Jan. 6, 2020
By Victoria Schade
Your cat is probably living a good life. Her food bowl gets filled on a predictable schedule, and she’s got a soft place to sleep, a selection of cat toys that occasionally catch her interest, and a soft lap waiting when she wants snuggle time. But you might be surprised to learn that your cat could be missing out on an aspect that could make her life even better: daily enrichment.
Enrichment improves an animal’s well-being by tapping into instinctive behaviors, like hunting and foraging, while at the same time encouraging play and creativity. The mental stimulation from cat enrichment activities can help improve your cat’s behavior while strengthening your relationship with her. Enrichment gives cats a safe outlet for normal cat behaviors like scratching, scent-marking and scent exploration in a way that will keep her happy and keep your couch in one piece! Here are some cat enrichment tips for bored cats.
Is your cat pacing, over-grooming herself, or is your cat meowing a lot (like non-stop)? Those behaviors might mean that she’s bored. Kristyn Vitale, cat researcher and PhD candidate at Oregon State University, states that these types of repetitive actions are known as stereotypic behaviors, and can be signs of psychological stress in the animal. Vitale adds that animals often engage in repetitive behaviors when their environment lacks variation.
“An owner may also note an increase in the cat’s problem behaviors, such as excessive vocalization or biting,” Vitale says. “If a cat does not have an appropriate outlet in which to practice normal biting behavior, say because it lacks enrichment or playtime, they may direct the biting toward an inappropriate outlet, like humans.” Adding cat enrichment activities to your cat’s daily routine can help to reduce these types of stress behaviors.
Introducing environmental variety into your cat’s life is easier than you think. The following options are just some of the ways you can provide your feline best friend with learning opportunities and stimulation:
Cat Training: Training your cat to follow simple (or not so simple!) cues is a great way to engage her brain. Many cats respond well to clicker training, in which the trainer uses a small plastic toy to mark the exact moment the animal performs the correct behavior, and then follows up with a small treat. To teach sit, you can either “capture” when your cat sits naturally with a click and treat, or you can use a treat to lure her body into position and click when she sits. To lure the behavior, keep the treat close to your cat’s head and move it in a straight line from her nose over her head and back between her ears. This motion will encourage her to shift her weight into a seated position. Then associate the word to the behavior by saying the word “sit” right as she performs the behavior. Within a few repetitions, you should be able to say “sit” and have your cat respond. “High five,” which taps into a cat’s natural pawing behavior, is another fun and easy trick to add to her repertoire.
Puzzle Feeders: Treat dispensing toys aren’t just for dogs! Cat puzzle feeders and cat treat toys range from simple ball shapes that release cat treats when swatted, to complex brainteasers that test your cat’s ability to problem solve. Some of the more challenging options might require you to act as an assistant coach. Vitale explains that if your cat is reluctant to work the feeder, or gives up easily, you might have to train your cat to make the association between pawing it and getting the food out. If you’re unsure about how your kitty will react to a puzzle toy, you can create an upcycled version before investing in one. Vitale suggests cutting small holes in an empty paper towel roll, filling it with food and then folding the ends over. You can adjust the difficulty of the feeder by varying the number or sizes of the holes.
Leash walking: Introducing your cat to outdoor leash walking is a fantastic way to broaden her horizons. The first step is to acclimate her to the equipment so that she has a positive association to wearing something new, like cat harness or cat leash. Allow your cat to investigate the pieces at her own pace before you attempt to put the gear on her, then pair the process of putting it on with something positive, like enjoying cat tube treats that she can lick off a spoon. Some cats might refuse to walk because of the unfamiliar sensation of being on leash, so Vitale suggests using a chopstick dipped in gravy to encourage her. She states, “Using the chopstick, lure your cat slightly forward and allow them to lick the food off the chopstick. Then next time, have the cat walk slightly further to be able to lick the chopstick.” Gradually fade the dependence on the tool so that your cat starts to engage with the world around her.
Scent items: We tend to overlook our cats’ sense of smell, but encouraging scent exploration is a simple way to provide daily enrichment. Vitale notes that cats naturally tend to hold home ranges where they encounter many unfamiliar odors, so it’s important for their welfare to present unfamiliar scents to them in the home environment as well. She adds that research with cat scent preferences found the scent itself is less important than offering cats a rotation of various scents. Presenting your cat with novel odors, like swapping cat toys with a friend or rubbing down a neighbor’s dog with a washcloth, provides enriching scenting opportunities. Vitale’s own cats are lucky enough to have daily exposure to a towel scented by their gerbil siblings each night!
Outdoor “Catio”: Vitale believes that safe access to the outdoors is essential for cat well-being. Whether it’s as simple as a screened window perch where your cat can watch (and smell) the world go by, or as elaborate as handmade outdoor “catio.” Enabling your cat to interact with the natural world outside the front door will increase her daily happiness. Vitale and her husband created a simple outdoor catwalk out of plywood and chicken wire for their cats, which allows them to go in and out whenever they choose when a divider door is open.
While it might be tempting to offer your a million different cat enrichment options, it is possible to overwhelm your cat into inactivity. Vitale states that research has found when animals are given too many choices, they may not opt for any of them, as compared to being given more limited options. And providing the same sort of enrichment without variety can also become boring for your cat. She suggests offering a rotation of options rather than presenting your cat with everything at once.
And keep in mind that scratching is an important part of cat enrichment. Vitale says that cats naturally scratch to scent mark, so if you don’t provide sanctioned outlets, your cat might opt to use your couch! She adds that many cats prefer to be high up, so cat trees and towersare an ideal way to enrich your cat’s environment while saving your furniture.