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Make Your Cat’s Life Fun by Enriching the Environment

Avoid problems by creating a stimulating setting to engage your cat's natural behaviors; here's how.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Jan 16th 2015


All animals need enrichment programs — even we humans need things to do. Without mental and physical stimulation, animals become bored and can develop serious problems. Cats, especially those living indoors, aren’t exempt. Although they are safer, healthier, and live longer indoors, when they’re deprived of activities and a sensory enriched environment, they can become listless and develop health and behavior issues.

Sometimes bored felines overgroom or engage in other unhealthy repetitive behaviors. They may also fight with resident animals or eliminate outside their litter boxes. Others create their own entertainment — focusing their attentions on toilet paper rolls, climbing the curtains, or finding other destructive enterprises. Those who go the couch-potato route become fat. Felines need more than food, water, and a clean litter box to thrive physically, emotionally, and mentally. They need environmental enrichment. Bored cats live in a boring environment.

Tailor-made enrichment

Enrichment needs to be tailored to the species and the individual. Cats enjoy batting around small stuffed animals and balls, while dogs favor chewing on rubber squeaky toys. A stimulating environment for felines capitalizes on their natural behaviors, including their predatory instincts.

Become a cat watcher — learn what your cats’ natural behaviors are and then develop activities and enhance the environment with games and items that support the behaviors. The good news is that you don’t have to live with mice roaming your homes or fill bathtubs with live fish in order to keep your cats happy.

Your cat’s inner predator

It is important to understand how cats behave in their natural environment. Cats are predators — in the wild, they hunt to live. Even though indoor cats don’t have to catch dinner, they still have the primal instinct to hunt.

Typically, indoor cats have boring food experiences. This suppresses their natural instinct to hunt and encourages obesity. Food is usually available all day long, bowls filled once or twice a day. Although easier for people, it is not ideal for cats. Cats should be encouraged to work a little for their meals.

Make meal times dynamic. Tailor food activities to your individual, keeping in mind age and physical limitations. Hide treats and food in puzzle boxes and ball-and-tract toys, on perches, and in tunnels and boxes. Instead of using bowls, put food in muffin tins and puzzle balls. Treat rolls are also effective. Roll treats on the floor or down stairs for your cat to chase. Make her work.

Warm meals are more appealing than cold ones — warm up food before feedings. Instead of leaving food out all day long, feed small meals throughout the day. Automatic feeders are available for canned and dry food, perfect for people who spend most of the day away from home.

Play a hunting game before meals. Use a pole toy and pull the toy away from your kitty, allowing her to catch the toy every so often. After the final catch of the play session, feed her.

Vertical territory and places to hide

Cats naturally climb, jump, and hang out on high places. In the wild, they sometimes take refuge in protected, warm areas such as under bushes. They also spend about 50 percent of every day dozing in safe, protected areas.

In addition to stopping boredom, accessorizing your home with vertical territory will allow the kitties to show the other resident animals their positions in the hierarchy. High areas are also secure, safe areas — cats can retreat from other residents and threats. Vertical territory is also perfect for checking out the goings on in the area from a high vantage point. Another plus is exercise. In order to take advantage of vertical territory, kitties have to climb and jump.

You don’t have to spend a lot when creating vertical territory. Architectural elements, book shelves, other household furniture, window perches, and cat trees are all part of the solution. Shelves and perches at different heights will help cats access the highest areas and allow them to demonstrate their status through positioning. More is better. Make sure your kitties have high areas to jump and climb to throughout your home.

Enhance the vertical territory experience by securing a warm cat bed on a high shelf or perch. Although warm towels are also appreciated, they don’t retain the heat for an extended length of time. Insulated cat beds and those with a heat source are commercially available — perfect for taking a nap up high or down low. Elderly cats especially appreciate warm places to snuggle and nap.

At the same time you go up, go down. Boxes and paper bags without handles become entertainment systems, keeping cats busy for hours.

Scratching and marking

Cats scratch objects in the wild, and they scratch in their homes. They have to. This one activity satisfies a variety of instinctual needs. In addition to maintaining claws, cats delineate their territories when they scratch. It also relieves stress and expresses conflicting feelings. Kitties also scratch objects after naps and when they play.

Encourage scratching by placing horizontal scratchers and vertical scratching posts in all the areas where your cat hang out. She needs more than one. Place them in visible areas, near the entrances to rooms, favorite sleeping and play areas, and next to feeding stations. Scratching posts need to be tall and sturdy. Cats should be able to comfortably reach up, stretch, and scratch, without posts tumbling over.

Things to play with

Cats, when given the opportunity, will stalk, chase, and bat at objects. Just about any cat-safe, small object that moves can do double duty as a toy while providing mental stimulation and exercise. Cats need a diversity of objects to play with. Some favor ball-and-tract toys or soft balls that can be mouthed but not swallowed. Others are happy playing with wadded up pieces of paper and such common items. Many love playing in water. Motion sensitive faucets and pet fountains can keep water-loving cats busy while increasing their water consumption. Play time can become challenging by floating a ping pong ball in a wide shallow bowl of water.

Novelty is important. Rotate toys and introduce new ones. Favorite toys can stay, but others should rotate out of sight for a few days. For added excitement, occasionally dunk a couple of choice toys in pure meat broths that have no added ingredients such as spices, garlic, and sodium.

Safety is a priority. Choose toys that cannot be chewed apart and swallowed, and that don’t have pieces that can cut. Toys with ribbons or strings should only be used under supervision.

Your home does not have to morph into a kitty play land in order to keep your cats happy. Cat furniture and toys can be bought or made that fit your home’s d├®cor. Shelves installed at different heights work well in small rooms that have minimal floor space. Find solutions that enrich the environment in ways that you can live with and will also keep your cats happy and engaged.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.;

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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