When we talk about feline enrichment, we’re talking about enriching their environment, their sensory stimulation, and their behavior. These are especially important for indoor cats who don’t get the daily excitement (and danger) of the ever-changing environment outside. Whenever a cat has a behavior issue, enrichment should always be one of the first solutions to try.
When a cat sees the same old house or apartment day-in and day-out, they can quickly become bored with their surroundings. This is especially true if their basic biology is ignored by their caregivers. There are simply things that cats need in their lives in order to feel…well, like cats. There are things they need to do every day, like scratching and scent marking, and they will truly suffer if deprived of these activities.
Most cats enjoy being up high. It gives them a feeling of safety and satisfies their arboreal natures. It also exponentially increases their perceived living space. Achieving this doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Furniture can be arranged to allow stair-steps to higher spots like the tops of bookcases. Tall cat trees can also help when strategically placed throughout the home.
COZY HIDING SPOTS
Cats also like having places to hide where they feel safe. A box with a hole cut in the side or a blanket on the floor behind some boxes in the closet will do. Let your cat show you the way. She’ll probably have already picked out the hiding places she likes. Now it’s up to you to make them more comfy and secure. At the very least, never reach in and force her out of her safe area or she’ll probably move to a new spot.
While there’s no replacement for the great outdoors, there are ways for cats to experience it from a safe vantage point. Window access is a must. The more the merrier. Make sure your cat has convenient perches from which to watch the goings-on outside. If you can do so at your home, add a bird feeder outside the window to provide more entertainment for your cat.
Catios are also a popular option that gives cats the feeling of the great outdoors but within safe confines. They may seem prohibitively expensive at first glance, but they can be easy enough to build on your own. Catio Spaces even offers DIY plans with clear instructions and parts lists. These plans also allow you to customize your catio to meet your own needs or the specific shape of the area you wish to enclose.
Harness training is also an option for many cats. Just be sure to choose a secure harness and work up to this adventure in baby steps. Begin with just the harness and reinforce with treats. Before long, you’ll be taking your cat for a walk in the garden. Just don’t forget the flea control.
Cats perceive the world using the same five sense that we use, but their perceptions are quite different from our own. Their senses have been carefully tuned to help them be the best predators they can be.
The sense of smell is of utmost importance to cats. They see scents the way we see brightly colored signposts. They use their sense of smell to track prey, to mark their territory, and to form familial bonds. Their own scents are like coded messages that other cats can decode hours and even days after they’ve left them.
You can help your cat enjoy and understand her world by allowing him to experience new smells every day. When you come home, allowing him to smell your hands is a bit like telling him a story about everywhere you’ve been while you were out.
You can also hide treats for him to locate with that acute sense of smell. And since around 60% of cats have receptors that react to catnip, that’s also a great treat from time to time. Just be sure to crush it between your fingers to release more of the oils present in the dried leaves usually offered to cats.
Our cats’ hearing range is higher than ours in order to hear rodent squeaks and tiny feet but they don’t hear low range sounds like we do. That means that they prefer toys that make high-pitched crinkly sounds. A wadded up ball of paper can be perfect for batting practice as it makes great crinkly, skittery sounds when attacked or knocked across the room.
It’s also important to be aware of sounds that might annoy our feline friends. Most electronics emit high-pitched whines that are beyond our ability to hear, but cats can certainly hear them. Even the refrigerator and air conditioner coming on unexpectedly can frighten a cat. That’s why it’s usually best to place their food bowls and litter box far away from noisy appliances and doors.
Their eyesight is strong in some ways and weak in others. Cats can see clearly with almost no light at all but they can’t see well up close. Ever wonder why they have a hard time finding that treat you’re holding right in front of them? They can smell it, but they can’t see it.
We mentioned windows and bird feeders above, so we’ll just reiterate that suggestion here. Aquariums can also be stimulating as long as they’re secured so the fish are safe.
