Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats: The Purrfect Place to Stay
By Elizabeth Racine, DVM October 22, 2018
It’s a welcome sight: you come home from another long day at work to find your cat curled into a ball on your couch, the perfect picture of contentment. We all know that cats love to sleep, but sleeping too much can be a sign that your cat is bored. Many other signs of boredom - such as destructive scratching or aggression - are far less endearing. Too often indoor cats are touted as pets that take care of themselves, when in fact they require a great deal of stimulation and exercise. Keeping cats indoors undoubtedly keeps them healthier and extends their lifespan, but it can also deprive them of expressing some of their natural behaviors. Fortunately, you can provide all the stimulation of the outdoors at home with a few simple modifications.
Cats love to survey their territory from a high vantage point. Your cat needs vertical space to encourage his natural climbing behaviors. Climbing also gives your cat the ability to get up and away from other pets or children in your household, providing a safe space to relax out of reach. Cats generally prefer their perches to be located in high-traffic areas, allowing them to watch over the comings and goings of the household.
There are many different climbing structures on the market, but you don’t necessarily need anything complicated. Shelves, window seats, or even the top of a bookcase all make great perches. Just make sure anything your cat climbs is sturdy, provides good footing, and is easy for him to get up and down.
Senior cats are prone to arthritis, a painful inflammation of the joints, which may make jumping and climbing difficult. Senior cats still enjoy perching in high places or sitting in their favorite window – they just need a little more help to do it. Pet stairs and ramps can help make the climb easier, or you can put a chair near a favorite perch to shorten the distance your cat needs to jump.
Scratching is a normal behavior and giving your cat an appropriate scratching surface will prevent him from taking his boredom out on your furniture. Cats can be picky about their scratching surfaces and you may need to experiment to find a solution that suits your cat’s individual preferences. Some cats prefer horizontal scratchers while others prefer to scratch vertically. Some like to scratch carpet while others prefer a more abrasive texture such as sisal. Ideally, you should offer your cat a variety of options in different locations of the house. Scratchers should be tall enough for your cat to stretch to his full length, and sturdy enough to not move when he is scratching.
Has your cat already destroyed a piece of furniture? Before you toss it in the dumpster, cut some fabric off and use it to build your own scratching post. You’ll have a post made from a texture your cat already loves, which may save your replacement furniture from harm.
Outdoor cats don’t have their food served in a bowl! They spend a significant portion of their day finding and hunting prey. Ditch the food bowl and encourage your cat to work for their meals. This will not only keep them busy, but it will also prevent the excess weight gain often caused by snacking out of a bowl of dry food all day.
There are many different puzzle toys and slow feeder systems on the market which require your cat to work for one piece of food at a time. However, it is easy to encourage hunting behavior without any special equipment. Pouring your cat’s dry food into an empty egg carton will make him use his paws to pull out one piece at a time. You can also cut holes into a soda bottle to make an easy DIY rolling food dispenser. Or simply hide small amounts of food around the house for your cat to find and enjoy.
Cats can be picky and may refuse to work for the same boring old kibble they used to eat freely from a bowl. You can help your cat transition to this new routine by first using treats to stimulate his interest, then gradually incorporating increasing amounts of his daily meals.
The outdoors is an ever-changing environment for your cat, but that doesn’t mean your home can’t be as well. Cardboard boxes and paper bags make excellent hiding places, and they can even be arranged into a maze for your cat to run through. Novel scents, such as synthetic hunting scents from the sporting goods store, can be dabbed on toys or bedding for your cat to investigate. Placing a bird feeder outside a favorite window can keep your cat entertained for hours. You can even find movies and apps designed specifically for cats!
Providing plants for your cat to chew on and play with is a great way to bring the outdoors into your home. Catnip and cat grass are easy to grow indoors and are particularly enticing for your cat. Remember that many house plants are toxic for cats, so be sure to do your research before bringing new plants home. A great resource for this is the ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants List
Your cat can also explore outdoors in a safe, controlled manner. An enclosed outdoor space, such as a screened porch or “catio,” can allow your cat to experience all the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors while still keeping him safe. Some cats can even be trained to walk outdoors on a leash. To do this, start by having your cat wear an appropriately sized break-away harness and leash in the house for increasing amounts of time. Offering tasty snacks can help your cat learn to associate the harness with positive experiences. Once your cat is used to the harness, you can start making short trips outside. For your cat’s safety, always keep him under your direct supervision while he is wearing a leash. Never attach the leash to a neck collar or any product that is not designed to break away easily.
It’s no secret that your cat should have toys to play with, but good enrichment involves more than tossing a few toys on the floor. It’s no fun to play alone all the time! Cats are natural born hunters and prefer to chase and pounce on a moving target. Your cat needs active play-time with you daily. This not only provides exercise and mental stimulation, but it also helps strengthen the bond between you and your cat.
Offering a wide variety of toys can help keep your cat entertained and stimulate his natural behaviors. For example, large soft toys can encourage pouncing and attack behaviors, while smaller toys can encourage batting and chase play. Some multi-function toys – such as the Petozy Sisal Cat Scratching Toy – can provide multiple ways to play. If your cat frequently gets bored with his toys you can keep things exciting by starting a toy rotation that changes every week.
Try to set aside at least a few 5-10 minute sessions of active-play time with your cat daily. Cats that have particularly high energy levels or those prone to certain behavior problems may require more play time to keep them stimulated and help expend excess energy.
For an indoor cat, your house constitutes their entire world. This can be frustrating for a species born with an instinct to roam a large territory. Environmental enrichment is of the utmost importance as it will help you keep your indoor cat healthy and happy. For more ideas and current research on enrichment, visit The Ohio State University’s Indoor Pet Initiative.