Five tips to making a home cat-friendly

  By: Carly Moody, MSc
       PhD Candidate, Feline Behaviour and Welfare
       Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph

  June 6, 2016

Since childhood, I have been a dedicated cat person, so it's no surprise I am currently working on a PhD focused in feline behaviour and welfare. I have adopted many shelter cats. Through these experiences, I have learned that, whether it is your first cat or your tenth, it is important to create a comfortable and fun home environment for your cat. Behaviour problems often occur because a cat's needs are not fully met. An easy fix is to create a cat-friendly home; a home that allows your cat to be a cat!

Each cat will have slightly different needs and wants that should be met to satisfy their well-being. For example, Wesley, a tall, dark, and handsome Siamese I adopted about 4 years ago, had arthritis. He loved being on the couch, but it was quite high and he struggled to jump up. He would stand in front of the couch and meow very loudly (Siamese cats are quite the talkers!), so we purchased a small step stool to help him get up. After this easy fix, he was able to perch on the couch whenever he liked and it ended up being his favourite napping spot! Small changes like this can make a huge difference in your cat's life. Here's a list of 5 things to help make your home cat-friendly:

  1. A comfortable and safe resting area

    Cats take a lot of naps throughout the day and need a safe place where they can escape from kids or other animals in the house. Place a cozy bed in a high or hidden location, or purchase a scratching post your cat can climb to get away from it all! A lot of cats like high perches, which allow them to monitor their environment while feeling hidden and safe.

  2. A place to scratch

    Scratching is a very normal cat behaviour! Scratching helps cats maintain their claws. Also, cats have scent glands in their paw pads; scratching is a way that cats leave their scent behind. Providing a tall scratching post will help your cat be able to do this normal behaviour in an appropriate spot. Therefore, simply providing some sort of scratching post can help to create a cat-friendly home. 

    Cats require a vertical scratching surface that is tall and sturdy enough to hold them when they stretch their entire body and scratch. Each cat has their own preference of scratching material; some cats prefer carpet while others may prefer sisal rope. If you're not sure what your cat likes, use a nice tall scratching post with a few different materials to let your cat choose!

  3. Toys and playtime

    Spending time with your cat is important and there's no better way to get your cat off the couch than toys and playtime! Catnip toys, puzzle feeders, and wand toys are great ways for your cat to get some exercise and provide fun mental stimulation.

  4. Predictability and routine

    Cats like routine. Providing consistency and predictability in your home is a great way to enrich your cat's life. For example, every day when you get home from work, devote 15 minutes of time to play with your cat. Providing this consistency will help make your cat feel at ease. In addition, this activity is not only great for your cat's physical health, but may help you de-stress from the day's work, and help to create and/or maintain a strong bond between you and your cat.

  5. Resources: placement and number

    Carefully considering the number and location of resources can help make your home cat-friendly. Basic necessities, such as food, water, and litter boxes, should be placed in areas of the home where your cat feels safe and comfortable, and that are easy to access.

    If you have more than one cat, providing multiple resources around the house is important to reduce competition. If one cat blocks another cat from a precious resource, such as a litter box, it is important there is another source that the cat can access.


These five tips are a good starting point to making your home more cat-friendly. It is important to remember that every cat is unique and has his or her own preferences. Maybe your cat prefers a hidden napping spot under the bed instead of perching up high. Provide a few different options and see what your cat chooses!

Ellis, S.L.H., 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.
Ellis, S. (2009). Environmental enrichment: practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11(11), 901-912.

Learn what you can do to reduce your risk of a dog bite!

  By: Jacquelyn Jacobs, BSc, MSc, PhD in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare

  May 15, 2016

If you've ever been bitten by a dog, you know just how scary it can be.

When I was 16 years old, I worked at a dog kennel. I interacted with hundreds of dogs on a daily basis; dogs of all different breeds and sizes. Like many people, I was most cautious around the large dogs that I believed were more likely to be aggressive: German Shepherds, "Pit bull" breeds, Doberman Pinchers, and the list goes on. I often paid little attention to my approach with the smaller, "friendly" breed dogs. One day, I was leaning over a Beagle to pick her up and put her in a crate, and (much to my surprise at the time) she popped up and snapped at my face. She caught me on my lower lip and chin. I had an emergency room visit, several stitches, and was left wondering: what is wrong with this dog?

