Whenever I tell people that I cat-sit in a house that has been decked out with features specifically for the four cats who live there, they shudder. The idea of cat furniture instantly summons the image of a home where it snows cat hair and smells like kitty litter. Some people feel that as soon as you start to modify your home to benefit your cat, you’ve bought a one-way ticket to cat lady kingdom. In reality, the “cat lady” environment is the result of a lack of consideration for the needs of cats, rather than the opposite. Therefore, the more one caters to their cat’s natural behaviors, the fewer modifications their cat will need to make to their personal furniture to meet the cat’s needs.
Teaching clients how to modify their cat’s environment to meet certain needs can be useful for those struggling with “problem behaviors” that are primarily natural behaviors being expressed or suppressed indoors. Environmental enrichment might be especially appealing to clients with little time to devote to behavior modification. Cat trees and litter boxes are a good step, but many clients stick to the bare minimum because those items can be large, unattractive, and may go unused if installed incorrectly. Luckily, increased research on cat behavior and concern for companion animal welfare have led to improvements in both the function and form of home products for cats. These stylish products could provide the perfect solution for clients who are more design conscious. Many of these items are featured in the home I cat-sit in, or as I like to call it, Kitty Dream House.
Kitty Dream House (KDH) belongs to geneticist Dr. Elinor Karlsson, who ironically is currently studying the genetic basis of dog behavior. When she’s not in lab, or fitting cameras on wolf puppies, Dr. Karlsson can be found in her Scandinavian-styled condo outside of Boston with her four cats. Each of the cats in the home takes full advantage of the environment that has been curated for them, including Darwin, who is getting on in age and has collected a respectable assortment of health conditions. In fact, in photographing the different design elements for this article, it was nearly impossible to get photos of the elements not in use. Read on to find out how these different elements help the Karlsson cats meet certain behavioral needs, and to see pictures of how well they can fit into a home.
Interactive feeding systems and toys
The most notorious of domestic cat behaviors is hunting. Because cats evolved to be opportunistic hunters, being well-fed does not necessarily have an effect on how often they hunt (Turner, 2014). In fact, one study found that owned, free-roaming cats who were successful hunters averaged 2.4 prey items over a 7-day period. Almost half of those prey items were left at the site of capture, suggesting that owners likely underestimate the amount of hunting their cat does (Loyd, et. al, 2013).
Interactive feeding systems and toys like these mice allow cats to stalk, pounce on, and manipulate their food without actually being given an opportunity to hunt and kill wildlife, (Ellis et al., 2013). These products are great solutions for clients with bored cats who unleash their hunting habits on inappropriate targets, or cats with problem feeding (refusing to eat, eating too fast, persistently vocalizing for food). Additionally, they can provide entertainment for clients whose cats are left alone for long stretches or need to be separated when visitors are in the house.
At KDH, food and treats are divided between feeder toys and bowls. There is also an automated feeder to ensure that individuals who are less enthused about the toys will be able to feed on a reliable schedule. Another aspect of feeder toys that is appealing is that they can be hidden away when guests are around. Swapping toys in and out helps them retain their novelty for longer.
In addition to feeding systems, KDH abounds with toys that do not directly involve food, but still allow the cats to engage in other predatory behaviors. There are projectiles for batting, rugs for hiding, and your go-to cardboard box with crumpled paper. Most of the toys shown in these photos can be played with independently, together with other cats, or with people. Overall, feeding systems and toys can create huge improvement in the available mental stimulation for your cat, without breaking the bank (see: cardboard box) or taking up permanent real estate.
Surfaces for scratching
Cat trees are more expensive and conspicuous than toys, but they can do much more in the way of saving your clients’ furniture. Cats scratch tree trunks to leave visual markings, deposit scent from glands on their paws, and maintain their claws (Hart & Hart, 2014). Since your client is very unlikely to convince their cat to stop this multipurpose behavior, a better solution is to provide the cat with surfaces to scratch that are more appealing than furniture. Features of a good scratching stations depend on the material, the sturdiness, and the ability to allow for a good stretch (hence the desirability of the back of a tall, heavy couch).
Luckily, there are now many more options than the more obtrusive climbing structures your clients may be used to. There are now modular options that can work as both shelving and cat trees, and can be moved around or installed permanently.