In addition, there are a number of made-for-cats videos available for free on YouTube. We’ve had mixed results from the use of these videos. They’re great if they’re used in moderation and followed by a rigorous play session. However, they can frustrate some cats when they’re unable to jump through the screen and catch the birds. The effect can be the same as the laser toy they can never catch. These are great as a build up to a play session with a physical toy, but they aren’t a replacement for interactive play.
This may sound obvious, but spend time petting and brushing your cat. Most cats derive tremendous satisfaction from gentle physical caresses. They react the same way that they would to being groomed by another cat, so don’t be surprised if they give you a lick or two in response. Just be careful not to overstimulate your cat. When a cat’s back ripples or quivers or her tail thrashes from side to side, it’s time to give her a break. Those signals are meant to communicate their overstimulated state to other cats, but humans don’t always get the message.
A relatively new concept is the addition of touch-toys. These have unusual textures or surfaces that feel good when rubbed against. Every cat reacts differently to them but some truly enjoy this sort of toy.
It’s important that cats be encouraged to behave like cats. If we deny them the things that their very nature tells them they need, we’re doing them a tremendous disservice and we’re opening the door for problem behaviors later on. These are behaviors that serve a purpose for them and nature has selected these behaviors because they contribute to the overall fitness of the species. We can help to facilitate these behaviors in order to have a happier cat.
Rubbing against things is often misinterpreted by cat aficionados. This is a marking behavior most often using the scent glands at the cheeks and base of the tail. Cats use these scent glands to mark their territory with their scent. This is why they rub against door jambs and even our legs and hands. They feel more secure when surrounded by their own scent. We can’t smell these odors, but they stand out to cats like colored smoke. They can see if other cats have been around and they can even create family scents that are mixes of the smells made by all the cats and humans in the house. This is one of the reasons they like being on our beds so much - they contain heavy concentrations of our human scents that our cats associate with a feeling of family.
We can encourage rubbing behaviors by using all manner of textured surfaces at our cat’s eye level. There are some great arch toys that are highly appealing to cats and there are textured plastic units that can screw to any right-angled surface like a door frame. We especially like these because they can be positioned at your cat’s favorite height and can sometimes even be helpful in relocating these behaviors to more desirable (for the humans) spots.
Scratching is another marking behavior, and it’s one that some people try to discourage. Some barbarians even go so far as to have their cats declawed. Fortunately, this practice is slowly being outlawed, but it shows just how little most people understand their cats. Cats have to scratch. They have no choice. It’s how they shed their outer nail sheaths in order to keep their claws sharp. It’s also a way of marking their territory with the scent glands in their paws. They have to have convenient places to scratch or they’ll make their own. Scratching posts are a necessity. The bigger the better and the more the better lest you find that the side of your favorite easy chair is a prime target. Your feline friend should be able to extend her entire body when scratching and stretching, so having posts that are at least twice as high as your cat’s head height are best. They also need to be sturdy. If a post wobbles when a cat is using it, she may come to distrust it. Some cats also like to scratch on horizontal surfaces, so inexpensive cardboard scratchers can be put to good use as well.
Probably the number one drive in cats is the need to hunt and kill prey. This goes beyond their need to feed themselves as anyone with an outdoor cat knows all too well. Cats need to stalk the prey, capture the prey, kill the prey and eat in order to feel satiated. We can help them to perform these activities without risking the health and well-being of local wildlife. We do so by simulating the hunt using toys.
Every cat has a particular type of prey that he responds to. For some, it’s birds. For others, it’s rodents. Some like lizards. This is important to note so you can choose the right toys for your little predator. If he gets excited when he sees birds outside, try Da Bird. If he’s constantly eyeing squirrels in the yard, get him stuffed mice to play with.
