One of the changes in animal care over the past twenty years has been the development of an understanding of the need to see the world through animals' own eyes.
It used to be that we humans decided what was best for dogs and cats, using our own perspective. Now it's seen as making more sense for us to try to see the world through animals' eyes, and to try to care for them using this perspective.
A good example for this in daily pet care has been the increasing popularity of so-called "cat trees". These were unheard of twenty years ago, while now they have become a routine part of many cats' homes.
So what is a cat tree? These started out as being a simpler item: the cat scratching post. Everyone knew that cats liked to scratch the bark of tree trunks and other similar surfaces, and that this was a useful way for cats to keep their nails filed down. Furthermore, if a cat could be persuaded to use a cat scratching post, they would be less likely to use their claws to inflict deep scratches in furniture, door frames and wall paper. So scratching posts became a standard part of a cat's home.
Then someone had the idea of placing a wooden platform on top of a scratching post, and they noticed that cats enjoyed sitting there, surveying the world. This started a succession of further developments in the world of feline furniture. Cat scratching posts became taller and wider, and they started to have platforms, beds, and cubby holes built into them. Cats enjoyed these new indoor playgrounds, and cat behavioural specialists started to pay attention to them too.
Cat behaviourists had already realised that when cats were confined indoors (as many cats now are), they could not carry out normal cat behaviours. When they spend time outdoors, cats climb trees, hide in bushes, and run from place to place. Indoor cats cannot normally do these types of activities, and they suffer from boredom and stress as a consequence.
The result of this is that while indoor-only cats have longer lifespans (because they are not at risk of road accidents or other dangerous situations), they suffer from a higher rate of stress-related illnesses (such as cystitis, self-inflicted skin damage and others).
So when the question was asked: "How can the stress of an indoor-only life be reduced?" it was obvious that cat trees could be part of the answer. Cat trees allow cats to run, climb and jump, they give them a high-up perch to survey the world, and they provide them with cosy cubby holes where they can hide, peeking out at the world from a place of sanctuary. Cat trees make use of so-called "vertical space", significantly increasing the size of a cat's home. Before cat trees, there was only horizontal space (plus vertical space that cat owners didn't want them to use, such as kitchen counters, furniture and cupboards). Cats used this vertical space but owners discouraged them from doing so, because it was seen as "human" territory, not designed for cats. Cat trees have reclaimed vertical space for cats in contemporary homes.
Behaviourists started to recommend cat trees to stressed out cats, cat owners started to buy them for their pets, and the markets responded: if you visit a pet shop, you will now find dozens of varieties of cat trees. You can choose a design to suit you, your home, and your cats.
If you have a small house and just one cat, then a simple, post-like design may suffice. But if you have several cats and you live in a bigger home, then you'll want a taller, wider, more elaborate cat tree.
Cats are independent, solitary creatures who can be very territorial. When humans force cats to live in the same space, it can cause friction, and that's what started to happen in my own home: we have three cats. One cat would sneak up on another, then pounce on them. Another cat would skulk in the corner of the room, surveying the scene cautiously. The social stress was sometimes palpable to humans, so what must it have felt like to the cats?
We decided that it was time for us to get our first cat tree.
We ordered one online, choosing the biggest that could reasonably fit into our kitchen area. It arrived as a flat pack, like a weird type of wardrobe. It took the best part of a morning to set it up, using allen keys, bolts and screwdrivers. It's seven foot high, with four posts, seven platforms and one large cubby hole.
Our cats were wary of it at first, but we encouraged them to climb on it, using toys and food treats to tempt them.Within a few days, all three cats were using it, and soon they all had their favourite positions. One cat - the youngest - likes to sit at the very top, gazing down on the world. Another, the middle-cat, likes to hide at the back of the cubby hole, with only her eyes visible to passers by. Our third cat, the sixteen year old, doesn't like climbing too much any more, but she enjoys skulking at its base, sharpening her claws on the posts, perhaps reminding the young upstarts that she's not to be messed with.
Our cat tree has become an integral part of our home: the cats love it, and so do we. And the level of cat stress is tangibly reduced. Perhaps a collection of cat trees will be a standard part of cat homes in the future: cat tree forests?