The Cat Friendly Home: A safe place for your cat

Cats are not small dogs nor are they humans in little fur suits. What kind of environment do they need to stay healthy and happy?


  • a safe place
  • access to multiple, separate resources
  • opportunities for predatory play
  • positive and predictable interactions with humans
  • a habitat that respects the cat’s sense of smell

The cat friendly home: a safe place

The domestic cat’s close relative, the African wildcat, takes shelter in hollow trees, rock crevices or dense thickets when not out hunting for food (African Wildcat Field Guide).  The female wildcat often chooses burrows abandoned by other animals such as the Fennec fox to raise her kittens and she moves them frequently to other dens.

What’s so great about a burrow or den?

  • easy to defend against predators
  • usually out of the way
  • protects the inhabitants from the extremes of temperature and exposure to weather.

Our indoor cats will choose a safe place in the same way as their wild relatives – a place that is secure, secluded, a hiding place to retreat to, warm in the winter, cool in the summer.

Hide box for safe place on a commercial cat tree

Many cats prefer high places.

  • it is easy to see if another cat, pet or human is coming
  • it is harder for humans especially children to reach up and disturb kitty
  • Cons: kitty does have to come down to eat, drink, etc



A  cat can have more than one “safe place”

  • one may be high
  • another may be low
  • shared with a cat of the same socialgroup
  • time-shared with a cat not a member of the group
  • chosen for temperature
  • day- or night-time use

    Safe place for a winter afternoon: a curtain in a sunny window hides a surprise – a cat napping inside!










safe places can change

Gus chose the dresser in the bedroom as a place to spend the night shortly after he moved in. We placed a fleece blanket on top of the dresser to keep him comfy. After 6 months or so, he decided to sleep on the desk chair in in the office at night. His latest choice is a pillow at the head of the bed – a small fleece square is on top of the pillow to manage the fur!



the cat friendly home: A safe place for your cat – tips for cat guardians

A safe place can take many forms from a commercial cat tree to a cardboard box in a closet.  There is even a gadget called a “Door Buddy” to the closet door ajar enough for only the cat to pass through.  Watch your cat and see where she chooses to have a safe place.

Your cat’s carrier can be a safe place.

  1. Leave the carrier out in an out of the way place.
  2. Put some of your cat’s favorite treats or a meal close to or inside the carrier.
  3. A cover out of light weight fleece  is easy to make (hemming is not needed).  It will make the carrier dark and inviting and can be coordinated with your decor!

If we’re lucky, the carrier will become a portable safe place for your kitty to travel in – perhaps to the veterinary clinic!

Do cats have feelings?

Let’s say that a feeling is “an emotional state or reaction”.  We humans experience many feelings, among them fear, anxiety, joy.  Like us, cats are mammals and have many of the same brain structures we do.  Brain imaging studies of humans and other mammals have linked different areas of the brain to positive and negative emotional states. Cats certainly have feelings.

What kinds of feelings do cats experience?

Cats likely experience fear, anxiety, pain, and frustration, as well as pleasurable sensations that give rise to positive feelings. They do not experience more complex emotions, such as guilt and spite. Happiness for cat is different than for a human – the cat certainly will not be writing poetry and singing songs about how good he feels but he may purr or knead a blanket with his paws.

How do cats experience these feelings?

The neurological pathways are thought to be the same for all mammals. Outwardly, how the animal feels is expressed by his behavior. Different individuals may behave differently while experiencing the same emotion. Two cats may both be feeling frustrated while waiting to be fed. One cat might pace and meow; the other cat may swat at the first cat.

How do I know what my cat is feeling?

Observe your cat’s posture (body language) and behavior.

  • Is she relaxed (calm, confident) -OR- tense, and hunched into a ball (anxious)?

Look at your cat's posture

  • Does he approach you with tail in the air, crooked at the end (confident, happy) -OR-  is his tail twitching rapidly back and forth, tucked tightly (agitated, anxious)?



