Cat experts and scientists agree that domestication didn’t come easy to cats. Even though cats have now been living in our homes for a century or longer, and we have made changes to accommodate them living inside, cats are biologically pretty much the same as they were thousands of years ago. Hence, their basic behaviors and needs haven’t really changed. It’s important for cat owners to remember that, and to factor it into how we care for our feline companions. In this article, I’ll overview the biology of cats, and then I’ll talk about the indoor cat’s need for enrichment and how owners can provide it.
WHAT CATS NEED
Cats are born with an instinct to chase and hunt down prey. First, their bodies have the perfect design. Their vision and hearing are much more developed than those of humans. Cat Behavior Associates describes cats has having binocular vision that provides them with excellent low-light ability, as well as hearing acuity that allows them to pinpoint the origins of a sound with amazing accuracy. Even their whiskers help them navigate in dark environments, which serves them in the detection of prey. Finally, their flexible bodies allow them to perform lightning-quick directional changes, while their powerful rear legs allow them to quickly pounce.
Second, cats have also developed strategies of sneaking and pouncing while on the prowl. Perfect Paws explains that through play, kittens develop the coordination and timing needed to successfully capture their target. They also learn to adjust their speed to the speed of moving objects and to gauge their pounces to equal the distance between them and objects. Cat Behavior Associates adds that cats walk on their toes for speed and stealth. They can also jump 6-7 times their height.
In addition, Cat Behavior Associates reports that studies have shown that when a cat is hunting, a brain chemical called dopamine is released that creates a feeling of eager anticipation, and that his release is initially triggered by the sound or scent of prey. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, refers to this feeling of eager anticipation as the Seeking Circuit. Cat Behavior Associates compares hunting for cats to the way kids feel on Christmas morning before presents are opened.
All this is to say that, contrary to popular modern belief, cats weren’t born to just eat and sleep. Just imagine having all the abilities of a cat and never having the opportunity to use them. Yet that’s the way it is for many of our indoor-only cats. Am I advocating that we all turn our indoor kitties loose? No, but I am advocating that we embrace environmental enrichment.
REASONS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT
At its simplest level, environmental enrichment is the process of providing our pets with stimulating surroundings that mimic the natural world. The concept seems to have originated with zoos, but has since trickled down to shelters and now our homes.
Why would cat owners need to be concerned enriching their pets’ environment? After all, cats are domesticated, right? But remember what I pointed out in my introduction, that cats are biologically pretty much the same as they were thousands of years ago. In fact, free-ranging and feral cats, so contends Pet WebMD, lead complex and busy lives compared to their house cat counterparts. Outdoor cats, according to Pet WebMD, maintain large territories that often contain a variety of habitats. They explore, scavenge, hunt, and socialize with other cats. In contrast, household cats often have little to do and easily become bored. Therein lies the problem to which that fancy concept of environmental enrichment is the solution.
Repeatedly, the message of U.S. experts is that cats should be kept indoors. They even argue that cats who grow up inside tend to show no inclination to leave the safety of home. Furthermore, these experts point out that even cats who are used to being outside can learn to live a happy and healthy lives indoors. Yet they also agree that indoor cats can get bored and that this boredom can lead to stress and even misbehavior.
Regarding the latter, because cats are sensory-driven, Drake Center for Veterinarian Medicine says that when there’s no tension release cats may develop bad habits. For example, under-stimulated cats may eat too little or too much food, feign sleep or become lethargic, over-groom or partake in other self-mutilating habits, chew inappropriate items, eat too little or too much food, or retreat into isolation. Bored and stressed cats are also at greater risk for behavioral problems such as: attention seeking, urinating and defecating outside the litter box, attacking the hands or feet of owners, or picking on companion pets. Even worse, cats can become anxious, depressed, and/or sick.
In contrast, an enriched environment can lead to a happy cat. First, there’s physical health. Their muscles get a good workout, their bones stay strong, and they’re more likely to develop a normal, healthy appetite. Second, there’s mental health. Drake Center for Veterinarian Medicine points out that cats who have positive experiences usually have more confidence. Finally, there’s social health. Environmental enrichment will increase and strengthen the bond between you and your cat.
