Are zoo big cats treated better than house cats?

An array of toys to stimulate and to create opportunities for natural behavior such as stalking moving objects and pouncing.
An array of toys to stimulate and to create opportunities for natural behavior such as stalking moving objects, scratching and pouncing.

Animals who live in zoos can be pitiful shadows. The number of pacing or lethargic or fur-plucking zoo residents are slowly being reduced by enrichment programs, at least in the United States.  Enrichment can be providing new and different food types, hiding the food in balls or puzzle boxes, introducing balls or other toys into the enclosure, introducing new scents into the enclosure, providing different types of bedding (straw, wood chips) and teaching tricks to strengthen the bond between zoo keeper and zoo resident. I interned at a zoo several years ago. As an intern, part of my day was spent carrying out enrichment procedures such as hiding food.

When I visit New York’s luxury apartments to care for well-loved cats, I’m saddened by the lack of enrichment. Some owners do go out of their way to provide an array of toys, vary the food, spend time playing with their cat, create bird-watching opportunities, and so on.  I love visiting these homes. Other homes are barren, if seen from a cat’s point of view.

One goal of enrichment is to allow the cat to engage in natural behaviors. Scratching is natural.  Pouncing is natural. Jumping up to the highest level in the room is natural. In some homes, all of these natural behaviors are grounds for punishment. The cat will be yelled at or sprayed with a water bottle or banished to another room. The inescapable fact is that a cat is a cat. Wanting to have a cat who looks like a cat but doesn’t do what cats do is self-defeating behavior, and accounts for the high frustration levels of some cat owners.

From The Association of Zoos & Aquariums

Types of Enrichment

It is important to have knowledge of a species’ natural behaviors and physiology when developing enrichment program. Several categories of enrichment are then used to enhance that species’ behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and psychological well being. These categories are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, however each, if relevant to the species, should be incorporated into an animal’s enrichment plan.

Environmental Enrichment Devices
Environmental enrichment devices (EEDs) are objects that can be manipulated by the animal. These objects may be novel or pre-existing. Natural EEDs may include browse, large and small branches, wood wool, hay, and flowers however these items should be kept clean to prevent bacterial growth. Man-made EEDs may include premade items such as car wash roller brushes or strips, Boomer balls, tires, and Kong toys, or constructed items such as puzzle boxes, piñatas, and various PVC contraptions.

Habitat Enrichment
Habitat design is an important consideration for providing enrichment. Habitats should provide a variety of substrates, levels, and complexities. Considerations should be given to useable space versus total space, and ease of reaching or changing platforms, tiers, ropes, nesting/denning areas, feed/water dispensers, and crevices/crannies for EED/enrichment food hiding.

Sensory Enrichment
Animal sensory systems are typically specialized by species and play crucial roles in their survival. Sensory enrichment is designed to address the animal’s sense of smell, touch, hearing, vision, and taste and elicit species-specific response, territorial, reproductive or hunting behaviors. Olfactory stimuli may include natural predator, pheromone, or prey scents or novel scents such as spices or perfumes. Tactile stimuli may include a variety of EEDs that can be manipulated including materials of different textures such as straw, soft blankets, paper, burlap, cardboard, or wood. Auditory stimuli may include the presentation of natural sounds or animal vocalizations recordings. Visual stimuli may include EEDs of different colors, those that move by wind or water current, animals in the line of sight from other habitats, video presentations, or mirrors. Gustatory stimuli include food enrichment items, flavored sprays, or beverages.

Food Enrichment
Food can be presented in a variety of ways elicit feeding, hunting, foraging behaviors, problem-solving strategies, and to facilitate behavioral conditioning. Food may be fresh, frozen, soft, hard, smooth, rough, heavy, light, cold, or and may be incorporated into puzzle boxes, hidden in or scattered about the habitat, or buried in the substrate.

Social Groupings
Social groupings should resemble those observed in the wild to facilitate feeding, grooming, social, territorial, and courtship behaviors. Mixed species exhibits may also provide symbiotic or complementary activities between the species.

Behavioral Conditioning
Behavioral conditioning for animal husbandry and research behaviors provides cognitive stimulation that increases the intellectual focus of an animal. Animals voluntarily participate in these training sessions to maintain established or learn new behaviors.

Blood glucose readings higher in clinic than home. Familiarity decreases stress.

House call veterinary service or veterinary clinic? Small study supports house call veterinary services as better choice, even when veterinary clinic offers low-stress handling and cat-friendly practice.

Comparison of stress exhibited by cats examined in a clinic versus a home setting

Published in Applied Animal Behavior Science (Journal) 2014

Take home message of the study:

“In the context of this study, where low stress handling techniques were employed throughout both environments, familiarity with the veterinary examiner and procedure were associated with decreased stress experienced by the cat. Higher blood glucose and more hiding behavior in the clinic support the hypothesis that the clinic is more stressful than the home.”

Click to read full study.

Hisses, scratches and bites. Cat grooming escalating to bites.

Scenarios for cat grooming escalating to cat bites.

1. Cat groomer enters home –> cat runs away, hides, hisses and swats at owner when owner reaches for cat. Tries to bite groomer before groomer starts grooming. Hiding, hissing, swatting, biting not caused by grooming, because that behavior started before grooming. Among possible causes are illness, lack of social experience, rough treatment in the past, disturbance in the home, or presence of other pet who is threatening to the cat.