Anything can be an effective toy as long as you learn to simulate the hunt.When being hunted by a cat, a bird isn’t going to dangle over the cat’s face. It’s going to fly rapidly overhead, maybe even dive-bombing the cat. Or maybe it’s going to be hurt and trying to hide on the ground. Whatever play most excites your cat, DO THAT. Most cats are particularly excited when prey disappears from view, so have it go around corners but still make a noise. Allow your cat time to stalk the prey and observe it before pouncing.
Laser pointers have become popular cat toys because cats respond to them. That’s due to the fact that cats have motion-sensitive vision that makes them respond more to quick movements than to slow ones. The trouble with lasers is that there’s nothing to catch, so cats can end up feeling unfulfilled by their pretend hunt. Some cats can also become neurotically obsessed with every flicker of light and shadow once conditioned to chase the red dot. It can be quite distressing to them, so our general recommendation is against using lasers altogether. If you choose to use a laser toy, just use it sparingly and offer a catchable toy at the end of each red dot hunt.
It’s important to note that toys don’t have to be expensive. They need to be safe for cats, but beyond that anything goes. We’ve found that freshly crumpled paper does the trick more often than not. And boxes - ANY boxes - are always a hit. Variety is important, so rotate toys frequently.
If you use string, yarn, or twine with your homemade toys, just make sure you put them away when you’re not around so your feline friend doesn’t accidentally swallow them. The barbs on cats’ tongues face inward, so they can often force a string down a cat’s throat and they won’t be able to get it out. The end result can be a blocked intestinal tract and expensive surgery to save your friend’s life.
Some people recommend the use of feeding toys such as kibble-dispensing balls and puzzle feeders. While we agree with the general concept of these, the ones we’ve tested have used kibble exclusively. Since we don’t recommend feeding your cat kibble, we find it difficult to recommend these toys.
Cats have notoriously low thirst drives. Having descended from a species of desert-dwelling wild cats, it makes sense. Unfortunately, this trait does them a disservice today. Up to 80% of geriatric cats have been shown to have varying degrees of kidney disease. This staggering statistic is largely due to the feeding of moisture-poor foods such as kibble. In the wild, most cats obtain the moisture they need from the prey they hunt and eat. At home, we need to make water a little more appetizing to them. We do that by adding a fountain.
Many pet cats show a preference for running water. The speculation is that stagnant water in the wild would be more likely to be contaminated. We can use this preference to our advantage and encourage our cats to drink more. It’s preferable to offer up water in a stainless steel container, but a plastic one will do if that’s what they will accept. The problem with plastic is that it harbors bacteria, so if you opt for a plastic fountain, be extra-diligent in keeping it clean.
Having regular training sessions can help cats have something to think about other than seeing what stuffing is inside your pillows. Many cats respond well to training challenges especially if those cats are particularly food motivated.
Clicker training is associative positive reinforcement training that uses a clicking device to mark the point when the cat has achieved the goal you’ve set out for them. We’ll be adding an entire article on clicker training soon, but suffice it to say that this kind of training is inexpensive and entertaining for both the trainer and the trainee. It’s even used with humans to great success.
The ultimate cat enrichment tool is another cat! While it may be unwise to try and get a cat over the age of four to embrace a newcomer, younger cats are usually open to the idea if introduced gradually. Every cat is different, though. If your feline friend was hand-reared as a baby, he or she may be frightened by any attempts at introducing a newcomer. Gender may also play a role in that male cats are less likely to participate in familial units in the wild, but female cats often stay together later in life.
We want to make this point crystal clear: some cats are truly happier being in one-cat households. If a new cat terrorizes your long term resident, don’t feel guilty about returning the newcomer to the rescue. That said, if you can adopt a bonded pair together to begin with, everyone in the household will be much happier. It’s actually easier to take care of two cats than one because they entertain one another. Of course, there are also extra expenses to consider. Do your due diligence and if you can afford it, we think two (or more) cats is definitely the way to go.
We hope this article has helped you to see that enrichment comes in many forms. Take a few moments to look at your home from your cat’s point of view and you’re bound to see some easy ways to make their world more fun and interesting. Good luck!