To my surprise, during my research I also found articles about how to provide environmental enrichment to dogs. Many dog owners already take their dogs for walks and make time to play with them, even if they don’t avail of training opportunities and other ways of interacting with their dogs. Yet many pet experts still write at length about other ways to engage dogs. And so, surely, our beloved cats, who were born to chase and to hunt but tend to spend their lives sleeping on beds, deserve a more stimulating environment.
I think I’ve made my case for “why”. Now I’ll turn to “how”.
IMPROVING YOUR INDOOR CAT’S LIFE
In the wild, cats not only hunt prey, but they also serve as prey for other animals. Therefore, cats feel most vulnerable while eating, drinking, or eliminating. For that reason, these basic needs should met away from confined spaces and startling noises.
There’s really not much else to say about water and litter boxes. You might invest in a water foundation, as some cats like the bubbling action. When it comes to litter boxes, part of creating a healthy environment involves using ones that are clean, the right size, and located in an area that’s appealing to the cat. Some sources say that to keep a litter box clean: waste should be removed twice a day; the litter box should be emptied, cleaned, refilled with fresh litter weekly; and the litter box should be replaced yearly. Also, the rule of thumb is one litter box per cat, with these litter boxes being placed in different locations. If your cat isn’t using the litter box consistently, there should be an extra box available, but you should also arrange for a check-up to confirm that she doesn’t have an infection.
Healthy Pets suggests that to add enrichment, try placing a treat in a new area each day. Start by hiding the treat in the same spot each day. After a few days of this, hide the treat near the original location but not exactly in the same place. Once your cat has gotten used to “hunting” for the treat, move on to more remote areas. This should be done daily, so your cat gets used to the routine.
You can also include food-related environmental enrichment through puzzle feeder toys. A puzzle feeder in its basic form is simply a sturdy object with a hole in it, from which treats or dry food can fall out of as a cat bats it about. My husband and I bought a couple commercial ones for our cats this past Christmas and they have been a big hit.
If you feed wet food, Cat Behavior Associates advises you can instead set up puzzle feeders. Something as simple as a muffin tin, by dropping small amounts of wet food in covered compartments. For cats who eat too quickly, you can smoosh the food, so they have to work harder for their reward.
Cat Behavior Associates tells how to make homemade puzzle feeders by using plastic water bottles. You simply cut holes in the bottles and place treats inside. Even the round cardboard insert from paper towels apparently works well. Cut holes, put treats in there, and fold the ends closed.
Finally, Cats Protection Channel offers various ideas through videos. Below are a sample of couple cheap ways to entertain your cat.
GOING BEYOND THE BASICS
Healthy Pets says the goal is to “create an environment of plenty” for your cat. That doesn’t just mean providing plenty of food and water and litter boxes, but also includes things to do.
Earlier I said that cats have hearing and vision that is superior to ours. When you’re trying to provide your cat with things to do, think eyes and ears and even nose.
Access to windows, preferably through perches, towers, and other elevated spaces, will provide mental stimulation as your cat looks out the window. Some cats get the same effect through the visuals and sound effects of videos; popular ones contain close-ups of prey, such as birds and rodents. All my cats enjoy sitting at the window, while my one formerly feral cat is fascinated by the internet and even by television.
When you’re not home, you can provide auditory stimulation through music or television. I don’t know how my cats react to these types of sounds when left alone, but I do know my formerly feral cat seems to enjoy music.
Your cat’s keen olfactory senses can be stimulated with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones. All of my family’s cats enjoy catnip.
Accommodating Normal Behaviors
If environmental enrichment is about providing stimulating surroundings that mimic our pets’ natural world, then you need to know that scratching, climbing, hiding, and hunting all come naturally to cats.
