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How Do You Create a Happy Cat? Create a Happy Home

Consider your cat's point of view regarding living space, food, play, and companionship.

Steve Dale  |  Dec 2nd 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

True confession: It was about 10 years ago at a pet trade show that I saw a new product. It was a little pink plastic ball with a hole in it. I grabbed the exhibitor and hugged him. He looked terrified and probably thought, “Who is this crazy-eyed cat lover?”

I instantly knew this little ball was a treat-dispensing toy for cats, something I had been talking about even back then. He said I was the only person who understood this toy without an explanation.

“This toy is better than tuna,” I said, and that quote was on the company’s packaging for some time.

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A cat considers fish by Shutterstock

More Americans are keeping cats indoors. That’s good because indoors, cats are much less likely to get hit by cars or chased by coyotes. Potentially, they can live longer, healthier lives. But what about their mental health? I’m the dude who originally said, “We live in a nation filled with braindead fat cats.”

Cats are really smart and need mental and physical exercise. Unfortunately, both needs are often overlooked. Cats are innately wired to chase and pounce on prey. But without the opportunity to fulfill what they were born to do, their mental health suffers.

This isn’t to say we don’t love our cats, nor to say that they don’t love us. But cats can be so much more than couch potatoes.

Your average African lion or bobcat at a zoo receives more enrichment than most house cats. Enrichment is manipulating the environment to suit an animal’s natural behavior. For example, in cheetah exhibits at some zoos, a pulley speeds by with a whole (dead) chicken, and the big cat chases it, as if it were alive. In this way, the “kill” still happens.

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A cheetah walks in Kenya by Shutterstock

Sure, leaving mouse toys strewn around somewhat suits that purpose for house cats. Even better are toys that move, which cats can chase and pounce on even if their people aren’t around.

Manufacturers are offering more cat toys than ever. Some people might spend a lot of money on toys for their cats. Still, to cats, the same toys — which have already repeatedly been “killed” — eventually get boring or lost under the sofa. The best idea is to rotate toys, so some new choices are always appearing.

Here are some ideas for enriching your cat’s life:

1. An empty box

Who would think that a simple box could create a week’s worth of fun? Leave out an empty box on Monday. On Tuesday, place the box upside down, put something on top to weigh it down, and cut “mouse holes” in the sides, so your cat can reach inside with his paws to find treats you’ve hidden. On Wednesday, turn the box right side up and sprinkle catnip inside. On Thursday, relocate the box to another room, and it becomes new again. On Friday, place a small ball or squeaky mouse toy inside the box.

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Cat in the box by Shutterstock

2. Ping-pong

Drop a ping-pong ball into an empty tissue box to create an instant and free track toy. Track toys (in which balls or other objects are pushed in tracks) are available wherever cat toys are sold. A ping-pong ball inside a bathtub can also mean hours of fun.

3. More free toys

Paper bags (without the handles), plastic tops from milk cartons, or wine corks also make great toys. Put them in different places around the house so your cat can search for them.

4. Think high

Unlike people, cats use vertical space as elevated living areas. Window ledges, cleared bookshelves, a “highway” of catwalks made of shelves, tops of radiators, or cat trees are just a few ideas. In multicat homes, the more raised surfaces for individual cats to call “mine,” the less conflict between cats.

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Vertical kitten by Shutterstock

5. TV for cats

Outdoor bird feeders are entertaining for people and cats. Some cats enjoy DVDs starring birds or reptiles made specifically for cats. Leave these on when you’re home as well as when you’re not.

6. Food control

To keep your indoor cat from becoming overweight, timed feeders offer food at only specified times; gravity feeders control how much available food there is.

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A man carries a cat by Shutterstock

7. Puzzle this

There are lots of inexpensive toys that can be filled with kibble or treats. The cats maneuver the toys to get the prizes. Many cats will be motivated once they understand the game. These toys are most fun when cats learn to seek them out at random times (“hunting”) and then finding their “prey.”

Want to make your own free puzzle feeder? Purina ONE has some great ideas.

8. Bring home a friend

Most cat owners have two or more cats. Still, there are plenty of single-cat homes. Cats are social, and two might keep one another company. Sure, introducing another cat can be tricky, and it’s not for all cats. Maybe having a canine companion is a better idea.

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9. Safety outside

Some indoor-only cats will take to the idea of walking on a leash and harness outside or being pushed around the neighborhood in a cat stroller. For cats who insist on being outside, or who might simply enjoy the experience of a catio, try cat fencing that keeps cats
in yards and keeps predators out. (Still, adult supervision is always suggested.)

About the author: Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant. He is a national newspaper columnist (Tribune Content Agency); heard on WGN Radio, Chicago; host of the nationally syn- dicated Steve Dale’s Pet World and author of the e-book Good Cat, among others. He’s a founder of the CATalyst Council, and serves on the boards of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.