2. Cat groomer enters home, starts to groom cat –> cat remains quiet for 15 – 30 minutes. Meows, hisses, then swats or attempts to bite after 15-30 minutes. Cause of behavior may be unrelated to groomer or related to groomer.  Possible non-groomer causes of behavior: another pet walked into room, children or strangers walked into room, vacuuming or other loud noises, illness, soreness, feeding time. Possible groomer causes of behavior: groomer pulling on skin, groomer pressing on arthritic area, pinching the scruff with overly tight grip, making sudden movements or loud noises. * Cats often won’t express pain when nicked or when the clipper blade is hot, so these are not likely causes for bite.

Methods for avoiding escalation to bites: Don’t rush. Rushing –> tugging, pulling, pinching –> discomfort –> bites.  If cat is agitated before grooming begins, can wear gloves, apply snap-on e-collar, wrap cat in towel.

Cat in a box stress relief for Amazon Prime addicts

“Hiding is a behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental changes and stressors, . . . ”

Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats?  Read about using boxes to soothe cats.  Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal.

You don’t have to be rich to give a cat what they need.

Take-away message: “In summary, the hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors in a new shelter environment the first weeks after arrival. Further research is needed to study the effect of a hiding box for group housed cats, its long term effects, and correlation with outbreak frequencies of infectious diseases.”

Bringing a cat into your home? Did you and your cat move to a new place? Put down some boxes for your cat.  We’ve all got boxes galore thanks to online shipping.

“Rescue cats” really rescued?

Rescue can look a lot like prison. It DOES look a lot like prison in more than a few homes I visit.


No stimulation except when the guards allow you to have stimulation

Guards make every decision for you, without consulting you

Every day the same

Forced to live with those you don’t like (other cats adopted for “company”)

Same food every day

Very little exercise

Never feel the sun on your hair or the wind at your back

True rescue

Abundance of stimulation

Toys, play time, petting

Access to a window or to the outdoors

Varied food or treats

Opportunities to exercise — scratching posts, tree houses, active playtime with owner

Owner makes decisions while considering your needs

My cat bites me when I pick him up. Can you trim his claws?

Not okay. Not cute.
Not okay. Not cute.

First off, this is a SERIOUS behavior & family relationship issue.  Nowadays, pets are part of the family. They used to be employees who did a job.  They were in charge of mouse-eradication. They lived in barns, getting on the nerves of birds and rabbits, even killing a few of them every so often.

Now they’re permanent children. You know what happens when children sit around without anything to do? They get themselves into trouble. They set ants on fire and pull the ears of the family dog. We all need something to do, even your cat.

Whether cats are workers or children, biting people isn’t SUPPOSED to be part of the deal. You can say, “Cats are like that,” or “She’s a rescue cat,” or “She’s nervous”, but it doesn’t change a thing. Your cat shouldn’t be biting you. You shouldn’t be thinking that’s normal or okay. Sympathy for an animal can make us accept behavior that isn’t in the cat’s best interests.

The above is my opinion. Below are some suggestions if you agree with my opinion.  The goal is to stimulate your cat. Get your cat stimulated, then tire your cat out with exercise. Another goal is to give your cat something to bite BESIDES you.

1. Buy your cat some stuff. Toys, toys, toys. Try all different types of toys. Try a little catnip. Try all different types of scratching posts. Try different types of treats, but break the treat into pieces so it’s really a treat, not a meal. If you can’t buy too much, make toys. A shoelace or a bottle cap or a box can be a ton of fun.

2. PLAY with your cat. Those wand toys work great for playing. You have to wiggle it in a certain way, hide the feather behind furniture, then whip it out. Don’t just dangle the wand. That’s not going to be any fun for your cat. Make the wand move like it’s a tiny mouse, darting in and out of sight.

Two types of wand toys my cat enjoys:

Cat Dancer 301 Cat Charmer Interactive Cat Toy

Go Cat Cat Catcher Teaser Wand with Mouse Cat Toy
3. Touch your cat for short periods. Don’t overdo it. If your cat starts to look twitchy, let your cat go. When cats feel like they need to bite in order to be freed from a cuddle, that sets up a destructive pattern of biting as part of cuddling.

4. Keep the house peaceful. I’ve been to homes where the humans yell. They’re not angry. They’re just yellers. Even when they’re happy, they’re loud. If you have a loud home, give the cat a place to get some peace and quiet. A tree house or their own comfy bed can be a refuge. If their nerves are on edge, they’re more likely to relieve the pressure by biting.

5. Touch their paws every so often. Touch their tail. Give them a nice, short massage. Give them a nibble of a treat when you do it. Make the touching a quick, fun experience for them.

6. Stay calm and positive. Think happy thoughts. If you get all riled up, they’ll get riled up too.

7. Don’t use your fingers or toes as a toy. If you do, you’re asking to be bitten.

Aim for a bite-free home. THAT is normal and okay. THAT is how cats become permanent, loved, contented family members.

Your cat’s a biter. Will I trim the claws?

I’m a groomer, not a lion tamer. If your cat bites you, most likely they’ll bite me too. That means I need to wear protective gear and hold your cat like I mean business. Grooming a biting cat isn’t a pretty sight. There’s nothing cute about scruffing an animal while it tries to puncture an arm. If you ask me to cut your cat’s claws, and your cat has a history of biting, know that my priority is making sure I don’t get bitten. Cat bites lead to hospitalization more often than dog bites. I’ve had some people ask me to groom their cat and when the cat attacks me before I’ve even started grooming, they feel sorry for the cat. That’s just crazy. Would you feel sorry for a dog who bit you?

What I wear to trim claws. No, not really.
What I wear to trim claws. No, not really.

The type of claw trimmer I use is small, suitable for cats.

To buy the claw trimmer: Four Paws Magic Coat Cat Claw Clipper