Scratching is about marking territory. To accommodate this need, supply horizontal or vertical scratching posts; the latter is the most popular. Ensure the scratching post is covered in a rough material that cats like to scratch, such as wood, sisal, rough fabric, or cardboard. Being able to stretch the muscles and displace anxiety by scratching is a vital part of cat life. If your cat lacks interest in one type of post or material, keep trying other varieties until you find the right fit.
Cats climb for multiple reasons. The first reason is to keep watch for prey, and so as to attack from above. The second reason is for safety; to get away from other cats in the house, and to eliminate the possibility of attack from behind. The third is as a display of status, which is especially important if tension occurs between cats. To accommodate this need, buy or build a cat tree; the ideal cat tree includes hiding spots, perches, and hammocks or shelves for beds. Elevated walkways can also create vertical space. The more vertical space, the more territory the cats will have available to share.
Hiding is about finding safe and secure places from predators. An economical way to accommodate this need might be as simple as a box with a hole in it or paper bags. To use the latter, Cat Behavior Associates says simply fold a one-inch cuff at the top to make the bag sturdy, then cut the bottoms of the bags, fold a cuff around that end, and then tape bags together. You might also invest in commercial fabric tunnels. We have one that we placed behind our recliner.
Finally, hunting used to be about survival. Even though your cat may be well-fed, that instinct hasn’t disappeared, and can be accommodated through play with toys.
Toys can be categorized into two main categories: self-play and interactive. The first are especially good if you need to leave your cat alone for hours on end. The cheapest toys are plastic rings from milk jugs and empty toilet paper rolls. Other low-cost toys are furry mice and crinkle balls. You can heighten your cat’s fun with self-play toys by placing them in objects such as empty tissue boxes or hiding them around the house to inspire curiosity.
Interactive toys are great for strengthening the bond between you and your cat, because they require your involvement. These toys, which I call danglers, are standard at our house. From Cat Behavior Associates, I also got the idea of moving interactive toys (otherwise described as wand or fishing pole like toys) like prey so that our cats can practice their hunting skills. Have the toys hide, quiver, dart to another hiding place, etc.
Drake Center for Veterinarian Medicine writes that a recent study revealed that the number one favorite toy for cats was a used hair band tied to a string and pulled across the floor. Number two was a cat Kong.
Training provides cats with a great mental workout. Those of you have read my previous articles on this subject know I’m a firm believer that, just like dogs, cats can learn a number of useful behaviors like sit and come as well as fun tricks such as beg and roll over. To be successful, you must use positive reinforcement methods (such as clicker training) since most cats cannot be forced to do something they don’t want to do.
Agility is something normally associated with dogs, but cats (and other animals!) can do it too. You don’t have to enter an agility competition, but you can clicker train your cat to an engaging obstacle course in your home. My cats jump through hoops and tunnel through boxes.
Cats are social creatures. If you spend lots of time away from home, your cat might benefit from a feline companion. After a gradual and positive introduction, having a buddy can make a huge difference when it comes to enriching a cat’s life. This sure has been the case in our house!
Be forewarned though that trying to predict how two or more cats will get on living under the same roof is impossible. Female cats apparently tend to get along better with other cats than males do, while intact males can prove difficult in a multi-cat household. Finally, Healthy Pets cautions problems with inter-cat aggression can arise when a new cat is brought home, when two cat owners blend their feline families, and even among cats that have lived peaceably together for years. Just like human families can have challenges!
THE FINAL WORD
While it is true that cats enjoy sunshine, fresh air, and exercise, they don’t need to live outside to be satisfied. Some thoughtful planning on our part can help cats to live fully-enriched lives within the safety of our homes. In this article, I’ve suggested a variety of ways. Check out the below links for more information, and check back here for future posts on this topic. Now go create a playground for your cat!
WHAT CATS NEED
- Cats Are Hard-Wired to Hunt
- Cats Love to Hunt
- Hunting Behavior of Cats
- A Purrfect Start
- Why Do Cats Play with Their Prey
WHY ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT
- AAFP Position Statement
- Enriching Your Cat’s Life
- Environmental Enrichment for Cats
- What is Environmental Enrichment?
IMPROVING YOUR CAT’S LIFE