An Enriched Cat is a Happy Cat

How do you enrich your cat’s environment? A year ago, I posed this question to the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group. I received dozens of answers in response, which I’ve broken down into categories below. Read on for ideas that satisfy a cat’s need to climb, hide, hunt, and safely roam the great outdoors.

(If you’re wondering why anyone should bother to “enrich” their cat’s environment, see my article called Enrich Your Indoor Cat’s Life.)

Cats Are Gonna Climb

It doesn’t have to take a lot of money to add enrichment, either.  Most of the bookcases and old furniture I got for them was either on sale for cheap or was stuff my friends no longer wanted because they were upgrading their furniture, so they gave it to me for free.–Caroline

cattowerCats climb for multiple reasons. The first reason is to keep watch for prey, then attack from above. The second is for safety, by eliminating the possibility of attack from behind. The third is as a display of status, which is especially important in a multi-cat household.

Two standard ways to meet your cats’ climbing needs are to provide a cat tree or an elevated walkway. You can also fulfill your cats’ need to climb when you place their beds. Clare’s six cats have eight beds to choose from, some of which are up high. “Some beds are up high on top of a tall vivarium that is nice and warm, others are down on the floor against the warm central heating pipes. Different cats like to be high and some low so it is important to provide for both. Two of ours take it in turns to sit high up on top of the boiler which also provides the best vantage point.”

Cats are Gonna Hide

Ah yes, what better route than over the bed or couch or other elevated nonski surface at top speed. You, of course, have parked yourself in their route!–Pat

rainy_tunnelCats hide to avoid predators. An economical way to meet your cats’ hiding needs might be as simple as a box with a hole in it or a paper bag with the handles removed. Another way is to buy a collapsible fabric tunnel.

You might also find that hiding spots can be turned into fun toys. For example, Clare wrote, “We have a long cloth (coil sprung collapsible) tunnel under our large coffee table that at one end has a dangling toy carrot! (The dangling toy carrot was meant to be for rabbits but they weren’t interested and the cats are). There’s a hole in the middle that sometimes two tease each other through or we do with a toy.”

He curled up behind my knees. Turned out he was hiding from Edward who came right along to poke him through the covers which resulted in the chase resuming. We are but pawns or steeple chase hurdles.–Pat

Pat likes to repurpose a common construction aid. “Under the coffee table is a sonotube, the tubes used to pour concrete pillars, available at home improvement stores. The tubes come in a wide variety of diameters and are great for rolling ping pong balls through or hiding out to ambush the next guy.”

sonotubeThe sonotube idea sparked a discussion. Lorrie confessed to being unfamiliar with sonotubes, but looked them up online, and thought they were a splendid idea. “I have walkways around the walls at my cat sanctuary, but I now plan to find a spot for these.  Thanks for the idea. My kitties will be delighted and they aren’t all that expensive.”

Caroline referred to having a crinkle tube that their cats don’t ever play with and wondered if they’d play in a sonotube. “One of my former coworkers built something that sounds similar in his screened-in patio for his kitty. He had ramps and stairs leading up to the tubes at various places, and holes cut so that the kitty could be played with or just look out and survey her kingdom.”

In response to all these comments, Pat shared, “One of my ideas (voted down by the man who lives here) is a series of sonotubes hanging “en route” around the walls. We see fancy versions online, but I don’t know why sonotubes wouldn’t work equally well.”

Cats are Gonna Hunt

Cats used to need to hunt to survive. That instinct remains even in well-fed housecats. The standard way to satisfy your cat’s predatory drive is to provide them with an assortment of toys. Suggestions from the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group ranged from the simple to the complex.

Clare said, “Sometimes just a scrunched-up wrapper or piece of paper is a favorite. A small item like car keys or a phone left on the side of the coffee table might get knocked to the floor and then under the sofa! I lost my car key for weeks this way.” In addition, Clare mentioned that some of her cats like a laser pen, others a wand toy with dangling feather attached to the end, and one really loves the turbo track cat toy. “She goes bonkers over it, then runs through the tunnel under the coffee table, and then comes returns for more.”

Caroline offered several other examples. “When I had my first cat, my grandmother made an interactive toy out of an empty thread spool and a loop of thread. My cat loved it! Just be sure to not leave things with thread laying around where your cats can eat the thread, which can cause severe issues. Cats also enjoy playing with the plastic ‘safety’ rings that you can pry off milk/water containers.”

It’s pretty much a kitty playground here at my house.–Caroline

As an illustration of a complex toy, Pat wrote that her husband built a small ball run for their grandkids, which their cat also loves. “It’s a shallow box with a plexiglass front. Inside the box are ramps with alternating angles that don’t go the full width of the box. The top has a hole in one end. When a small ball is dropped in the hole, it goes back and forth down the ramps and comes out one side that doesn’t go all the way to the bottom. We use bouncy balls, because they make the most musical sound when they run through. Tiki watches the ball bounce back and forth and delights in waiting for it to come out.

bootsie_dabirdAnne referred to an article in Catnip Magazine (which I reviewed in A Second Magazine Roundup) and noted that while cats may have lots of toys around the house, they prefer those which allow them to interact with people. “Some of the best interactive toys are a handheld laser pointer, Da Bird, and the Feline Fisher. The Feline Fisher (formerly known and loved by millions of cats as the “Galkie Kitty Tease”) is particularly versatile. I’ve had a Galkie for years and my cats love it! If you purchase one, get lots of replacement lures! The pole itself seems to last forever.”

