What is Cat Enrichment?
Enrichment is the action of enhancing the value of something. What this means for our domesticated cats is enhancing their quality of life by providing anything that stimulates their natural behavior like foraging to eat, physical movement, social contact, predatory and hunting outlets, climbing, and problem solving. Stimulants should be something that increases good behavior diversity introduced in a way that is not scary or stressful to the cat.
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Without enrichment, cats can develop behavioral, attention-seeking issues like aggression, anxiety, urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, eating disorders, or other disorders like compulsive grooming or scratching. The animals most at risk: captive animals in zoos and sanctuaries, and our own pets.
Cats went through an evolutionary shift in being domesticated by humans. As feline welfare has changed, so has the environment in which they live. Before domestication, cats lived, hunted, climbed and explored outside where they had a rich diversity of experiences and stimulants. While domestic cats have a safe environment indoors with humans, they are happiest in an environment that simulates outdoor instincts.
Instead of ushering cats back to the outdoors, the compromise is to add quality to their environment that allows them to practice their innate behavior inside the safety of their home. This is called enrichment, and there are endless ways to enrich your cat’s life.
Replicate Feeding Behaviors
Natural feeding behavior involves seeking out the food available to them. To help stimulate this instinct, you can use food puzzles, interactive toys or hide small bowls of food among the cat’s living area like their cat furniture or in their hiding spots; the idea is that your cat will spend a portion of their day activating their foraging instinct by hunting for their food. This is especially helpful if you’d like your cat to explore a particular area more.
Start out easy with any new enrichment plan. Try hiding food in places they will easily find and then slowly change the hiding place to a more challenging location. Increase the challenge by incorporating boxes, bags, plastic cups; your imagination is the limit! Remember to keep your cat’s skills and abilities in mind. You know your cat best.
Domestic cats are still predators. They thrive on this instinct and need to practice hunting in a positive way or their practice can turn to more inappropriate things like your feet, your furniture, or other cats in your home.
Novelty is important when determining the right predatory play for your cat. Rotating the toys every few days will ensure that your toy stash remains new and interesting. If you notice that one of your cat’s favorite toys is being ignored, try putting it away to swap it for another toy.
Cats also love to watch a toy in motion, so don’t be discouraged if your cat doesn’t physically interact with the toy. Watching and stalking a moving toy is still a fun and stimulating experience for cats. Your cat will tell you what is an enriching experience for them.
We get along well with cats because the are social creatures; they thrive with daily interaction by humans or other pets. Natural social actions can include mutual grooming, resting together, and playing together. Continue to build a relationship with your cat through play and physical affection.
Physical affection, like petting, is two-way communication. Take care to listen to your cat when petting them. Pet for 3 to 5 seconds then wait to see if your cat solicits more attention with a head nudge or maybe by pawing at you. Listening to your cat’s method of communication will increase your relationship without overstaying your “petting welcome”.
Providing Vertical Space
Our domestic cats’ wild relatives hunt and rest in trees as well as on the ground; cats feel safe and secure when high up. In many zoos and sanctuaries, providing vertical space is a requirement in humane housing of smaller wild felines. Having vertical space helps with anxiety because your cat can fully let down their guard when sleeping which helps with stress recovery.
In addition to being a stress relieving element in your cat’s environment, adding vertical space frees up your floor and can also reduce stress in multi-cat homes. Your cats will have more space to move, hide, sleep and overall fewer places to compete for.
The location of their vertical furniture matters as well. Place their furniture by windows to increase their visual stimulation and in quiet places to ensure they feel safe when sleeping. If feasible, try rotating the furnitures’ locations or adding new furniture to an existing setup to maintain novelty and generate interest. Variety of enrichment is best for ensuring your cat keeps up with good behavior.
Scratching and Deep Stretching
Providing appropriate scratching items (whether vertical or horizontal) is essential in maintaining your cat’s health as well as creating a positive outlet for a natural behavior. Scratching is a type of communication, so be sure to put their scratching item(s) near a window, sleeping area or a door; this will give them an outlet where they most likely want one and feel most comfortable.
Cats enjoy scratching items made of sturdy material like wood, sisal rope, rough fabric, and cardboard layers. Training your cat to use an acceptable scratching item is easier than one might think. Note: Do not manually move their paws over the surface you want them to scratch. This can create the opposite effect and cause your cat to become anxious of that item. Instead, put an incentive on the item like catnip, treats or toys and then reward your cat with treats each time they scratch the preferred item.
Other Environmental Enrichment
Adding new and interesting elements to your home will keep your cat curious and physically active. Other ways to enrich their environment are including cat-friendly plants like cat grass (an easy to sprout grass that’s safe for cats to eat), a cat drinking fountain, a bird feeder outside their favorite window, a Catio (an enclosed outdoor cat porch), or a cat stroller (if your cat is the adventurous type).
An enriching environment allows your cat to harness their natural behaviors and instincts which will increase their overall welfare and thus, helps to prevent mental and physical disorders. Very little is better than watching our cats enjoy the things we’ve given them to explore and play on. When our cats are happy, we are happy because they contribute to our quality of life too.
AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines
Artificial prey as behavioral enrichment devices for felines: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0168159187902528
Using Environmental and Feeding Enrichment to Facilitate Feline Weight Loss: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1439-0396.2005.00611_1.x
Environmental Enrichment: Practical Strategies for Improving Feline Welfare: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.jfms.2009.09.011