Space is Only the First Frontier in Pet Ownership

By Alana Stevenson, M.S.

was asked the other day how I felt about pets living in small places. Would it be cruel to a cat or dog to live in a small apartment? There are many facets to this question, and I had multiple thoughts and answers.

From a behavioral perspective, and a personal one, I believe the quality of care and the individual attention an animal receives are far more important than the amount of “space” they have—within reason. I am not referring to confining animals in cages, stalls, or pens.

Most of the cats I have been privileged to care for have been former street cats. I trapped them or took them off the street personally. I have lived in small rooms and apartments and had a multitude of animals—before my work in animal behavior. There is absolutely no doubt that these animals were happier, loved, well-cared for, and in a much better position than how I found them.

No one likes being cooped up in a small space. But everyone likes an upgrade. A cat living in a studio apartment, sleeping with people or other animals at night, being well-fed, warm, and safe has a far better life than the cat living on the streets scavenging from dumpsters or living in a large house perpetually hiding under the bed or in a closet, frightened, or mistreated.

There is the perception that large dogs must have yards and live in big homes, and small dogs can be apartment dwellers. However, much depends on the animal’s personality, temperament, age, and activity level, as well as how much interaction it has with other animals and people. A mastiff that is a couch potato will live quite happily in a small apartment, whereas a young, active Jack Russell or Border Collie might be spinning in circles.

Many dogs are confined in crates or cages all day when people are at work, and then again when they go to bed. Dogs, being social and active creatures, need mental stimulation, positive attention, and exercise. A large dog in an apartment that is exercised regularly—goes hiking, running, and walking daily—and that has more social interactions and less punitive training is going to be happier than a dog that has a big yard but is rarely in it, or that is always in it and completely ignored—or regularly scolded.

For cats, where food and water are located, how large litter pans are and how clean they are kept, how many surfaces they have to climb up and walk down are all very important. Cats like to be up high and enjoy climbing or walking on surfaces that have nice views and a better vantage point. If there were beams and walkways above our heads, cats would be climbing up and around them. Adding shelving, cat trees, and “vertical” platforms can increase space for cats and offer enrichment, especially if you live in a small place.

If someone devotes their care to an animal companion, it’s a responsibility, really no different than caring for a child. Dogs can live 12–18 years, and cats into their 20s. Veterinary care and expenses can be very high just for routine procedures, and geriatric animals require extra veterinary care, environmental modifications, and medication.

A routine feline dental cleaning can cost over $1,000. I have spent thousands on animal care and veterinary bills that I could have spent on savings, vacations, clothing, cars, dental and medical bills, travel, school, and so on.

The bottom line is that animals are a long-term commitment and responsibility. Unfortunately, people too often view animals as objects or “stuffed animals.” Something to be owned for a while, praised or fawned over, then disposed of when they become inconvenient, the person loses interest, a new breed becomes fashionable, or when too much work or responsibility is required.

The amount of space that is important for an animal is the space that animal actually uses and enjoys. How an animal feels in that space is equally important. How an animal is treated and the type of attention it is given, the conditions in which it lives, and how enriched its life is are all as important, if not more so, than the square footage it lives in.

Alana Stevenson, M.S. is an animal behavior specialist and dog trainer based in Charlotte, VT and Boston, and author of Training Your Dog the Humane Way: Simple Teaching Tips for Resolving Problem Behaviors and Raising a Happy Dog. For more info about her services, go to alanastevenson.com.

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