If you’ve never had a cat before, but feel like there is a kitty-shaped hole in your life you should think carefully about your expectations. For example, do you expect your cat to sleep on your lap while you read, or to automatically use the litter box, or not to kill the birds who visit your bird-feeder. What do you know or think you know about cat behavior?
Make no mistake, choosing a cat as your companion is wonderful, but it’s not as easy as assuming that because cats are more independent than dogs you can sit back and relax while they take care of themselves. It’s not true that cat you have no real issue if you want to go away for a weekend. Nor is it true that a pet cat can fend for itself so you can leave them alone for the weekend.
We take a look at some of the expectations you might have about living with a cat, as well as the likely reality, so you know more about what you’re getting yourself into with your new cat.
Independence is characteristic cat behavior
Cats can be extremely independent, but it’s usually on their terms and some days may be more independent than others. Your cat might spend two days outside, hunting frogs, sleeping in the shed and slinking off every time you make an appearance. Then she’ll be your shadow, tripping you up as she weaves between your legs, and following you into the bathroom. Some days all she wants is to have her ears scratched. Others she’ll fight tooth and nail if you even try to touch her side.
Most cats make it plain when they want affection. They make it equally plain when they are not in the mood for petting. The longer you share your house with your cat, the more attuned you’ll become to her whims. You’ll soon learn if she’s having a friendly day or don’t-touch-me diva moment.
Some cats have a natural quiet time when they don’t like to be disturbed, particularly at sunset when you’ll see your cat perched at a window or on a rooftop watching in total stillness as the sun descends, and at sunrise when all the birds and little critters in your garden start getting ready for the day.
You may expect your cat to take care of all her grooming needs, and while cats certainly groom themselves a lot, they sometimes need some help, especially long-haired cats like Persians. Regularly brushing your cat will help get rid of loose hair and prevent hairballs. Long-haired cats need to be brushed at least once a day to keep their fur tangle-free. They might also need to be washed or clipped around the nether regions to keep them clean.
You can also help clean your cat’s ears using some moist (not wet) cotton wool. Then there are the nails. Most cats keep their nails short by scratching on trees or their scratching posts, but if you have an exclusively indoor cat, you may have to periodically trim their nails. You can take them a professional groomer or your vet for this – but never have your cat declawed. Not only is it illegal, but it is also exceptionally painful and cruel and it leaves your cat without any means of defense.
If you have an cat who likes to roam outdoors, you will have to treat your kitty to prevent fleas, ticks and worms, but you should also check their coats to make sure they are tick and flea-free.
A lot of kittens learn litter box etiquette from their moms, but not all cats take to litter boxes. Sometimes avoidance is temporary and it’s just a matter of finding the right location (not near food, water or beds) or the right litter (nothing scented or rough on paws) or even the right box (some cats like the privacy of covered boxes and some hate the hemmed in feeling).
Sometimes avoidance is permanent. Some cats simply don’t like litter boxes at all and won’t use them no matter how attractive you try to make them. If this is the case, instead of getting cross you’re your cat for being ‘stubborn’ or ‘willful’ and ‘vindictive’, provide your cat with an alternative, like a designated spot in your garden. Keep the sand patch clean and soft and your cat will keep coming back to it.
If using a litter box is not a problem, make sure you have enough litter boxes to cater to your cats. The rule is one box per cat plus one. So even if you only have one cat, you still need two litter boxes.
Saucers of milk
Nothing goes together as well as cats and saucers of milk, right? Well, no. For starters, not all cats like milk or even cream. In fact, milk isn’t good for cats and can cause upset tummies, especially in lactose intolerant cats. If you really want a cat that got the cream, you can give them tiny servings (like 2 teaspoons) or you can use ‘cat’s milk’ which is specially formulated for cats and kittens.
Cats and fish are nearly as emblematic as cats and cream. You might expect that feeding your cat pilchards, tuna and salmon regularly will provide all the nutrients your cat needs. However, too much fish can lead to a vitamin E deficiency and steatitis (yellow fat disease). Cats need taurine in their diets which isn’t as abundant in fish as it is in chicken, kidneys and liver.
Indoor cats are healthy cats
You live in an apartment and your new cat will be an indoor cat. You assume she’ll be protected from diseases and parasites. Unfortunately, many viruses and bacterial diseases are airborne. They enter your apartment through an open window, door or even on your clothing. Indoor cats need to visit the vet for regular check-ups, especially when the seasons change and bring about new airborne viruses and bacteria.
Hunting is perfectly normal cat behavior. In fact, it’s a matter of survival. You may expect that a bell on your cat’s collar will stop her from catching mice and birds. Unfortunately for little critters, cats are highly adaptive and will change the way they stalk prey so the bells barely jingle. They learn to control their movements even more so that they can silently pounce on their prey. In fact, some research suggests that cats with bells on their collars are better hunters because they’re stealthier.
Cats hate water
You may expect that you’ll always struggle to bath your cat because you’ve heard that all cats hate water. It’s true that most cats don’t like water, but there are some cats, like Turkish Vans and Bengals, who really enjoy getting wet. You can use reward-based training to get your cat to tolerate – if not love – bath time. This is something that you should consider if you have a cat breed that gets dirty easily, like the longhairs.
Scratching is natural cat behavior. It does two things: It keeps nails short and sharp and it helps cats spread their scent. No matter what your expectations, it’s highly unlikely that you will ever get your cat to stop scratching. However, you can keep them from scratching your furniture by providing scratching posts throughout the house. Some people create scratching boards by wrapping twine around chipboard and attaching the boards to walls or floors. You can attach them to the sides of furniture for cats that are convinced that the side of your couch is the prime scratching spot in the house. You can also make scratching boards using soft grain sandpaper.
Again, do not declaw your cat. It’s illegal and painful. The last bone on the cat’s paw is amputated which is like permanently removing your nails by chopping the finger off at the knuckle. Many declawed cats resort to biting and develop behavioral problems such as biting or refusing to use the litter box. Cats walk on their toes and once declawed, walking becomes painful and uncomfortable.
Perhaps the best thing to do before getting a cat is to let go of your expectations. Cats are individuals. Choosing a cat based on breed characteristics is no guarantee you’ll get the traits or cat behavior you want. Accept your cat for who she is, work with what you’ve got and never stop appreciating her quirks. You’ll both be happier.