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Cat enrichment

Clever and expressive, cats make great companions for humans. That’s why about one-third of U.S. households have at least one cat. However, they also have diverse care requirements to satisfy their complex and unique personalities. According to experts in veterinary behavioral medicine, cats need much more than a litter box and kitty kibble.

Cats are hunters. Their lifestyle reflects the predatory skills and behaviors needed to trap food in the wild. A cat’s day includes the need to satisfy six distinct instincts – sleeping, stalking, trapping, playing, eating and grooming. Cat enrichment is the practice of providing domestic cats with an environment that encourages these natural behaviors and promotes optimal health. Dr. Jill Sackman, BluePearl’s Michigan medical director and a veterinarian in the behavioral medicine service, explains how to enrich your cat’s life to promote health and wellness.pets and playing concept - black and white cat playing with feather toy

Cats are instinctively solitary and independent creatures, especially when compared to dogs and humans. That’s why the first step in enriching your feline home is to give your cat his or her own space and belongings. This is particularly important in multi-cat homes, because cats can experience tremendous stress when forced to share their environment with other cats. Provide each cat with his or her own water bowl, food dish, rest area, clean litter box and toys. If you are adding a new cat to your home, look carefully for signs of stress (we’ll explain these signs later on).

Grooming and cleanliness are important to your cat, so try to maintain a tidy and hygienic environment in your cat’s space. Keep in mind that your cat’s sense of smell is at least nine times stronger than your own, so avoid using harsh scents such as cleaning products and air fresheners around your kitty.

The next step is adding structures to your home that encourage a cat’s natural movements and behaviors in the wild. Cats climb to hunt prey in the wild, so include elements of vertical space such as cat towers, cat stairs or window perches. Cats can also experience enrichment from the outdoors, which is why a “catio” – or patio for cats – could be a great addition to your home. Catios allow your cats to see and smell nature while minimizing risks. Click here to learn more about catios. If your cat is comfortable in a harness, taking him for a brief walk every day can also stimulate his senses.

Feeding is an important area of cat enrichment. Providing your cat with uniform diet placed in a single location can lead to two major issues – boredom and obesity. Remember that stalking and trapping are important aspects of a cat’s daily life. Rather than feeding your cat in the same location, hide his food around the home so he has to “stalk” to find it. Also, consider providing a variety of foods with different textures and tastes to help pique his interest and curiosity.

Toys are also very important for cats, but simply leaving a few plush mice on the floor will not provide proper enrichment. Domestic cats are excellent at spotting, tracking and pouncing, and they have developed a distinct vision for movement.  It is your responsibility to be your cat’s play partner and provide toys that you can use to stimulate movement. Look for toys that have pieces you can twirl, dangle in the air or drag across the floor. Feather wands or interactive toys with prey-like objects like mice or birds are ideal. But be aware that cats have a tendency to swallow anything string-like, which can lead to a trip to the emergency room.

Set aside at least ten minutes every morning and evening to play with your cat, and put the toys away afterward so your cat will get excited to see them again later.  Take the time to figure out what types of toys your cat prefers. Most cat toys are inexpensive, making it easy to provide a wide range of fun for your kitty.

Because you are the source of your cat’s enrichment via play, food and cleaning, your cat may become distressed if you are away from home for an extended period of time. If you plan to travel away from home for more, it is best to have a trusted sitter provide play and feeding time for your kitty.

So how do you know if your cat is enriched rather than stressed? Pay close attention to your cat’s behavior and know the signs of stress. Signs of stress in cats include elevated heart rate, vocalization, lack of appetite and hiding in the home.

It may surprise you to learn that urinary complications are also a sign of stress in cats. Veterinarians aren’t exactly sure why, but stress can cause inflammation of the bladder, urethral obstruction or feline lower urinary tract disease. Signs of urinary complications include inability to urinate, frequent trips to the litter box, blood in urine and vocalization during urination. This is considered a cat emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention at your local emergency pet hospital.

On the other hand, cats with an enriched life and environment are typically engaged, relaxed, playful and free of stress.

“Cat enrichment is truly a welfare initiative,” says Dr. Sackman, “The importance of providing for your cat’s primal instincts is often understated. There are many small things you can do within your home to drastically improve the enrichment in your cat’s life.”

For DIY home improvement ideas for your pets, check out our pet projects for the home Pinterest board.

For more information on cats’ behavioral and enrichment needs, visit the environmental enrichment resources and references guide by Ohio State University.