Just as exercising and feeding your cat the right nutrition for her age, lifestyle and body condition are vital to helping her to stay healthy and energetic, giving her the right emotional nourishment is vital to helping her to stay happy.
While basic needs such as food, water and access to safe places to sleep may be similar for all cats, emotional needs can vary based on their personality, age and lifestyle. Cats that spend the majority or all of their time indoors, for example, may rely more heavily on their owners to provide for their emotional wellbeing. Keeping such an intelligent and emotionally sophisticated mammal stimulated and happy can require a little effort and imagination if your cat isn't using her natural instincts to survive on her own outdoors.
A brief history of the cat
Today's domestic cats are descended from wild cats who began to take advantage of the abundance of mice around corn stores in early Middle Eastern and North African civilisations about 4000 years ago. Today, pet cats are more often born indoors than in the wild, and spend their whole lives being fed and loved as part of our families - a far cry from the solitary-hunter lifestyle of their ancestors.
There are over 50 breeds of pedigree cats around the world, although by far the most prevalent is the ordinary moggy with her wonderful variety of coats and colours.
The three key positive systems of cat psychology are Reward-Seeking, Care and Play. While these function independently, many behaviours can be expressed in different systems and therefore have different meanings. For example, focused behaviour patterns used in hunting may also be expressed in the friendlier social context of the Care System, or in Play. Other emotional systems include Lust, Fear, Panic and Rage, and all of these systems are common to all species of mammals, from mice to monkeys.
Without sufficient emotional engagement, cats can be deprived of the chance to learn, form bonds and enjoy life. Therefore understanding your cat's individual emotional needs within these complementary systems is important for her psychological wellbeing.
The Reward-Seeking System
Reward-Seeking gives us the motivation to explore the environment to acquire essentials such as food and water. It also gives us the desire to experience enjoyable feelings less crucial to survival, such as socialising with friends or sitting in a sunny spot. Cats evolved to hunt actively for their food and, even though your cat no longer needs to hunt to survive, her brain and emotional systems are still hard-wired for it. It is therefore vital to give her opportunities to express innate behaviours that enable her to hunt. This doesn't have to involve her actually hunting birds or rodents, however. Her age-old, instinctive ‘eye-stalk-chase-grab-bite-kill' behaviour pattern can be satisfied by playing games with her that encourage her to chase and pounce on moving toys designed for cats.
Engaging in these games together is not only enormously enjoyable but also very necessary to help prevent many common behavioural problems. Stimulating your cat many times per day to chase fishing rod toys and balls is crucial to her wellbeing, and she may also enjoy stalking and chasing other friendly cats or even the family dog in play!
The Care System
The Care System evolved in mammals to bond parents very strongly to their offspring so that they instinctively care and nurture them for a far longer period than any other animals. This system also provides us with the emotional machinery to establish all kinds of other social relationships. Cats have evolved to retain a friendly, kitten-like dependency even as adults, especially when they are indoors and being cuddled and cared-for by their owners, even though they are usually such independent and confident hunters outdoors.
Some adult cats love the company of other cats while others will simply ignore them, or even vigorously defend their own territory. These more solitary creatures are perfectly happy as long as they have loving owners. The secret to a good relationship with your cat is not to chase her around trying to show your affection, as this may only alarm and distance her from you; instead, respond to her demands for attention and physical contact whenever you can, and provide lots of relaxed cuddling, gentle grooming and petting.
The Play System
The Play System is recognised as being more than just an opportunity to practise key skills with litter-mates. It is a key emotional system in its own right and one that is crucial to maintaining your cat's overall sense of wellbeing.
When they play, young cats especially express and practise many of the ‘Reward-seeking' behaviours that motivate them to explore their environment, especially those from their ‘hunting' repertoire such as 'stalking', chasing, pouncing on, and even biting each other. They soon learn to inhibit their rough play with their siblings or owners, and to focus their true predatory behaviour patterns on toys. Nonetheless, gently chasing and pouncing on each other remains a key part of developing healthy social relationships into adulthood for cats that remain friendly with each other. When they play like this, cats are relaxed and unthreatened and so the Play System also promotes and facilitates the expression of bonding behaviours that originate in the Care System: ‘those who play together stay together'. Owners should continue to stimulate the same play behaviours in their cats on a daily basis throughout their lives using a variety of cat toys that can be jiggled and moved around in front of them.
Like all mammals, your cat needs to feel fulfilled to feel happy, so it is important that her innate behaviours find a regular outlet. Feeding, physical contact, grooming and playing together are a hugely important part of owning a cat, and fortunately for everyone concerned, they are intensely enjoyable too.