Providing Enrichment for Indoor Cats (by Iris Katz)

Indoor cats live longer and healthier lives as compared to cats that live or spend most of their time outdoors. Outdoor cats may receive more mental and physical stimulation from climbing trees, exploring their environment, and using their predatory instincts to hunt for food. Dr. Marty Becker of Vetstreet. com. wrote that outdoor cats have shorter lifespans because they are more vulnerable to predators, disease, accidents, parasites, and cruelty inflicted by humans.

Dr. Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB of Texas Veterinary Behavior Services agrees that keeping cats indoors extends the average cat’s lifespan but has also deprives them of opportunities to engage in normal predatory/foraging behavior and it has limited their environment in both size and variety. As a result, indoor housecats may receive limited environmental stimulation that may cause several behavior problems such as hyperactivity, apathy, destructive chewing, excessive grooming, attention-seeking behavior, compulsive disorders and aggression. Due to limited exercise indoor cats are at high-risk for health disorders caused by obesity like heart disease and diabetes.

Fortunately there are many ways to provide indoor cats with an active and enriching environment.

  • Provide items for scratching, climbing, resting and hiding:

Scratching is a natural cat behavior and even cats that were declawed still retain their instinct to scratch. Scratching posts serve as an outlet for this instinct and may prevent damage to furniture and carpets. The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center recommends positioning scratching posts (vertical and horizontal styles) throughout the house. Additional scratching posts are recommended for multi-cat households. Most cats seem to prefer scratching posts made from rough-textured material they can shred. Please stabilize the posts so they don’t move or tip over and frighten the cat.

Climbing   Catsnaturally like to climb and view their domain. Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s “My Cat from Hell,” recommends setting up a cat “amusement park” consisting of carpet-covered posts, cat trees, kitty condos to explore, and platforms of varying heights that could have dangling toys attached. Owners will be entertained by the feline antics especially if multiple cats are involved!

Resting   Cats select favorite places in our homes when it’s time for a nap. To keep us on our toes (like my cat does) different rest areas may be chosen but are usually on a soft surface in a quiet part of the house. Some owners may purchase a cushy bed only to have it rejected!!

Hiding   When cats feel stressed or nervous (such as when noisy guests visit) so the cat may seek a quiet, private, comfortable hiding place such as under your bed or curled up behind a pillow. Allow your cat to have that place of privacy to rest and alleviate stress.  Feliway is a product that helps to alleviate stress and can be sprayed on the cat’s bedding or comes in a plugged-in diffuser.

  • Provide sensory stimulation:

Visual StimulationHang a bird feeder outside of a window and provide a sturdy perch from which your cat can observe the creatures that come to dine!   Videos and DVDs for cats are available for them to view and might capture their attention. Our cats have been fascinated with the Nature programs on PBS!

Auditory Stimulation.  Before you leave the house, play quiet music, preferably classical, that has been scientifically proven to keep animals calm.

Tactile Stimulation. When your cat’s body language and vocalizations are communicating “I want you to pet me with a display of sweet meow, soft eye expression, purring, gently touching you with a paw, and a head butt). Your cat expects you to drop whatever you are doing, and comply to his demands by slowly petting your feline companion! Your cat will tell you when he’s had enough petting by twitching his tail that says. “I’ve had enough petting, so stop!” If you ignore this body language signal your cat could bite and/or scratch you! Gently grooming a cat can be a pleasurable form of tactile stimulation as our long-haired mix will confirm and has trained my husband to brush and comb her daily!  

  • Provide outlets for the cat to use its natural  predatory/hunting behavior:

Toys   Cats may be attracted to attacking a large stuffed toys that are at least half the size of the cat and have a large surface for the cat to grab with its four paws and mouth. The toy might be more enticing if it has catnip on it. Note that not all cats respond to catnip. Toys can also be as simple as a wadded up tossed piece of paper or a plastic soda bottle top to be batted around. Owners can create or purchase a peekaboo box with holes in it with toys placed inside for the cat to dig out. A string or feather attached to a stick also stimulates play.

Food stimulates foraging and hunting behaviors. Dr. Lore recommends using techniques like feeding cats from toys like Buster Cubes, Roll-A-Treat balls or hollow rubber Kongs.  The cat’s food can be divided into several small portions placed into small containers with holes in them that can be hidden   around the house so the cat has to search for the food source. Food can also be placed inside empty toilet paper rolls with the ends folded over. Tossing a single piece of food onto a hard surfaced floor stimulates the full predatory sequence of chase, pounce, kill, and eat. This game named “Crunchy Toss” in our house is a favorite with our cat and it must be played when our dogs are either outdoors or snoozing!

  • Offer safe opportunities for your cat to be outdoors:

It is possible to teach a cat to wear a harness with a leash attached and safely walk with you! Arden Moore, author of Happy Cat Happy You and The Cat Behavior Answer Book recommends buying a harness designed for cats that is made from woven nylon with quick-release snaps and adjustable straps around the chest, belly and neck that securely hug your cat and make it impossible for him to escape. Before putting it on allow the cat to investigate it then gently put it on, give lots of praise and and offer yummy cat treats, and leaving it on for only 15 to 20 seconds, then remove it. Repeat this a few times, end the lesson and repeat it the next day. Moore recommends gradually building up the time and your cat’s positive association with the harness inside the house. The leash can be attached and the cat can drag it around. Follow your cat while you hold the leash and gently direct the cat’s movements from room to room. Sessions shouldn’t last more than 2 minutes. This procedure requires patience and a sense of humor! Eventually the harnessed cat leash walking might be attempted outdoors in a quiet area.

  Another alternative is to build or purchase a fully enclosed “Catio” that allows your cat to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors.

  • Provide quality time with your cat through direct interaction:

It is an immensely satisfying when we develop a partnership with an animal. This begins when owners establish a daily routine with their pets because animals feel more secure when there is predictability in their lives. Despite their independent nature cats, can be trained to perform tricks as we all have seen on You Tube! Positive training techniques such as clicker training, food rewards, and luring with toys and lights are powerful motivators. The popular dog sport of agility has “gone to the cats!”  Organizations like the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) and The International Cat Association (TICA) have been including cat agility competitions at cat shows and this sport has increased in popularity. The obstacles are smaller versions of the obstacles used for dog agility and include hurdles, hoop jump, A-frame, tunnels, steps and weave poles. Six to fourteen obstacles are arranged in a circle. During competitions handlers are allowed to lure their cats using feathered toys or lights, but food treats are not permitted. The cats must complete the course within specific time limits. For more information visit the CFA and TICA websites. Several videos of cat agility are available online for you to view! Agility may help to keep cats fit and trim, but veterinarians caution owners to watch for signs of joint pain and soreness.

By enriching our cats’ lives we also enrich our own!