As an illustration of how cats like to interact with people, two members described games that involved stairwells. George wrote that, “A former feral named Shadow entered my life at the age of two when her owners moved to where they couldn’t have pets. Shadow developed the habit of sitting halfway up the spiral stairs to watch me while I puttered around on the first level, with her long tail dangling over the back edge of whatever tread she was on. I could usually reach up just high enough to touch the tip of her tail, and she’d whirl around and bat at me as if she was exclaiming, ‘It’s My Tail!’ After a while I noticed that she’d lead me to the stairs and purr while this was going on.  ‘It’s My Tail!” was our game and the beginning of our bonding.”

I’ve got the laser pointers, boxes, balls, mice, etc. but their favorite thing seems to be jumping up on tables and counters, knocking stuff off shelves, and attacking anything moving.–Terri

Clare shared that two of her cats will “run from wherever they are if they see us go up or downstairs, and stand on the other side of the banister spindles on the landing and wait for us. We wiggle a hand between the spindles and they rush over for a fuss. Then we move quickly to another spot and they run over too, sometimes we get a friendly paw bat, other times headbutting and sometimes one of ours collapses for a belly rub.”

lucy_tubBefore I leave the topic of toys, I’ll summarize a discussion that ensued about bathroom toys. Caroline said that her cats love taking plastic springs made for cats into the bathtub. They’ll also sneak in plush mice or puffballs, which she needs to retrieve because these don’t do well when wet. Pat noted that her cats like to play with ping pong balls on the bathroom rim.  “They make great fun, marvelous sounds.”

From there, the conversation turned to how cats like faucets. Paula wrote, “My cats insist on drinking out of a kitchen faucet! I tried to just put a pitcher of water in that sink and sometimes they will drink out of it, but the one persistent cat chases me through the house jumping up on the bathroom or kitchen sink for me to turn the water on. It’s expensive as I often forget that I turned the faucet on and hours later it’s still dribbling money out.”

Caroline shared information about battery-powered automatic faucet adapters that turn the faucet on with motion.  “My Siamese mix and his biological brother l turn the faucets on and try to catch the water even though they don’t like getting wet.” The ones that she uses are “battery-powered, so no wiring and easy to install/uninstall” and can be found at Amazon. “They shut off after around 5 seconds of no motion.” 

Some Cats Are Gonna Want Outside

In the 19th century, cats roamed the great outdoors, with their greatest value to humans being their ability to catch rodents. Towards the end of the 19th century, more Americans began to keep cats for their company but cats were still allowed to come and go freely from human households. By the end of World War I, cats were commonly accepted as household pets in the United States. In addition, historians confirm that cat shows were being held in New York as early as 1877. Even so, experts and scientists agree that domestication didn’t come easy to cats, and for that reason some cats still insist on going outside.

For that reason, many cat owners build an outdoor enclosure, which allows cats to have access to the great outdoors while retaining the safety of indoor cats. Janet shared a different experience. “My three adopted cats were outdoor-only farm cats with lots of previous enrichment on the farm. When I brought them home, I realized they might not transition well to indoor-only situation and so I installed Purrfect Fencing along the existing wooden fence in my yard. I wanted the cats to have safe outdoor access during the day. It worked out well.”

There’s Just So Many Ways to Entertain Cats

Mine haven’t shown too much interest in the videos meant for cats, but some of them love the animated spider at One Motion so I have lots of pawprints and nose prints on my screen.–Caroline

This 32" scratching post made by Max & Marlow was one of our Christmas gifts to our cats.
This 32″ scratching post made by Max & Marlow was one of our Christmas gifts to our cats.

There are many other ways to enrich your cats’ lives, but which didn’t fit into any of my categories.

  • Scratchers of different types and styles (cardboard, sisal, vertical, horizontal, ramp style) to meet the unique needs of every cat in the household.
  • Catnip-stuffed baby socks which cats love to tackle.
  • Puzzle boxes where a cat rolls a box around to get food to fall out.
  • Strategically-placed furniture to allow them to look out just about every window in the house.
  • Perches and window boxes for those areas where furniture can’t be placed under the window.
  • Online cat videos, which are sure to mesmerize your cats.

Thanks to everyone at Cat Health and Behavior for your contributions! I apologize for taking a year to compile this information. As requested by Chris, who so eloquently explained that “some of us have been interested in enriching the environments of animals for decades, and so we’re always interested in any additional useful information,” I’ll be sharing this article at the forum.

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