  • Are his ears up and listening (calm) -or- are they flattened out (anxious, unhappy)?



  • Is she vocalizing – hissing (distressed)? purring (calm and happy)? meowing loudly(frustrated)?



What can I do to make my cat feel good?

Make sure that your cat’s environment is rich, emotionally and physically.

  • Each cat needs place of his own, where he feels safe
  • Have several feeding and watering stations and scratching posts
  • Have more than one litter box in quiet, easily accessed places
  • Have toys available that encourage play and hunting behavior
  • Play and interact with your cat daily
  • Cats have a very sensitive sense of smell – avoid using strong smelling household cleaners, air fresheners, perfumes.



The Cat’s Whiskers

  • scientific name: vibrissae
  • around 24 whiskers on the muzzle
  • whiskers on the backs of the forelegs and in front of the ears above the eyes

The “whisker Positioning System”

Each whisker is embedded in a cluster of nerve endings located 3 x deeper in the skin than surrounding hair follicles. Not only do whiskers alert your cat to the piece of furniture nearby, they alert him to changes in air currents, from say an open door or window.

Cats use their whiskers to navigate – whiskers help the cat pinpoint where she is relative to her surroundings – “can I fit behind this sofa?”  Needless to say, a blind cat finds her whiskers crucial to getting around.


The No-See Zone

 Cats are far sighted – they cannot see things that are closer than 10 inches in front of them. This is where the whiskers come into play: they can be flattened against the face or swung forward to investigate something in the “no see” zone.


Paws and Claws

Ever watched a cat walk across a narrow railing? Their sensitive paws allow them to precisely place their feet in line – they don’t have to look down, they “feel” where they are going.

Cats’ claws are sensitive to pressure – they must be able to hold and manipulate prey precisely.

Between Whiskers and Claws

Cats’ skin is very responsive to touch – they have to rub just hard enough to release pheromones when marking the corner wall with their face or when rubbing against our legs.

Tips for the cat guardian

  • Cats may not like to have their feet touched; they may react negatively to having their sensitive nails trimmed. Desensitize your cat to nail trims by proceeding slowly and rewarding him for each claw clipped.After a while he will look forward to the treat and not be so focused on the nail trim.
  • Be gentle when grooming – mats in the fur coat will be uncomfortable to remove so tease the fur gently away from the skin and mat while removing it. Better yet, use clippers (quiet ones!) to shave tighter mats or seek the help of a professional groomer!
  • Small children have been known to give an indulgent cat a whisker trim – keep track of the scissors when kids are around.



Cats sense vibrations through their paws -they can detect our footsteps in the house through their feet!

Have you ever seen the skin along your cat’s back twitch? A muscle called the cutaneous trunci covers the cat’s back under the skin. This muscle makes the skin twitch in response to something itchy like a fly or flea. If you notice this frequently and there is no obvious cause, a visit to the vet may be in order to rule out Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome.

What does my cat taste?

Both humans and cats have taste buds, containing taste receptors, on their tongues.  Taste receptors can also be found outside the mouth:  in the nose, esophagus, stomach, trachea. However, the feline gourmet has a different gustatory experience than a human does.

Cat’s don’t have a sweet tooth

While we humans have thousands (2,000 – 10,000) of taste buds on our tongues, our cats are thought to have about 470.  Both humans and cats have taste receptors that detect salt, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). 

Cats, however, do not taste sweet things – they lack the proper genetic material to code for sweet receptors.


Quality Control

On the other hand, cats have taste receptors that detect the amino acids that make up the proteins in the meat they eat. This is the umami taste – cats are sensitive to lysine, proline, alanine among other amino acids. Cats are what we call “ obligate carnivores” meaning they are designed to eat primarily protein-rich meat. Being able to taste amino acids allows them to evaluate the nutritional quality of the food they eat – is it a good source of protein?


