Dr. Bettina Christian is a veterinarian in a veterinary practice in Hamburg with a focus on small animal medicine and reptiles. Her specialty is behavioral therapy - especially with cats. In the interview, she gives an insight into which patients come to her practice and how she diagnoses and treats behavioral problems. She also gives tips on how pet owners can ensure that their animals are kept in a species-appropriate manner right from the start.
As an expert, what would you like people to do to keep cats so that the animals thrive? People buy these animals and think, "I know how to do this." But there is so much knowledge that goes into keeping such a “mundane” pet. People often don't even realize this. Then they come to me with completely scared, deprived cats.
Basically, I would advise everyone to be well informed and not to immediately buy everything that is recommended in the relevant pet stores. Just because it says it doesn't always mean it's right. For example, a scratching post: It is built the way people like it in their apartment. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the cat will accept it. Then people are frustrated that the animal doesn't scratch at the scratching post, but everywhere else.
Scratching is a very important behavior; the animals want to mark with it. A cat scratches so that if someone comes into the cat's territory, they know: This is cat X. A scratching opportunity should therefore be opposite the front door. Which material people like to scratch also varies. One cat likes sisal, the next cork, the next one wood and the other cardboard. And then it also varies whether they like to scratch vertically or horizontally. People who don't deal with it don't know that either. I would say, no matter what kind of animal you get: thorough information up front would help many.
Do cats actually have mental illnesses similar to those of humans? It's always a bit difficult to compare them with humans. I am not a human psychologist. In cats, however, there are anxiety disorders, depressive disorders or hyperagression. Post-traumatic stress syndromes can also be found in animals. What is very interesting is that dementia in cats is actually very similar to dementia in humans. There are also disorders that relate to people, members of the same species, noises or their living environment. There are also genetic problems that cause lack of impulse control. All of this is difficult to assess because we have a patient who does not speak. Conclusions can only be drawn by observing symptoms.
What does boredom look like in a cat, and why is it so problematic? A lot of boredom leads to depression. Then the cats are lethargic, they withdraw and are extremely tired. You can often see this in the fur. Some become addicted to food, others stop eating. They are unfunny and have little motivation to do things.
They can also be much wilder or perhaps even show aggression towards their owners and launch attacks on them. They hide to ambush their owners, then hop on them and bite into their calves. Some animals begin to make “ring movements”: they always run the same tours. In fact, it's a bit like animals in the zoo. At the end of the day, only a behavioral therapist can treat this.
What could you as an owner do to prevent it at home? The key word is species-appropriate husbandry. It starts with the fact that many cat owners don't even know that you should never put food and water next to each other. Covered litter boxes are also animal cruelty. If a cat were free to choose its elimination behavior, it would always choose a small hill with good all-round visibility and good ventilation. Then she would dig a hole there, do her business and bury it - or leave it there as a marker. Forcing a cat to go into a small, dark cave where there is maximum smell - that is animal cruelty. That would be like having a toilet placed in the green median on a six-lane road and someone saying, "You have to go there every day now." A tub would be appropriate, where you could perhaps install a flattened entry aid for older cats.
Then it continues: Bowls should never be made of stainless steel, but always made of stoneware. A drinking fountain would also be good because many cats love to play with water. For feeding: Cats are snack eaters. This means that you actually want to have lots of small portions a day. What I recommend to people with young cats is: Give the cat a mini spoonful of wet food two or three times a day and celebrate it. So that the cat is clear that all good things come from you. This is the “friendly snack”. The main diet would be high quality dry food. The magic word is “libitum feeding”: the cat can always get food, but has to work for it. For example with a cat fumbling board or a Pipolino roll. A cat looking for food is not bored.
Which food is suitable? High-quality cat food from quality brands. If in doubt, you should ask a veterinarian. Cats are semi-desert animals. They are used to eating relatively bland food. If we give bad food, you may find quite a lot of electrolytes in the bladder. They then aggregate to form urine crystals.
Would a partner cat be good to prevent boredom? Cats are actually solitary creatures. But that depends a bit on how social they are. Around 5,000 years ago, people settled down and stored their grain supplies somewhere. The cats came from the desert because it was clear: wherever grain is stored, pests come and there are plenty of mice and mice there. The more food there is, the better cats can tolerate each other.
Basically, it's not a good idea at all to say: "My cat is bored, I'm going to get a second cat." This could be a disaster. You can keep two cats together. That can work, but it doesn't have to. People often come into our office and say, "They're siblings." But the cats don't care. Family relationships play no role. It matters how they are used to it, what their genetic make-up and social behavior is - and how much food there is.
But don't many animal shelters even recommend that you always get two cats? I think that's a mistake. If you have two cats who love each other, who are used to each other, who appreciate each other - then of course it's great. If you take two cats and think that the cat's loneliness can be solved with a second cat, that's nonsense.
Are cats from animal welfare with difficult pasts more often affected by behavioral disorders - in contrast to spoiled house cats? During the socialization phase, the brain cells network. Input from experiences is responsible for this. When a mother cat on the farm raises her cats in the hayloft and they enter the farm for the first time at eight weeks, the cat's socialization phase has already been completed. These animals are often very fearful and difficult to keep.
But if, for example, you have a very, very careful cat breeder who really socializes his animals, then children come into the house and strangers. The very worst thing you can do is lock cats in a room, completely sterile, with no input, for eight weeks and tell them they need rest. That's nonsense. As soon as they can walk, they need input - but within an appropriate framework.
Why is this important?Cats need to learn frustration tolerance, they need to learn impulse control, they also need to experience different situations. Of course, you shouldn't overdo it because they are still very young kittens and need a lot of sleep and rest. But they also need input. The best thing to do is to order someone else to your apartment every day. You start with a dog, about people, children. Also touch and pet, be outside, inside or drive in the box.
Then there is a very, very interesting story with cats, but almost no one knows that. Cats are extremely capable of learning until they are 25 weeks old. When the neonatal period is over and they open their eyes and become a little mobile - let's say around the 5th to 6th week of life - they are already really fit, and then you have around 19 weeks in which to give them to the cat, for example Being able to teach them to sit and down, through the ring and even retrieving – very similar to a dog. But you don't have as big a time window as a dog. After that, the cat's extreme ability to learn decreases.
It is actually said that cats always do what they want. So isn't that true? Yes, that's nonsense. A cat is an animal capable of learning. Of course they have a mind of their own and of course that's one reason why people keep and love cats. As I just said, most people just don't realize that they need to be "formed" at this particular time.
Okay, what about being alone during the day? Most people now have to go back to their offices or to the construction site or wherever to work. This means that many cats are alone for at least eight hours a day. They can actually do that. Then people have to turn their apartment into a cat play garden and also heed what I said about the food. This means you have to get up in the morning and maybe take half an hour for your cat. Feed a little bit of wet food, offer a little play session. Fill the Pipolino, distribute two scratch boards and a few snacks around the apartment.
Does a cat have a sense of time?No.
But the animals notice when nothing is going on? Yes. But you can, for example, ensure that a cat can observe. They like to do that. You should create a place where she can look out and where she can see a lot. Then there are great things for cats like balance bikes - I don't think they're bad at all.