Providing Enrichment for Happier, Healthier Cats

I think it’s high time that I write about cats- not only because I adore them (I have had cats my entire life and own two currently), but because there are so many misconceptions surrounding cats and cat ownership. I often hear people saying “Cats are so low-maintenance” and “Cats are so easy!” And while, yes, cats don’t require going outside to go to the bathroom or go for walks, people clearly forget that cats are predators with their own unique set of needs. My fear is that, upon getting such a “low-maintenance” pet, people unintentionally neglect their cats.

The way we address the needs of this amazing species is through environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment means providing the means for your cat to use his or her uniquely evolved skills.  Without having an outlet, cats can become very bored and develop boredom- or stress-relieving behaviors.

First, let’s look at the physiology of a cat. As I mentioned before, cats are predators. They are not born to be sedentary and live in a boring environment, just sleeping all day and eating as much food as they please; they were born to hunt. You can tell this just by looking at their body and behavior, such as:

  • They can jump five to seven times their height
  • They are extremely flexible and agile; you have probably seen the split-second directional changes that your cat can make
  • Their whiskers serve many functions, such as helping to navigate in the dark and detect prey

Once you know how to satisfy your cats’ needs, it really can be very simple. Listed below are some of the main ways I recommend to enrich your cat’s environment:

  1. Play! Allow your cat to use her hunting skills by engaging in interactive play with her. Interactive play works best with wand or fishing pole toys. Cats are sprinters, which means they prefer to play in short bursts: wiggle the toy and allow your cat to stalk and pounce on it rather than waving it in the air incessantly.

You can also provide your cat more opportunities for solo play. Solo play involves small toys such as fake mice and crinkle balls: leave these toys around your house for your cat to discover on her own. You can make it exciting and leave them in fun places like empty boxes.

2. Puzzles and food toys. Just like dogs, cats evolved to hunt and work for their food, not eat it directly out of a bowl. For this reason, cats can benefit from things like puzzles and food toys. You can either use these to feed your cat her entire meal, or put a portion of her meals in to keep her busy when you are gone during the day. (More info on puzzles and food toys here.)

3. Hiding places and tunnels. Cats love to feel secure, and it is very important for them to have good hiding places to nap and feel safe. They also have fun using these to stalk their “prey” (toys). There are very cheap cat tunnels on the market; it is also easy to make them using paper bags by cutting out the bottoms and attaching them end-to-end.

 4. Social interaction. Contrary to popular belief, cats are social creatures: as long as there are enough resources (food, water, litter boxes, and sleeping spots), they are typically happy to live with a companion. Many cats benefit from a kitty friend, and another cat will give them company during the day so they don’t get lonely. Cats also enjoy playing together, and providing a companion for your cat help them to stay more active. It is my opinion that, as long as two cats get along well, having two cats is easier than having just one, and for only a little extra money.

5. Vertical space. Though we live in a horizontal world, cats live in a vertical one; they can jump to amazing heights and therefore are not limited to floor space like we are. Make the most out of the space that you have by providing cat trees and perches for your cat. This not only gives them added room and more spots to sleep and play, but they will also get more exercise by jumping up and using those strong leg muscles.

6. Places to scratch. Cats sharpen their claws not only to maintain those razor-sharp nails, but also to mark their territory with the scent glands on their paw pads. Though many cats sharpen their claws on inappropriate objects, it isn’t a matter of training them not to scratch, but to scratch only on appropriate objects. Thus, it is essential to provide scratching posts (sisal is the best covering for these) and scratching boards. You can encourage your cat to sharpen his claws on these by rubbing them with catnip. If you catch your cat scratching on the couch, carpet, etc., simply interrupt and relocate him to a scratching post. You can also give a treat any time you catch him using the scratching post on his own; this way, he will quickly learn where he should and should not scratch.


 

Keep in mind that you can provide environmental enrichment for your cats without breaking the bank- even cardboard boxes taped together into a sort of kitty fort is great fun for a cat! Any effort that you make to enrich your cat’s environment will improve their quality of life and help him or her to be a happier, healthier cat.

Hammy loves to be the king on his cat tree. This is one of three cat trees that I have in my house, and both cats love them. A great spot to put the tree is next to a window, if possible. 

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