The answer was: nothing, really. My own actions (i.e., looming over her when she probably "told" me a number of times she was uncomfortable) caused her to feel she had no other option than to snap at me. I learned a very valuable lesson that day: any dog can bite. When a dog feels anxious, fearful, threatened, or even in pain, the risk of that dog becoming aggressive increases quickly, even when that dog has been well-bred, socialized, and trained.

It turns out I was not alone the year I was bitten. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs each year. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce your risk of a dog bite. 

Tips for lowering your risk of a dog bite:

  1. Leave a dog alone when he or she is:

    -   Sleeping
    -   Eating
    -   Sick
    -   Injured
    -   Appears to be hiding or seeking time alone in its special place
    -   Playing with a toy and the dog is unfamiliar with you
    -   Not with its owner or on the other side of a fence

    Approaching a dog in these situations leaves you more vulnerable to a bite because the dog may feel anxious or threatened by your approach. Children are most likely to be bitten, so if you have children, teach them that certain scenarios are off-limits. For tips on improving the relationship between dogs and kids, see Dr. Lee Niel's blog post.

    If a dog is with its owner, always ask permission (and teach your children to ask permission) before approaching to pet the dog.

  2. Be aware of your own actions:

    An outstretched hand over the top of an unfamiliar dog's head in preparation of a pat or grabbing a dog's face to lean in close for a kiss are common human actions that can be perceived as scary or threatening to a dog. Most of us would feel uncomfortable if another person did these things to us, so it is equally important to be respectful of a dog's personal space.

    When you do approach a dog, try stopping a few feet away from the dog and waiting for them to close the gap. If they don't, it's better for you to walk away. Giving them the choice makes it far more likely they actually want to meet or interact with you when they approach you.

    approach or interact with a dog when they appear to be fearful or aggressive. That brings me to my next point:

  3. Learn how to read dog body language: it's not all about a wagging tail!

    assume just because a dog's tail is wagging that it is ok to approach them. In fact, dogs wag their tails for a number of reasons and not all of them are positive.

    In particular, be on the lookout for signs of fear or anxiety, which increase the risk of aggression. This includes behaviours such as:
    -   Cowering
    -   Lip licking toward the nose (when no food is present)
    -   Looking in all directions
    -   Yawning
    -   Moving away when given the space to do so
    -   Pacing
    -   Refusing food

This poster on Body Language of Fear in Dogs by Dr. Sophia Yin may help by giving visual examples.


Dr. Sophia Yin's website has many good references, as do a number of other organizations and professionals such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and Dr. Patricia McConnell's blog.

If you're tech savvy, the new "dog decoder" app may be just the thing for you!

Dog Bite Prevention Week is a great opportunity to raise awareness about a very important topic. Make it a priority to get educated and to share your new knowledge with everyone you know!



The importance of identification for your pet

  By: Kathy Duncan, BSc
       Manager, Animal Services, City of Brampton, ON, Canada

  April 17, 2016

In the excitement of planning for a new pet and in the glow of bringing that pet home, the last thing anyone is likely thinking about is the possibility of losing that pet. In addition, it may not have crossed one's mind to ensure that, if the pet does become lost, it will be reunited with you quickly and safely. However, in animal shelters all across North America, there are cats and dogs that have been found wandering loose in a neighbourhood by someone in the community. The vast majority of stray animals housed temporarily in an animal shelter come to us with no form of identification, which would help us connect that lost pet with their guardian.

The largest problem in shelters is with unclaimed cats. The rate at which cats are claimed by their owners across Canada typically hovers around 3%; this means that 97% of stray cats remain in the shelter system. Something as simple as an identification tag on a collar could ensure that many of these cats never even enter the animal shelter. Below, I have listed various types of identification that could serve to help reunite lost pets with owners.

Types of identification:

  • Collars and tags
    • A very visible way for anyone in the neighbourhood to know immediately that the pet belongs to someone. A simple ID tag with your contact information or a municipal animal license provides a way for anyone to connect with you quickly in the event that they find your pet.
  • Microchips
    • A chip is the size of a grain of rice that is inserted under your pet's skin by a veterinarian. The chip emits a radio frequency which is picked up by special scanners used by Animal Services staff and veterinary personnel to provide a unique identification number. The pet owner registers all of their pet's information and their contact information with the manufacturer of the microchip. Therefore, when an animal is scanned for their microchip, staff can contact the manufacturing company and obtain the necessary information to contact the lost pet's owner. Microchips are considered a permanent form of identification.
  • Tattoos
    • Ink is used to permanently place a unique number somewhere on the pet's body. Usually inside an ear or inside the flank of a hind leg.

