From the outside, cats do not seem to ask a lot from their owners—food, water, shelter, and medical care at Leland Veterinary Clinic. Maybe you indulge them with a few toys, which they may or may not play with, and a fuzzy bed. Beyond that, cats tend to establish their own routine. Unless you have a particularly mischievous cat, it’s a low maintenance relationship.
However, low maintenance does not mean no maintenance. Like all animals, cats need to practice natural behaviors and have some element of choice in their lives, to experience true emotional and physical health.
What is feline enrichment?
Enrichment is an animal husbandry principle used in zoos and sanctuaries to improve captive animal welfare. By strategically enhancing the animal’s environment, the animal can express natural behaviors, and satisfy emotional and physiological needs. For domestic cats, enrichment relieves boredom and stress, which can lead to urinary disorders, over-grooming, obesity, anxiety, and urine-marking behavior.
What natural behaviors should feline enrichment fulfill?
Cats are naturally territorial and predatory. These attributes influence every part of their behavior, and can be recognized in iconic feline behavior:
- Territorial behavior — This involves observation and surveillance of the environment and all resources, including resource guarding from perceived or real threats.
- Predatory behavior — This behavior involves a chain of activities, including searching, stalking, chasing, pouncing, catching, and manipulating prey. Cats may practice the entire chain, or only a short sequence.
How do I provide my cat with enrichment?
By taking a close look at your home through the lens of your cat’s instinctive behavior, you can easily create a stimulating and satisfying feline experience. Let’s examine enrichment in four categories—your cat’s environment, basic resources, social behavior, and cognitive needs.
- Environmental enrichment for cats — Other than periodic trips to Leland Veterinary Clinic, your indoor cat’s home is probably their entire world. Prevent monotony by designing an artificial jungle for your mighty hunter to practice their skills:
- Hiding — Cats are predators, but also prey to larger animals, which is why your cat prefers to slink about, half-hidden by furniture. The ability to observe their environment from a concealed location allows your cat to appear and disappear quickly. Arrange objects and furniture to give your cat alternative routes around the home.
- Climbing — Elevation provides cats with safety and excellent vantage points to observe or initiate predatory behavior. Cat trees, window perches, or a cat bed on an elevated surface can instantly make any room a feline-friendly zone.
- Scratching — Scratching allows cats to stretch their body, mark territory, and maintain their claws. Encourage appropriate scratching behavior with a scratching post or mat.
- Resource-based enrichment for cats — Take your cat’s basic needs to the next level by presenting them in new or enticing ways:
- Water — Fountains can encourage cats to drink more water. Cats also prefer their food and water separated, so consider moving the water source to a different room.
- Rest — Give your cat several safe places to rest and recharge—ideally, warm, quiet, and elevated areas.
- Elimination — Cats prefer quiet, low-traffic locations for their litter box. Ensure you provide multiple boxes in multi-cat homes, to prevent bullying. Dirty boxes can contribute to anxiety, and cause cats to look elsewhere for their elimination needs. Clean the boxes daily, and change all litter weekly.
- Social enrichment for cats — Cats crave social attention and interaction, and may become depressed or stressed from a lack of engagement. The nature of the interaction will depend on the individual cat. While some seek out physical affection, others are content with a brief hello. Let your cat tell you their preference, and do not force them to interact. No matter the level your cat selects, consistent and focused attention is the key to filling your cat’s “cup” for social enrichment.
- Cognitive enrichment for cats — Cats are neophytic, meaning they enjoy new things, which is the reason your cat loses interest in new toys after a few days, or hours. Encouraging your cat to play and use their mind is important for their health and wellbeing, but may test your patience, and your pocketbook. Try these options to get your cat thinking:
- Food toys — Treat balls, food dispensers, lickable mats, and DIY snuffle mats are inherently rewarding.
- Motion toys — Stimulate stalking, pouncing, and manipulating by trying a toy that triggers chase behavior. However, the toy must be caught as a tangible reward—laser pointers can be fun, but end in frustration because your cat obtains nothing.
- Brain games — Put your cat’s hours of observation to the test by challenging their critical thinking skills with a puzzle toy.
- DIY options — Fun times are only a toilet paper roll away—check out these awesome DIY ideas from the ASPCA.
The next time you see your cat sneaking around or pouncing on a discarded sock, think about how you can improve their emotional and physical health with these instinctive behaviors. For additional advice about feline enrichment, contact our Leland Veterinary Clinic team.