Bitterness was long thought to be useful to animals that consume plants, alerting them to poisons in plants. Although cats are designed to live on a diet of meat, they are sensitive to bitter tastes and have about 12 different “bitter” taste receptors.  (Humans are thought to have 25). The Human biology of taste

Being sensitive to bitter flavors can tell the cat about potentially poisonous plant food eaten by its prey as well as the freshness of the meat it’s eating. When proteins decay, bitter substances are produced that not only activate the cat’s bitter receptors but block the cat’s amino acid taste receptors. This warns the cat away from eating spoiled meat. A solitary hunter, the cat cannot risk becoming sick by eating spoiled meat – it will not be able to hunt and will starve.

The Taste of Water

Cats also have receptors on their tongues that let them know when they are drinking water – they can actually taste it!  These water receptors are particularly sensitive to things dissolved in water that make it salty, sour or bitter.

So… What does this mean for the cat guardian?

  • sometimes cats won’t eat canned food from refrigerator – perhaps proteins are starting to break down causing the food to be bitter
  • many medications are bitter which can make them hard to hide in cat food – compounding pharmacies can make specially flavored tablets flavors that mask or block the bitterness in your cat’s medication
  • picky eater? try warming your cat’s food to enhance the aroma: your cat’s awesome sense of smell AND taste receptors in the nasal cavity may just stimulate his appetite
  • Filtering water may help remove dissolved substances in tap water and make it more palatable to your cat



  • cats can taste adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source that powers every living cell (ATP is found in meat)
  • If your cat likes ice cream and icing, it is most likely the fat that she values, not the sweetness, which she can’t taste

Our cats see a different world than we humans do. They don’t share our discriminating color vision and are much more tuned into things that move quickly – like mice and birds.

Color Vision


Cats have pretty large eyes for their size – they are almost as large as a human’s eyes.  They have a slightly larger field of vision than we do and their retinas have more “rod” cells than we do, which help with seeing in low light.

On the other hand, humans have more “cone” cells in our retinas than cats do.  These cells are why we have such excellent color vision – we see  3 colors: red, blue and green.  We have some cone cells that respond to red light, others that respond to blue light, and still others that respond to green light. Cats have cone cells that are sensitive to blue and green light, but not red light.  A cat’s world is “faded” and “blurry” compared to ours, without the vibrant hues that we see and of course, no reds. Take a look Here.

Motion Detecting

We can see that treat lying on the carpet partly because we are better at detecting different shades and hues of color than a cat is.  If the toss that treat though, the game changes, and kitty pounces on it. Cats are much better at detecting fast motion – cats’ eyes construct around 60 visual images per second, which is 2x as fast as our human brains.


They are not able to see things closer than about 25 cm or 10 inches.  You may think this would handicap the cat when hunting but his super sense of smell and sensitive whiskers take over to hone in on that treat or mouse.


What Cats see in the dark

Cats’ retinas have many more “rod” cells than cone cells. These cells are very sensitive to light and allow the cat to see well where there is not much light – around dawn and dusk, when cats are out hunting.  The cat’s pupils can vary from slits to large dark circles, regulating the amount of light reaching the sensitive rod cells.

Ever noticed how your cat’s eyes seem to glow in the dark?  The cat has another set of specialized cells in its eye.  Behind the retina is the tapetum lucidum, a layer of cells that reflect light back through the retina so that the cones and rods have a second chance to process the light, which helps the cat see in the dark.  Light shining into the pupils of the cat’s eyes will be reflected by the tapetum lucidum, giving the eerie “eye shine” of cats in the dark.

What does my cat see when he looks at me?

Cats do recognize shapes of humans and other animals.  Studies show that cats respond to cat-shaped silhouettes by initially responding to them as real cats initially.  Then they approach the shape and confirm that it is not a real cat – it doesn’t smell right! Our silhouette is what the cat recognizes as human –  our facial features and expression most likely don’t mean much to the cat.

