesn’t always mean they aren’t interested in all the delights the outdoors may offer. It might be that there’s something not quite right with their current outdoor options. This is normally due to one (or more) of the following:
The garden is too bare or exposed: Cats tend to feel more vulnerable when venturing outdoors. Plenty of places to hide at ground level as well as places to get up high are essential, even if they don’t tend to use these features that often.
The garden is uninviting and lacking in sensory stimulation: To explore and engage with their environment, cats need stimulating smells, sights and sounds around them.
There are other cats coming in to the garden: Cats are notoriously territorial and will usually feel stressed or uncomfortable if neighbourhood are cats tying to muscle in on their turf. Some cats are better at defending themselves than others, although deterring other cats from entering the garden in the first place is best.
Their outdoor access is restricted: Especially in areas of high cat density, cats will often ‘time share’ the outdoors with other cats to avoid possible conflict. Each cat will work out times of day when the coast is clear and mainly stick to those periods. If the cat has to wait until the owner decides to let them out, they are less able to effectively ‘time share’ and may not want to go out at the times the door is opened for them. Additionally, cats just like to feel in control of themselves and their surroundings, therefore limiting their ability to choose when they go out or come in may cause them anxiety or frustration.
Top tips for ultimate garden ‘catification’:
The more outdoor space you can offer to your cat the better. However, the good news is that there’s still plenty you can do to turn even a small garden into a cat oasis.
Cats love to climb and get up high. Consider how you can maximize their outdoor environment by providing them with lots of vertical spaces to explore and rest on. Shelves attached to walls or fences can work well, as can garden tables, chairs and benches. You can also buy special cat climbing frames if you really want to spoil your furry one, although DIY jobs are likely cheaper! When thinking about where to locate these items, try to place them so that one structure ‘connects’ to the other; this way your cat could technically jump from one structure to the next, without needing to go to ground level. Try to provide levels at differing heights, for optimum cat exploration. These are excellent ways to get your cat active and moving, at the same time ensuring they have great vantage points to spy from!
Cats will naturally feel alert and a little cautious when venturing outdoors. In addition to elevated areas, places for them to hide at ground-level are also important. Wooden boxes placed on their sides, specially built ‘cat dens’ or houses, dense shrubs and bushes with little gaps for easy cat access are all excellent options. These should ideally be placed in different locations around the garden, especially in areas that are currently bare, or where your cat tends to look less comfortable. It’s recommended that you also provide your cat with a good hiding spot just outside their main entrance to the garden. This way, they have somewhere safe to go as soon they need it.
Cat’s body temperatures are a little higher than ours (about 38-39 degrees Celsius compared to our 36-37). This means they will usually prefer slightly higher temperatures to us and will be keen to seek out sources of warmth. Providing your cat with soft, warm areas to rest outdoors is ideal, particularly if they are old or frail, spend long periods of time outside, or prefer to sleep there overnight. Fleecy blankets placed inside sheltered boxes or cat dens are perfect. You can even use heated pet blankets that give continuous warmth – these can either be solar powered or connected to a mains power supply. Alternatively, you can use heat pads that are warmed in the microwave and them placed under a blanket, these should stay warm for a few hours.
Try using food and toys to stimulate your cat’s senses and their predatory side, in a wildlife friendly way. You could scatter some treats or their normal kibble in the grass for them to hunt. For very food motivated cats, you could also try hiding some food in piles of leaves or toilet rolls tubes containing scrunched up bits of paper. If you have an area of the garden with a flat smooth surface (e.g. areas of concrete or paving stones), you could also put some kibble into puzzle feeding balls for them to bat about. For playful and predatory cats, try taking their usual toys out into the garden for more stimulating play sessions. Fishing rods or wands with small, prey sized toys attached are loved by most cats. Try to move these toys in a similar way to the cat’s prey. To mimic the movements of mice, use
short bursts of movement along the ground in a single direction, followed by little pauses. To mimic birds and insects, use short sweeping movements in the air, followed by the toy ‘landing’ on different surfaces, before it takes off again.
Nice smells and things to nibble:
Including a variety of native flowering plants is great for attracting insects. A lively garden filled with flying and crawling creatures is also a great source of positive stimulation for your cat! The following cat friendly plants are also recommended:
Catnip, catmint and other members of the mint family. Around 50-70% of cats may find the chemicals on the leaves of these plants stimulating and potentially a little hallucinogenic!
Honeysuckle is thought to have a similar effect to catnip, although less cats are responsive to it (around only 30%).
Valerian is thought to have either stimulating or calming effects on cats, depending on how much of the plant they are exposed to.
Cat Grass is thought to help with digestion when eaten. It is the best type of grass for your cat to nibble on due to its soft edges.
Something to drink:
It’s really important to try to keep cats hydrated, particularly if they are fed a mostly dry diet. However, cats tend to be quite fussy when it comes to tap water. This is potentially because cats are better able to taste the chemicals in treated water than we are, especially when it isn’t fresh. Providing your cat with a source of fresh rainwater is ideal. Simply place a large bowl outside and let it fill up when it rains. Collecting rain water in a water butt and then using it to regularly top up your cat’s bowl is a great idea. If you really want to splash out, you could even treat your cat to a free running water fountain, although make sure the water is changed regularly and the fountain cleaned often.
Somewhere to relieve themselves:
Just like us, cats are very clean creatures. They like to toilet away from where they eat and sleep and most will prefer to go outdoors. It’s important to provide them with a suitable latrine area in the garden, and this should be ‘poo picked’ regularly. Substrates such as woodchip or loose earth are ideal. Cats can feel quite vulnerable when toileting, so create some privacy for them by placing large shrubs next to their toilet to act as a screen.
Something to scratch:
Large, old logs are excellent for both climbing and scratching purposes. Scratching is an essential activity for cats; it helps them to keep their claws healthy. When cats scratch
they also leave behind visual and chemical signals which help them to mark their territory and make it feel more secure. Cats secrete these chemicals through glands located in between their digits. A large tree stump with a flat top provides the cat with the best of both worlds; a nice vertical area to scratch on and somewhere off the ground to rest.
Encourage your cat to explore in their garden by providing lots of variety and the occasional bit of novelty. Include structures at different heights, various types of hiding places and a mixture of different plants. Depending on the size of your garden and what you include, you can also move things around from time to time and introduce new plants or ‘cat furniture’ every so often.
The best way to give your cat access to the garden is via a cat flap that is never locked. This enables your cat to feel more relaxed around going outside and gives them a better sense of control over their environment. Because most cats will prefer to toilet outdoors, giving them constant access to a garden will mean they can avoid using a litter tray. It should also reduce the risk of them house soiling or withholding faeces and urine. Sometimes things indoors might get a bit overwhelming for cats, for example when there are lots of people, young children or other animals about. Allowing your cat to escape from it all to their favourite spot outdoors, whenever they need, is a great way to help them cope better and manage their stress levels.
Having a garden filled with dense shrubs is great for wildlife as it provides them with sources of food as well as hiding places. However, if you want to put bird feeders out, ensure these are placed in more open areas, so that birds can easily see if there are cats nearby. Choose feeders that can be placed at the top of long, thin poles. These should be located away from other elevated structures to prevent your cat from getting too near. Avoid feeding birds low to or on the ground.
Written by Dr Lauren Finka. Dr Finka has a PhD in Animal behaviour and Welfare from the University of Lincoln, where she worked to develop measures to assess sociability in cats within the rehoming environment. Dr Finka is as a specialist consultant for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and also works with International Cat Care (ICatCare) and International Society for Feline Medicine (ISFM) on various behaviour and welfare projects.