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Giving Cats Multiple Options Helps Prevent Behavior Issues

When cats have choices among litter boxes, vertical structures, and socialization activities, it eases stress and heads off behavior problems.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Sep 9th 2016


We make lots of choices every day. Good or bad, they’re made either instantaneously or after carefully considering the outcomes. We need to be able to choose — it helps us feel we have at least a little control over our lives. We aren’t the only ones who need options. Cats, like other animals — domestic or wild — need to be able to make choices too.

Being able to select the best possible option is a basic need that can up the odds of surviving in a harsh world. Having alternatives to choose from helps cats avoid conflicts with other animals and assists in finding safe refuges. It also can help cats who live outdoors not to become the main attraction on another predator’s menu. Although cats are also predators, they’re not at the top of the food chain. They have natural enemies who need to eat too. Having options available and being able to instantly select the best one is serious business and can help them survive.

Feral cat being vigilant

Feral cat being vigilant. Photo by Shutterstock.

Although our precious household kitties are protected and loved, and they usually don’t have to make crucial decisions, they still have the natural instincts of their wild cousins. They need to feel safe and secure. Often, people overlook how important it is for their little ones to have options to choose from, including litter box choices, resource options, and being able to choose to retreat or advance, among others. When deprived of choices, they can develop behavior issues such as litter box avoidance, aggression, and fear-based behaviors.

Cats need to be able to retreat if they are afraid

Cats need to be able to retreat if they are afraid. Photo by Shutterstock.

Kitties need to have options that they can choose from. Here are a few of them:

Choices of litter boxes

From a cat’s perspective, a top priority is to feel safe while going to the bathroom. If a cat’s litter box smells icky or she feels she can be cornered in it, she might look for another, safer place to do her business. Without the options of boxes, she might eliminate somewhere that isn’t sanctioned by the human household members — such as on the carpet or sofa.

Minimally, there needs to be one litter box for each cat in the household and one for the house. When there are three cats in the household, there should be four litter boxes available. A household with one cat needs at least two litter boxes. If a particular litter box doesn’t appeal to the kitty, she can then do her business in one that does. She needs to have a multiple choice of boxes to choose from.

The locations also influence litter box habits. The boxes need to be scattered throughout the home in areas where the cats don’t feel they might be trapped. Placing them together in one location is the same as having one litter box. If a cat feels she might be trapped in the room that contains the boxes, or the room smells like an out-house, then chances are she’ll find an alternative spot to eliminate. Kitties need to have multiple boxes to choose from, located in different areas of the home.

Cats need multiple litter boxes to choose from.

Cats need multiple litter boxes to choose from. Photo by Shutterstock

Choices of vertical territory

Kitties need to be able to choose from a selection of tall objects, such as cat trees, household furniture, and shelves to climb and hang out on. One cat tree isn’t enough. If one high area doesn’t feel safe, or another cat is occupying it, then there are others available.

Having a large selection of high surfaces can help keep the peace in multicat households. One way that cats exhibit their social positions in their flexible hierarchy is by where they sit in relationship to each other. It is not static — the same cat does not continually occupy the top tier of the status ladder. One cat might be in the top position in one area, while another one occupies the highest spot close by or in another room.

Being able to choose from a selection of high areas also helps keep cats from becoming stressed from other animals as well as household chaos and activity. From up high they can safely survey the situation.

You can never have too much vertical territory.

Cats need to have a choice of vertical territory

Cats need to have a choice of vertical territory. Photo by Agato Savannahs

Choice of socializing

Cats also need to have a say about who they hobnob with. Forcing kitties to socialize with people can change a friendly kitty into one who will intentionally steer clear of humans. Some folks will corner an unhappy cat or drag her out from under a sofa or bed. They might also forcibly cuddle or pick her up despite her desire to avoid the situation. Kitties need choices.

Sometimes cats do everything they can to avoid people who insist on interacting with them; instead they will favor and solicit attention from those who ignore them. There are good reasons for the behavior. Safety and security is always a priority — as a general rule, kitties do not like to be cornered and forced to socialize. They need to have the choice of befriending someone or retreating if they don’t feel comfortable.

A cat who doesn't want to be held.

A cat who doesn’t want to be held. Photo by Shutterstock

You can become a cat magnet whom cats gravitate toward. Instead of insisting, encourage the little one to come forward. Be patient, don’t force the issue. You can be a couple of feet away from the kitty or across the street. Crouch down so that you don’t appear tall and menacing, and then point your index finger towards the cat. Position it so that it points toward her, parallel to the ground at her height. If she feels like saying hello, she will approach you, touch her nose to your finger, then turn her head rubbing you with her cheek. Try it!

A woman encourages a cat to socialize

A woman encourages a cat to socialize. Photo by Shutterstock

Although our household kitties usually don’t have to face the challenges that their feral cousins do, they still need to feel safe and secure in their environment. You can help by giving them choices of resources such as litter boxes, vertical territory, and scratching posts, and by encouraging — not insisting — that they socialize. Having options can help keep cats from becoming stressed and developing behavior issues.

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Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.