As you glance over at your cat lounging placidly in the late afternoon sun, you might not realize that a mighty hunter lurks just below that fluffy surface. Cats were born to hunt, although most domestic pet cats who live indoors rarely get to indulge that cat hunting instinct.
“The predatory behavior that cats exhibit outside as feral cats does not go away because you put them inside,” says Lisa Radosta DVM, Dipl. ACVB, of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida. “If you think about a cat’s life — they have good lives, don’t get me wrong — but most of them live inside of a box and they don’t leave. Imagine how you would feel if every day you were just in the house.”
Much like animals at the zoo, cats — especially indoor cats — need stimulation and environmental enrichment. Some cats simply become bored at home, but others become frustrated by the inability to do what comes naturally: explore, exercise and hunt. That frustration can lead to behavioral issues at home. “My theory is that every single clinical behavior problem or emotional disorder in cats will respond in some way to environmental enrichment alone,” Dr. Radosta states.
Since most of us don’t want our pet cats to actually hunt and kill live animals, using play and toys to tap into your cat’s innate desire to stalk, chase, pounce and kill is a great way to enrich her environment and improve her overall well-being.
Some cats are just naturally more predatory. “Some cats are more hunters and some are completely lazy,” Dr. Radosta explains. “Just like there are some dogs who want to chase a ball and there are some that don’t want to. Bengals in particular have a huge amount of energy. They’re incredibly smart and they’re really good hunters. Bengals are special, but are not for the faint of heart!”
All pets need to be stimulated and engaged, but cats need environmental enrichment the most. Dogs go for walks and trips to the park, and many accompany their owners to restaurants, coffee shops and even on vacations. Cats not so much. Pet toy companies understand this and are constantly coming out with innovative new toys to engage cats at home.
Every cat is unique. One cat might find a particular toy fun and exciting, but another cat might ignore it completely. Forget the traditional jingle balls and toy mice and try out a few of the fancier, motorized toys that move, triggering your cat’s hunting instinct.
Dr. Radosta’s cat Chewie loves the Catty Whack by OurPets, which randomly moves a feather in and out of various holes in the toy, keeping cats on their toes so they can try to snag it. Chewie also adores his Hexbug mouse, which is basically a robotic mouse — as close to the real thing as you’d like your cat to get!
Other toys on the market release treats or food when your cat plays with them, which makes him “work” for his food much like he would need to do if hunting in the wild. Feather wands and fishing pole cat toys are less high-tech, but real feline crowd pleasers. Bring them out for short play sessions and hide them away when you’re not using them to keep your cat excited about the hunt.
For some cats, simply setting up a nice spot to watch birds or squirrels outside can be entertaining, but make sure your cat doesn’t find the sight of prey outside too frustrating. “Some cats can watch a little bird all day outside the screen and not at all be upset that they can’t get to it. They just think of it as television,” Dr. Radosta says.
“Other cats will respond by turning and biting the dog next to them. It’s going to depend on the particular cat and how many outlets that kitty has for predatory behavior outside of that moment. If the only time a kitty ever sees anything that he can hunt is when he’s confined, then that’s going to be a more frustrated cat.”
Finally, a laser pointer can be a fun way to harness your cat’s hunting behavior, but use it with caution. Never shine the light in your cat’s eyes — it can do serious damage. And observe your cat to makes sure he’s not getting too frustrated because he can’t “catch” the dot.
“Laser pointers are fun, but at the end of that session be sure the laser is pointed on something that the animal can ‘kill,’ some toy that the cat can get in there and rake and pick up with his paws,” Dr. Radosta explains. “What we sometimes see is kitties become really frustrated and redirect that frustration by biting the owner or another cat or a dog because they are really riled up.”
If your cat gets too frustrated, skip the laser games and play with some actual toys that your cat can physically capture.
Tell us: How do you engage your cat’s hunting instincts? Do you have a cat who’s a really good “hunter”?
Thumbnail: Photography ©Ramonespelt | Thinkstock.
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