Environmental Enrichment for Cats

by Marylou Zimmerman
Program Director

Cats are hunters. Refined over thousands of years, they have evolved into some of nature’s most efficient predators. It is incumbent upon owners to realize that Fluffy, asleep in the sunny windowsill, remains hardwired with the same instinctive drives as her wild cousins. The dilemma for responsible cat owners then becomes a question of how to provide an outlet for house cats to meet their inborn needs to hunt, stalk, groom and define territory without releasing these überhunters on the unprepared and unsuspecting native wildlife population.

The solution lies in the field of environmental enrichment, until recently the exclusive domain of zoos and wild animal parks and now expanded to include enriching the lives of the domestic pets who share our homes and are part of our families.

The first step is to look at the behavior of the domestic cats’ wild cousins and define those behavioral needs that are not met in a home setting, and then to develop solutions that meet those needs.

Need Area: Safety and Security

In the wild, cats range over a large territory on a daily basis. They mark this territory by scent rubbing, scratching and elimination. They choose sleeping areas based on safety, selecting strategic locations with views of their territory and away from the scents of recent kills that would attract scavengers and other predators.

In a home setting owners can provide for territory marking by placing litter boxes on the outer periphery of a cat’s “territory” and providing multiple scratching surfaces, again on the periphery of the territory. If the cat has a cat tree with a sleeping spot that is elevated, this should be centrally located or placed with a view into multiple rooms. Owners can also encourage the use of vertical space to define sleeping locations by placing a bed on top of a refrigerator, entertainment center or armoir. A cat’s sleeping spot should be off limits to dogs and children.

Scratching Surfaces: A Primer

  • cardboard
  • tree bark
  • carpet
  • sisal
  • carpet back
  • driftwood

Cats scratch to mark territory, sharpen their claws and exercise their arm, shoulder and back muscles. Scratching surfaces are more likely to be used when placed strategically. Good places for scratchers are: near sleeping spots, near doorways and next to furniture (for retraining if the cat scratches undesirable objects) Scratching surfaces should be placed away from food and water sources as well as litter boxes.

Along with allowing cats to define their territory, the subject of disputed territory comes into play. Each cat in a household should be allowed some area of individual space. Along with this is the need for multiple litter boxes. A good rule of thumb is that the number of litter boxes should equal the number of cats plus one, and they should be spread throughout the environment, not all clustered in the dark, musty, unheated basement.

Another helpful tip is that bathrooms used by the family for regular showering are not the most efficient places for litter boxes; because modern litters are engineered to be super-absorbent, they will absorb all the moisture from the air and will be less effective at controlling litter box odor and require more frequent changes. Unused floor space in closets is a great location for a litter box, and a cat door can be installed to keep out inquisitive dogs and toddlers.

Cats should have separate feeding locations although communal water stations are generally accepted.  The use of a pheromone diffuser (FeliWay™) can be helpful in communal areas.  If a wandering outdoor cat is causing territory issues through a window, using harassment of the outdoor cat, coupled with 1-way mirror film or blinds or curtains temporarily over the lower windows can help.

Need Area: Stalking and Hunting

Studies of wild cat species and feral cats show that they spend approximately six hours a day exploring their environment and stalking food, catching and eating 8-10 prey animals each day. Compare this to the typical house cat who is presented with a bowl full of food in the same place every day, available 24/7, and you can see where boredom would quickly become the norm.

Creating a more stimulating search for food requires slightly more effort on the part of an owner, but it is easy and inexpensive to accomplish. First step is to throw away any “self-feeder”, multi-day storage and dispensing dry kibble containers.  Take each cat’s daily ration and divide it up into 8-10 portions. Take some portions in small dishes and place them throughout the cats environment, and vary the placement daily, being sure to utilize vertical space. Place 1-2 portions in locations that are visually hidden but scent available – under a small plastic flower pot works well, and place 1-2 portions in interactive toys – KittyKong™, hollow play balls, or small plastic containers with a hole cut in them to allow the kibble to come out.

Provide high-value treats or canned food ration following play sessions to mimic the stalk, hunt, eat pattern cats experience in the wild. Also- provide canned food at room temperature or slightly warm- cats will track a scent trail to canned food, but will turn their nose up at food directly from the fridge, no matter how appetizing a flavor.

Provide cold, fresh water in a location away from food. In the wild cats will always travel away from the site of a kill before drinking water.

Need Area: Exploration

In nature, a wild cat’s territory is changing every day: plants grow and die, winds change, prey and predator species cross through, all providing scents and visual stimuli.

Providing an interior environment that is not static can take some creativity but there are many simple steps an owner can take to encourage cats to explore and interact with their environment.

  1. Table-top fountains – moving water provides an incentive for increased fluid intake which is a plus, especially for male cats. Cats will also play in the water, and the sound and movement of the water provide a multi sensory experience.
  2. “Busy Box” commercially available or homemade busy boxes provide play and exploration possibilities – cut small holes in a shoe box, add a couple of toys: ping-pong balls, feathers, catnip mice, some food treats and a rock or paperweight. Tape the lid shut. A cat will use his paws to “forage” in the box trying to remove the toys and treats.
  3. Toss a few ping-pong balls or a walnut into the bathtub.
  4. Grow a pot of cat grass (wheat or barley grass) and a catnip plant.
  5. Keep a basket of small toys on the front porch and toss a toy for the cat each time you return home from work.
  6. Use toys on a wand or string for interactive play sessions to avoid having fingers and ankles become prey objects. Laser pointer lights are also a good interactive toy.
  7. Several companies have produced videos and dvd enrichment programs which provide auditory and visual stimulation in the form of birds and small mammals on-screen.
  8. Window perches provide a safe and comfortable place for cats to observe the outdoors, this can be as simple as cleaning off the backrest of the couch to installing carpeted shelves along the windowsill.
  9. Vertical exploration- cat trees, climbers and furniture arrangements that encourage cats to climb, balance and jump provide a physical and mental workout.
  10. Food motivated toys – hollow balls, Kitty Kongs™, ice cubes made with tuna water, chicken broth, or catnip encourage cats to play by providing food rewards for interactive behavior.
  11. Paper bags and cardboard boxes provide places for exploration as well as a base for hunting and ambush games.

The primary thing to remember when considering exploratory enrichment is to rotate the toys and vary the stimulation on a regular basis. There is no need to provide all types of toys and enrichment all the time. Keep a toy box or closet with a variety of objects and change what is available to the cat every week or so.

Goals of Environmental Enrichment

While for many responsible owners providing an enriching environment for their family cat may seem like something done for the “spoiled” felines among us, there are many positive results for the family as well. Cats who have their needs for territory, stalking, hunting and exploration met have reduced instances of inappropriate elimination, misdirected aggression, obesity, destructive scratching, stress and anxiety related behavior. A healthy, well muscled cat will have a more robust immune system and  show fewer signs of age related disorders such as arthritis. And a happy, active cat will be a more enjoyable pet for the whole family.