What is best?

The recommended best practice is to ensure your pet is wearing a collar with a visible tag AND using one form of permanent identification (i.e., microchip or tattoo) as a back up. With a collar and visible tag in place, it sends a clear, visible message that the pet is owned. In addition, it provides members of your community with a quick and easy way to connect you and your pet without ever having to involve the local Animal Services agency. In the event that your pet manages to lose its collar or tag, a microchip or tattoo allows industry professionals to access the information necessary to reach you. It is extremely important that as a pet owner of a microchipped pet, you keep the contact information you've provided to the manufacturer UP TO DATE. One of the biggest challenges in animal shelters related to microchip information is that the pet owner has not kept the information up-to-date and may have moved or changed phone numbers since the pet was first registered. It is extremely important that you ensure you check in at least once per year to confirm that the contact information on your pet's file is correct.

Ensuring your pet has both visible and permanent forms of ID will help ensure your pet is returned to you if it ever becomes lost. Now, let's see your ID!

This cat is being scanned for a microchip!

Tips to developing a positive relationship between children and pets!

  By: Dr. Lee Niel, BSc, PhD
       Assistant Professor in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare
       Col. K.L. Campbell Chair in Companion Animal Welfare
       Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

April 26, 2016

I absolutely adore our dog, Dukie, and wouldn't trade him for the world… You know when someone starts out describing their dog in this way that there is a 'but' coming. My 'but' is that he is an amazon dog, but at first, he wasn't the best match for a family with children.

We adopted Dukie, a Shepherd/Labrador cross, from a shelter way back in 2006 when he was about 1-year old. At the time, we didn't have kids and he was exactly what we were looking for in a dog. He was energetic and fun, with a love for playing ball and long walks. Fast-forward four years later to the birth of our daughter Sadie, and he was still doing pretty well. Before Sadie was born, we spent a lot of time getting him used to baby sounds and smells, and he adapted well to early baby life.

Everything changed when Sadie started to walk. My confident, goofy dog turned into a fearful, unhappy mess. Similar to most toddlers and small children, Sadie was fast, unpredictable, and loud (and when I say loud, I mean LOUD), and Dukie was terrified of her. This situation was bad on a number of levels, and we needed to act fast!

Positive interactions between pets and children can be incredibly beneficial to both groups in terms of physical activity, mental stimulation, and emotional support. However, when things go wrong, it can result in serious safety and welfare concerns for both children and pets. It is important to recognize that the perfect dog or cat that never bites is a myth. Even gentle animals can become aggressive when they run out of options. Statistics suggest that 1.8% of the American population are bitten by dogs every year. Most bites happen in the home, children are the most common target, and fear is a common cause.

Research also suggests that dogs that show aggressive behaviour are at greater risk for neglect, abuse, relinquishment, and euthanasia, and fear-based aggression can have ongoing negative effects on the well-being of the affected dog.

So, what can we do to improve interactions between children and pets to keep everyone safe and happy? Luckily, there are lots of different things you can do to ensure harmony in your home!

Tips for safe interactions between children and pets:

1.    Properly socialize puppies and kittens to babies and children during their early critical periods, and throughout their lives.

Research shows that puppies that have early, positive interactions with children are less likely to show fear and aggression with them later in life. Kittens also show reduced fear when properly socialized. See the following links for more information on how to properly socialize your dog or cat, and the American Humane Society booklet on introducing pets and kids.

2.    Teach children appropriate ways for interacting with dogs and cats.

 Animal aggression is avoidable when children are taught about safe interactions. Parents should make sure to teach their children the following:

  • How to recognize common signs of fear and aggression in dogs and cats, and reinforce leaving a pet alone when they are fearful or aggressive. For more information, see the following links on body language in dogs and cats.
  • How to approach and interact with dogs and cats in calm, gentle, and non-threatening ways. For more information, see Sophia Yin's blog post on dogs and kids.
  • Make sure to ask permission from an adult before interacting with an unfamiliar animal.

For more tips, see B4 U GET A PET's introducing dogs and cats to children pages.

