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This article is courtesy of Emily Parker from Catological.
Cats lead very active lives in the wild where they have endless opportunities to stalk prey, explore, and climb to their heart’s content. But the cat living inside your home doesn’t get these same opportunities, which can lead to boredom.
A bored cat can result in behavioral and health problems. What can you do to help your furball? Enter: Cat Enrichment.
What is Cat Enrichment?
Cat enrichment is anything you can do as an owner to provide stimulation for your cat. Providing a scratching post and putting out toys are examples of easy cat enrichment ideas.
I’m also a huge proponent of throwing out your cat’s food bowl and replacing it with a puzzle toy. If you do nothing else for your cat’s enrichment, do this!
However, these aren’t the only examples, and implementing just these will not provide enough stimulation for most cats.
Despite being creatures of habit, cats are also curious. Cats need their routine, but they need stimulation as part of that routine.
Why is Cat Enrichment Important?
Historically speaking, cats were domesticated rather late when compared to dogs. They still have a lot of the wild instincts handed down from their ancestors.
Their hearing sensitivity and night vision make them keen hunters. Their sharp, retractable claws allow them to climb walls and trees and defend themselves from predators or other cats.
With their agility, flexibility, and an incredible sense of balance, cats have amazing body control.
While keeping your cat indoors is the best thing for his overall health, indoor life deprives it of the stimulation that occurs naturally in the wilderness. It is important to keep your cat’s body and mind properly stimulated for optimum health and longevity.
Just like a human child or a dog, a cat that spends most of his time indoors with nothing to do may develop behavioral issues.
Some of the behavioral issues you can expect from an under-stimulated cat include:
- Litterbox issues
- Eating disorders
- Territorial aggression
- Spraying (small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces)
- Excessive meowing
There are other possible causes for each of these. But if your cat is fine medically, and there is nothing in your cat’s history (such as trauma) that would cause these behaviors, consider these symptoms as signals that your cat needs more enrichment.
Therefore, the very best type of cat enrichment is the type that mimics their wild surroundings as closely as possible, allowing them to engage in the same dopamine-releasing behaviors as their wild ancestors.
Enrichment also encourages exercise. The archetypal “fat house cat” exists for a reason. Indoor cats need toys to chase and towers to climb to stay trim and sleek. Cat enrichment keeps your cat happy and healthy.
Cat Enrichment Ideas
Now that we know why cat enrichment is important, here are some ideas you can try with your cat. A cat’s sense of curiosity leaves them susceptible to boredom, so remember to switch out and introduce new enrichment items every so often.
Introduce New Toys
Manufactured interactive toys have feathers, bells, and holes that encourage carrying, chasing, and pouncing.
You can achieve the same result with homemade toys. Ribbons, balls of yarn, old socks, and even crunchy, balled-up pieces of paper make great, interesting toys for cats.
Your cat will likely have his favorites. Even so, try introducing some new ones occasionally for variety.
Build a Fort
Forts mimic the irregular terrain of a naturally occurring landscape.
Put out some paper grocery bags or cardboard boxes of different sizes. Combine with a draped sheet to give your cat new areas to explore. For extra credit, try hiding treats or catnip in the fort.
Cats have an incredible sense of smell, so introducing a novel scent to their territory will stimulate this sense.
Catnip is a classic choice. You can purchase it, or you can grow it yourself. Sprinkle it around their favorite perch or tuck it inside a toy.
Other options include sticks from the yard, flowers and plants, food packaging, and essential oil. Just double-check everything to make sure they are safe for cats – many essential oils are potentially dangerous.
I like using a scent stick of wild animal urine (available at most hunting stores). The solid, deodorant-type sticks aren’t offensive to use indoors, in my experience. I can’t even smell mine. I just roll it on a piece of paper, hide it somewhere, and leave.
Cats are climbers… so enrich your cat’s environment with places and things he can climb.
Provide your cat with cat trees, hammocks, and/or ramps,
Installing a window perch is a great idea for most cats. It allows them to climb as well as view the outdoors. On a window perch, your cat will be stimulated while viewing birds, animals, people, or even insects. You can even put a bird feeder outside the window to entice your cat to use the perch.
If you are a DIY’er, the possibilities are endless. Re-purpose an old ladder or use shelving to provide vertical and horizontal paths.
Use Food to Enrich Your Cat’s Life
Doesn’t it always come back to food? Wild cats hunt for their food, so why wouldn’t an indoor cat enjoy the same?
Hide kibble throughout the house to make your cat “hunt” for his dinner. Some puzzle toys are even designed to hold food, which is a great way to push your cat to use his problem-solving skills.
Depending on your cat, you can move their food dish to a different spot on rare occasions. Nobody knows your cat like you. So only do this if you think it will stimulate but not overstress your cat.
Get Creative with Video/Audio
Some specialty pet stores sell CDs and DVDs for cats, but you can find plenty of free content online.
Cats enjoy videos of birds, squirrels, fish, and running water. They also enjoy bird calls, gentle music, and the sound of kittens meowing. Watch your cat’s ears prick up as his attention peaks when he is stimulated in this manner.
Play with Your Cat
Seems obvious, right? But often our busy schedules get in the way and it is hard to find the time.
It is important to make the time. Your cat needs interaction with you… daily.
There are a ton of toys out there specially designed so owners can play with their cats. Many of these toys are made of fabric strips, tassels, or feathers, to remind the cat of delicious prey.
Try some different ones. Your cat will likely show no interest in some but go crazy for others.
When playing, move the toys around in different patterns to make it look like a fleeing rodent, or a bug, or a bird, and see how your cat reacts. You’ll soon find out what he likes. Together, you’ll have a crazy amount of fun!
Avoid laser toys. These are often frustrating for the cat, since they can never catch them! They are often related to aggression or stress issues.
Teach Your Cat Tricks
Many cats like learning tricks! If your cat is one of them, then spend some time teaching your cat a few. It is mentally stimulating for your cat and strengthens the bond between you.
Start with simple cues like “sit”, “come”, and “fetch”, and always use positive reinforcement by giving a treat when your cat shows the desired behavior.
Clicker training certainly makes this easier.
Advanced: Build a Catio
A catio is an enclosed outdoor space where a cat can be “outside” without actually being outside.
Constructing a catio can be expensive and labor-intensive, but it’s worth it if you are devoted to your cat’s well-being. Chain-link is a popular material for building catios because they allow a lot of visibility, are structurally sound, and will keep your cat inside his catio.
Once your catio is complete, you’ll have a safe place where your cat can watch birds, smell some new smells, and commune with nature.
You can also purchase pre-made catios on Amazon!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.