Your Cat Would Like You to Pay Attention to Their Happiness

Pets

Can cats even be happy? And how do you know? Some tips to help please your feline.

Photo: Christopher Schruff/Pexels

By Zazie Todd PhD

Stereotypes about cats can get in the way of looking after them. Most people think that cats are easy pets and that you don’t need to do much for them—but the more you do from a cat-centred perspective, the better your relationship with your cat will be. 

One of the challenges for people who care about cat welfare is that a lot of people don’t pay attention to their cat. It’s as if they just assume that their cat is alright.

And maybe they are alright (if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure they are, since you’re showing dedication to learning about cats!). But unfortunately, experts believe that the biggest issue that affects the welfare of pet cats is a home environment that is not set up right for them and that consequently can cause the development of behaviour issues in the cat (Rioja-Lang et al 2019).  

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This gives us two completely different perspectives on whether or not the average pet cat is a happy one. It matters because the way we think about animal welfare has changed from an approach based largely on preventing harms to one that includes a focus on positive experiences for the animal (Mellor et al 2020). That includes our pet cats. 

Luckily, although people have a tendency to say dogs have more emotions than cats, pet guardians understand that their cat can experience emotions, including happiness (Pickersgill et al 2023; Martens et al 2018; Arahori et al 2017). 

This is good news because it means that people understand cats can be happy. And it means there are many opportunities to teach people how to help their cat be even happier than they already are. 

If you want to know whether or not your own pet cat is happy and has good welfare, there are a couple of ways to look at this. 

The first is to pay attention to your cat’s body language and behaviour. Unfortunately cats have a reputation for being inscrutable and hard to read—but recent scientific research is disputing that notion. For one thing, there is the feline grimace scale that people can use to see if their cat is in acute pain. https://www.felinegrimacescale.com/ For another, new research on cats’ facial expressions when interacting with other cats shows their faces give away far more than most of us realize (Scott and Florkiewicz 2023). (Incidentally I am writing about this study, but for a different publication so you’ll have to wait to read it).

There is actually a lot we can spot when it comes to understanding our cats’ feelings. I wrote a guide in my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy and luckily that excerpt has just been published over at BBC Science Focus. You can read it here: How can you tell if your cat is actually happy, explained by a feline body language expert.  

The second way to look at it is to consider what you are providing for your cat. There’s a set of clear guidelines on feline environmental needs called the five pillars (Ellis et al 2013). These include making sure your cat has a safe space (like the top of a cat condo, their cat carrier, or even a cardboard box) and ensuring that their interactions with you are always positive ones that they can predict. They include thinking carefully about where all your cat’s “stuff” is and making sure there are multiples in different, separate places, especially if you have more than one cat. They include paying attention to your cat’s sense of smell.  And finally, you should make time to play with your cat.

If all of that sounds overwhelming, the best approach is to pick one thing and work on that for a while. See how it goes (after all, cats are fussy and sometimes you need to tweak things). And once it’s become a habit, you can pick another and build on that. The best place to start will depend on your specific cat, but if in doubt personally I would go for a daily play time and ensuring your cat has safe spaces because cats like to have places where they can hide.  

There’s a checklist for a happy cat at the end of Purr that will help you to see what you are already doing well and where your kitty might like you to try something new. 

Right now, Amazon has both of my books, Purr and Wag, on some great deals. If you’re thinking of a copy for yourself or want to gift them to your cat- and dog-loving friends, it’s a great time to get them.

What signs do you look for that tell you your cat is happy?

Useful links:

References

Arahori, M., Kuroshima, H., Hori, Y., Takagi, S., Chijiiwa, H., & Fujita, K. (2017). Owners’ view of their pets’ emotions, intellect, and mutual relationship: Cats and dogs compared. Behavioural Processes, 141, 316-321.

Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., Sundahl, E. & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230. 

Martens, Pim, Marie-José Enders-Slegers, and Jessica K. Walker. “The emotional lives of companion animals: Attachment and subjective claims by owners of cats and dogs.” Anthrozoös 29, no. 1 (2016): 73-88.

Mellor, D. J., Beausoleil, N. J., Littlewood, K. E., McLean, A. N., McGreevy, P. D., Jones, B., & Wilkins, C. (2020). The 2020 five domains model: Including human–animal interactions in assessments of animal welfare. Animals, 10(10), 1870.

Pickersgill, O., Mills, D. S., & Guo, K. (2023). Owners’ Beliefs regarding the Emotional Capabilities of Their Dogs and Cats. Animals, 13(5), 820.

Rioja-Lang, F., Bacon, H., Connor, M., & Dwyer, C. M. (2019). Determining priority welfare issues for cats in the United Kingdom using expert consensus. Veterinary Record Open, 6(1).

Scott, L., & Florkiewicz, B. N. (2023). Feline Faces: Unraveling the Social Function of Domestic Cat Facial Signals. Behavioural Processes, 104959.

Todd, Z. (2022) Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Greystone Books.

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