Shelving and climbing structures
What really stands out about KDH—or should I say blends in—is the cat shelving to give the four cats vertical space. Cats often prefer to perch in elevated locations where they can survey their surroundings (Ellis et al., 2013). In addition to providing a preferred elevation, shelving increases the overall square footage available to cats without taking up floor space. This is a great solution for clients who are introducing new cats to the household, have pets that already don’t get along, or need to give their cats more space from house guests. Reaching these platforms is also good exercise, and can be great for clients with overweight cats.
KDH has both removable and permanent vertical perches available on different floors of the house. With four cats, vertical spaces allow them to spread out if necessary. The permanent shelving represents one of the areas in which cat furniture has really focused on form as much as function, with modular options that range from what looks like a singular small floating book shelf to an entire sky walk system.
The multilevel cat hammock is more substantial, but can be removed. The combination of fixed and moveable environmental structures helps balance the need for stimulation and exploration that an indoor cat may be lacking, with the familiarity of an established territory.
Outdoor enclosures and catios
Indoor elevated cat perches can be a literal and figurative gateway to the next level of cat enrichment, the enclosed cat walk or “catio.” Outdoor cat enclosures give cats the opportunity to monitor their territory and engage with the outdoors, without risk to themselves or other wildlife (Loyd, Hernandez Carroll, Abernathy, and Marshall, 2013). This can be a great solution for clients who would like to give their cat access to the outdoors.
The KDH has both a small “catio” and a larger enclosed cat walk. Both enclosures are connected to cat doors installed in windows. While outdoor enclosures require more in-depth installation and overall commitment (although there is a range of sizes and options) they are one of the few ways for your cat to be safely outdoors unsupervised.
In addition to allowing cats access to their outdoor enclosures, cat doors can be installed on interior doors. Indoor cat doors allow cats to come and go freely from areas where one might otherwise want to keep the door closed, or to prevent the cat from getting trapped in a room. KDH has two different styles of in-home cat doors, that serve two slightly different purposes.
The first cat door allows the cats to enter and exit the bedroom without vocalizing or scratching. The second cat door is installed on the main level of the house in a closet that houses the litter box. Both cats and people would rather the litter box be out of the way, but sometimes this results in the boxes being somewhat inconveniently located for the cat. This solution allows the litterbox to be tucked away, but accessible. Clients with cats who are displaying litterbox issues might benefit from these doors as they can add privacy for the cats, as well as prevent litterbox access to small children or large pets. The cat door itself is lined with bristles that brush the cats on either side of their bodies as they enter and exit. This makes the entrance to that litter box doubly appealing because the bristles feel good and facilitate odor marking as the bristles pass over scent glands on the cat’s body (Bradshaw, 2018).
Hopefully this virtual tour of the Kitty Dream House showed that it is possible to stylishly deck out one’s house with feline-friendly furniture. There are now so many options available in each category that there should be a solution that meets the price range and style preference for most clients. And for those issues that require more interactive behavior modification, environmental modifications can work in tandem, and/or provide temporary solutions. Most importantly, these features can add excitement or comfort to the life of any cat, with or without behavior problems. Dr. Karlsson remarked to me that when she sees Darwin, her elderly cat, heave himself up the shelving to get to the outdoor catwalk, she is reminded how rewarding it must be for it to be worth that effort. So introduce your client to the world of cat design and help them turn their home into more of a shared space!
Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230.
Hart, B.L., and Hart, L.A. (2014) Feline behavioral problems and solutions. In D. C. Turner & P. Bateson (Eds.), The domestic cat; the biology of its behavior (3rd ed., 201-214). Cambridge University Press, New York.
Loyd, K. A. T., Hernandez, S. M., Carroll, J. P., Abernathy, K. J., & Marshall, G. J. (2013). Quantifying free-roaming domestic cat predation using animal-borne video cameras. Biological Conservation, 160, 183-189.
Turner, D.C. (2014). Social organization and behavioral ecology of free-ranging domestic cats. In D. C. Turner & P. Bateson (Eds.), The domestic cat; the biology of its behavior ( 3rd ed., 63-70). Cambridge University Press, New York.
Lillian Ciardelli has a masters in animal behavior from Hunter College and has spent the last few years working with everything from primates to sea lions. She currently resides in Massachusetts where she splits her time between working as a canine rehabilitation aide at Angell Physical Rehabilitation and apprenticing with Adria Karlsson at Dog Willing, MA.. She also contributes to the environmental travel blog One World Two Feet.