3.    Always supervise interactions between children and pets.

When things go wrong between children and pets, it can happen in an instant, so their interactions should always be closely monitored. When you are unable to provide proper supervision, children and pets should be separated. For older children, this might mean that they are given instructions not to play with the animal unattended. For younger children, physical separation is often the safest bet. Young children aren't always able to inhibit their behaviours even when they 'know' the rules. I still use baby gates in my house, and my children are now 4 and 6!

4.    Make interactions between children and pets FUN.

To make sure the interactions between your children and pets are positive, it is important that your pet associates good things with your children. Encourage your child to play ball, offer treats, or gently pet the animal. Avoid potentially negative things, like loud noises and rough handling.

5.    If your pet is showing any signs of aggression, or if you are concerned about your pet's behaviour around your children, speak to your veterinarian as soon as possible!

Animal aggression is a serious concern and should not be ignored.


Fast forward five years and things are much better between Dukie and the kids. With careful monitoring, lots of positive interactions, and diligent kid training, Dukie has gone from fearful to his friendly self. He's a good match for our family with children after all!

If you are looking for further information on this important topic, see B4 U GET A PET's introducing dogs and cats to children pages. In addition, the American Humane Society has a free booklet available called, "Pet meets baby: a guide for families bringing children home to pets"


Positive interactions (treat time!) between Sadie and Sarah (Lee's other dog)! 

Gaining closure and deciding when you're ready for your next pet

  By: Dr. Michael Meehan BVSc, BSc(hons), PhD
       Veterinarian at Total Vets, Christchurch, New Zealand

  March 19, 2016

When a furry family member passes, it is normal to feel grief. You miss the companionship, the goofy quirks, the sound of the dog's nails on the wood floor, or the morning meows calling for breakfast. Some time after your pet passes, you might feel the urge to begin looking for another furry companion, and feel a ping of guilt. When is it the right time to get another pet? Below, I hope to normalize pet-loss grief, and provide resources and ideas to help those who have lost a pet move through their grief. Lastly, I address the question, "when should I think about getting my next pet?"

Most pet owners experience grief when their pet dies. The reason is that when we form a strong emotional connection or attachment with another living being, we experience separation distress when we realize that they will never be physically and emotionally near us again. The grief experience for some can feel as strong as the grief we experience when a close family member, spouse, or friend dies. In fact, research into pet-loss grief suggests that pet owners' emotions and grieving processes are very similar to human-loss grief. One big difference between pet-loss and human-loss grief is that pet owners are far more likely to experience disenfranchised grief when their pet dies.

Disenfranchised grief is a term describing grief that is not generally acknowledged by society. Examples of disenfranchising societal behaviours or attitudes include comments like, "it is just an animal; you'll get over it." One of the most important things for pet owners to realize is that grief due to pet loss is a completely normal and healthy emotional process. If you are experiencing grief due to pet loss, there are steps you can take to manage your grief:

Step one: identify your own signs of grief and write them down.

  • This will help you normalize your grief and help you realize that you are likely experiencing a range of emotions, attitudes, and behaviours.
  • These emotions and behaviours may arise at any time and will be most prominent over the first few months after your pet's death.
  • They usually subside in intensity and that is a sure sign that you are working through your grief.

Common symptoms of grief are:

Emotions = sadness, regret, guilt, shock, confusion, depression, anxiety, anger

Physical symptoms and behaviours = trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, nausea, difficulty performing routine tasks, easily distracted, repetitive thoughts about pet loss.

Step two: manage or cope with your grief

  • Actively seek support from like-minded friends, family, fellow pet owners or counsellors. It is critical that you surround yourself with people who understand what your pet meant to you and why.
  • Memorialize your pet. If you have not done so, organize a memorial. Some suggestions include:
    • Consider writing a poem or letter to your pet and bury that letter with your pet or in the ground.
    • Plant a small tree/plant, or lay some flowers or stone(s).
    • Light a memorial candle in honour of your pet.
    • Collect the most memorable photos of your pet and create a collage of your pet's life.
  • Read pet-loss resources and literature. There are a lot of resources and research about pet loss and these resources are now easily available via the Internet. Some examples are:

Finally, for pet owners who ask the question, "when should I think about getting my next pet?", the answer is not clear cut. If you have addressed the above points and you feel a sense of closure, especially if you have memorialized your pet, then you might be ready to look for another pet. Share your thoughts with other supportive people you trust and they may also be able to help.

When grieving, be kind to yourself. It is often helpful to remember how lucky you feel to have had the opportunity to experience the close and special human-animal relationship you had with your pet.