Safe Spaces Promote Physical and Behavioral Health
In part one of this blog series, I reviewed guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners and International Society of Feline Medicine on the five pillars of a healthy feline environment. As mentioned in that article, providing a cat with a comfortable environment is linked with better physical, emotional, and behavioral health.
This post focuses on pillar 1, providing your cat with a safe place.
What is a safe place?
Your cat’s safe place is a private area that allows her to retreat and feel protected; it provides her with a sense of security. Cats like to get up high where they can observe their environment, especially when there’s been a change or when they are frightened. Provide your cat with a few different options, including open resting spaces such as a shelves or windowsills as well as enclosed resting spaces such as high sided beds or boxes. You can encourage your cat to use these spaces by making them comfortable, for example, by covering the area with fleece bedding.
Can the carrier be a safe place?
While the carrier can be a good option for a safe hiding place, your cat may have learned to fear her carrier if it has been brought out only before frightening experiences, such as going to the veterinary clinic or riding in the car.
To improve the way your cat feels about her carrier, you should make it a normal feature of her environment. In other words, set it in an area that she uses frequently and leave it there.
You may find your cat uses it more frequently if you put it on an elevated and stable surface, such as a shelf. Encourage her to explore the carrier by hiding food or catnip inside, and line the bottom with comfortable bedding so she can curl up for a cozy nap.
Turning your cat’s carrier into a safe space not only gives her a great option for hiding when indoors, it can also decrease her stress level when she does need to travel or go to the vet’s.
What considerations are needed for multi-cat homes?
While many cats can tolerate living in homes with other cats, they’re most successful at doing so when they have enough space to keep distance from each other and get out of sight when needed. Research on indoor cats shows that most cats prefer to maintain a distance of at least 3 to 9 feet when they are within sight of each other, and they may spend as much as half of their time out of sight of each other.
You can help your cats avoid social stress caused by too much contact with their housemates by providing as many safe places in the home as the number of cats. Even if you live in a small home or apartment you can increase the amount of vertical space for your cats by adding perches, shelves, and cat trees.
You can also divide rooms in several sections using vertical room dividers. These dividers make the rooms more complex and give your cats more choices about where they want to be—and who they want to see.
What about safe spaces outdoors?
While keeping your cat exclusively indoors can protect her from certain dangers, such as traffic accidents, diseases, fights with other cats, and predation by larger animals, it also limits variety in her environment and can result in boredom and behavioral problems.
If your cat doesn’t have access to the outdoors, she should have access to natural lighting and a window so she can look outside. If you have multiple cats, make sure there are perches by several windows to limit competition.
If you do provide your cat with access to the outdoors, you can make this safer for her and for others (such as the local wildlife) by creating a secure screened-in enclosure in your yard or deck (a catio!).
Depending on your cat’s temperament and experience with the outdoors, you can also train her to wear a leash and harness so you can take her on a walk around the neighborhood.
As noted above, many options for safe spaces are available. Test some of these out to see which your cat prefers. Providing your cat with a number of options will provide her with some control over her environment, ultimately decreasing her risk for physical and behavioral problems.
—Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, DACVB
Veterinary Behavior at Illinois