What does this mean for you, the guardian?

Meet and greet by extending a hand to your cat so that he can confirm who you are by scent.

Avoid giving your cat a prolonged direct stare – instead “slow blink” to let him know you are friendly.


A direct stare between cats is often a distance-increasing message – one cat telling the other to back off.  The “slow blink” is friendly gesture between felines.  Cats seem to appreciate their humans using the “slow blink”.

Pheromones and Feline Communication

To us humans, smell is only important for deciding what food to eat or what perfume to wear. But for cats, smells are like a second language. With just their noses, they can learn almost everything they need to know about their surroundings and the other cats they meet.



Each of us has his or her own “signature odor”. These signature odors help cats recognize other cats, familiar humans and other animals by the way they smell. 


“Semiochemicals” are special molecules that carry “messages” from one organism to another. The organism receiving the “message” will respond with a change in physiology or behavior. Most semiochemicals are transmitted by odors.


Pheromones are a type of semiochemical that helps animals of the same species message with each other. They are the same for every member of the species, and send the same “message” to each member of that species that detects them. For cats, these messages include marking boundaries, indicating sexual receptivity, and sending greetings. Lactating mother cats also produce a blend of “appeasing” pheromones that make kittens feel safe and reassured when their mothers are nearby.  

Cats take in pheromones either by sniffing or using the Flehmen response. They release pheromones using glands located in: 

  • the lips
  • the cheeks
  • the pads of the feet
  • under the chin
  • at the base of the tail 
  • the area surrounding the teats in females. 



When cats rub their faces on things, sharpen their claws on an object, spray urine, or leave their feces uncovered, they are depositing pheromones. These pheromones linger in the area and help cats “leave a message” for any other cats that pass by.


It’s easy to get frustrated with your cat when these messages damage your furniture or stain your carpet, but remember: your cat is trying to communicate, not destroy your home. Just giving them objects they’re allowed to “mark,” like scratching posts and other cat furniture, is often all they need to convince them to deposit their pheromones in more appropriate places.

Science and Pheromones: Synthetic Pheromones

Some feline pheromones have been synthesized in the laboratory and are available commercially.  Feliway and Comfort Zone are two brands of synthetic cat pheromones. 

Feliway Classic (Comfort Zone “Calming”) is a synthetic version of the pheromones cats deposit when rubbing their whiskers/lips on things. This particular pheromone marks the cat’s territory as safe and secure. 

Feliway Multicat (Comfort Zone Multicat Control) is a synthetic version of the “appeasing” pheromone mother cats use to soothe their kittens, and can help reduce tension in multi-cat households. 

Feliscratch replicates the pheromones released when a cat scratches something, marking territory and signaling that he was there. We can use Feliscratch to encourage cats to use a scratching post.


These products can be used alone or combined to help you tell your cat how you want him or her to behave. For example, you could use Feliscratch to make your cat’s scratching post more appealing, and also use Feliway Classic on other areas of your home to show your cat that they are already safely marked and there is no need to scratch there.


Feline pheromones are undetectable by human noses or other animals. So, you can’t smell the world the same way your cat does. But knowing the importance of pheromones in your cat’s world will help you better understand “why my cat does that”.

What does my cat smell?

Cats live in a landscape of odors. Odors tell them about their world and carry messages from other cats. 

Cats have two ways of detecting odors in their environment: the cells lining the nose and nasal cavity and the vomeronasal  organ  (VNO or  Jacobson’s  organ).  The VNO  consists of  two  fluid-filled  sacs  located  in  the  roof  of  the  cat’s  mouth that  connect  to  the  nasal  cavity  as  well  as  the  mouth. Molecules dissolved  in  the  nasal  mucus or saliva can be sucked into the VNO.

Sometimes,  you  will  see  a  cat  with  its  mouth  open,  lips  parted  and  upper  lip raised,  giving  the  appearance  of  a  grimace  or grin.  This  is  known  as  a  Flehmen  response and  allows  the  cat  to  draw  chemicals  into  the VNO.

Street addresses and Road Signs

The cat learns to associate certain odors/scents with a particular experience. To a cat, another animal or person has a signature odor. This collection of odors allows the cat to recognize an individual cat or other creature. For example, signature  odors can tell the cat the gender and health of another cat. 

The cat’s sense of smell also registers feline pheromones, chemicals that convey messages among cats.  These chemical messages can be understood only by other cats and are the same for all cats.


The signature odor is like a street address, telling the cat about an individual animal or object; pheromones are like traffic signs, alerting the cat to the presence of other cats and whether these cats are friendly or not.

Smells cats like (besides food!)

  • Catnip – a member of the mint family, contains nepetalactone, which can cause the “kitty crazies” in some of our feline friends!
  • Silver Vine – a plant from east Asia, has 6 compounds that are similar chemically to the active ingredient in catnip, nepetalactone.  More cats respond to silver vine than catnip.
  • Valerian Root – Contains 1 compound with similar chemical structure to nepetalactone
  • Tartarian Honeysuckle can also elicit a response in cats and is considered safe. 

Smells Cat’s don’t like

Smells cats don’t like include: citrus scents, vinegar, household cleaners

My four cats  also give lavender and rosemary a pass – there is no rubbing or nibbling on these although the humans sure enjoyed the indoor greenery during the winter!


DID YOU KNOW: Some cats do not respond to catnip; kittens will not respond to the herb until they are 4 months old or more.

Cats are said to be the most recently domesticated animal – some people don’t even consider them domesticated! Cats have been hanging out with people for about 10,000 years (dogs have been with us a bit longer – 15,000 years).  How did they become “house” cats?

As people began to settle down and farm, they began to store grains.  The house mouse was not far behind, moving in to share the feast.

Enter Felis Silvestris Catus…

The  domestic cat’s closest relative is the North African wildcat – a solitary hunter.  At the grain stores, there was plenty of prey in a small area. The mother wildcat did not have to drive off her daughters when they became adults as there was plenty of food for everyone.  Some wildcats embarked on a social experiment that resulted in Felis Silverstris Catus, the furr ball who just may be lounging on your keyboard right now.

The Rise of the Cat Colony

 The major difference between the North African wildcat and the domestic cat, Felis Catus, is behavior.  If there is plenty of food around, Felis Catus tends to form groups called colonies. The core of the cat colony are the females, typically a mother, her sisters, and her daughters.   These females share the care of the kittens – they nurse each others’ kittens and even help each other give birth. 

Male kittens – not so welcome

They are driven off by their mothers at maturity to avoid inbreeding. They can become solitary hunters like their wildcat ancestors or become attached to an unrelated colony if accepted by the females


INTERESTING FACT: cats from the same litter can have different fathers since the female cat will mate with multiple partners when in heat.


A kitten’s instruction in the language of Cat begins with his mother, aunts, and littermates. Once weaned, he continues his studies with other juveniles and adults in the colony. 

Cats tend to show more friendly behavior toward family members than outsiders.  Hugs and back slapping are easier to accept from your parents and siblings; it can be downright uncomfortable from someone you barely know. Cats raised together as kittens can form strong bonds – they are often seen grooming each or rubbing against each other.

Friends and roommates

Unrelated cats living together are like school roommates – sometimes they become friends but often roommates just put up with each other.  Imagine someone you have never laid eyes on before, showing up at your door with suitcases, ready to move in. Bringing a new cat home is like a roommate moving in.  Want to get another cat? Consider…


  • Some cats are just more friendly than others (genetics); 
  • Some cats have had better social experiences with other cats.  
  • Cats whose mothers/aunts are friendly to other cats also tend to be more friendly with other cats.  
  • There will always be cats that just do not like other cats.