Environmental enrichment key to friskier felines

Help your veterinary clients with these simple tips to keep cats healthier and happier indoors.
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Feb 19, 2013

Housecats might be safer living indoors, but I believe they’re becoming fat and brain-dead. And those aren’t the only complications our feline friends face from lack of environmental enrichment.

Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has linked the lack of stimulating surroundings to interstitial cystitis, which may in turn lead to inappropriate elimination. And inappropriate elimination is a significant cause of owner relinquishment. The truth is, a lack of stimulation can cause a litany of additional behavioral issues as well.

And what about contentment? It seems that cats are happiest just being cats—pouncing and hunting. It doesn’t matter that they’re hunting treats in food puzzles or pouncing on a feather toy that disappears behind the sofa. They’re still being cats.

So what can we do?

We could encourage pet owners to allow their cats back outdoors to wander freely, but that solution might not be in the cat’s best interests. It’s true, outdoor cats are not as likely to become bored or obese, but they do get hit by cars, are attacked by wild animals, could nibble on toxic plants or substances, and can get into fights with other cats. They also don’t always make good neighbors—leaving “gifts” in neighbors’ yards and causing neighbors’ indoor-only cats to spray in their homes (a territorial response to the outdoor cats on their territory).

Instead, how about we teach our clients how to enrich their cats’ environments? Enrichment is just a fancy term for manipulating the environment to suit the animal’s normal behaviors or encouraging the animal’s behavior to match the environment.

With cats, there are two issues to keep in mind:

•Balance: While enrichment can prevent behavioral problems, address and help to solve existing behavioral issues, and even improve feline health, too much change can lead to anxiety, which could lead to illness.

•Individuality: All cats are different and just as we have different preferences, so do cats. What seems like a fun idea for one cat, might lead to stress or just bore another cat.

Here are a few ideas to help to enrich the environment and lives of indoor-only cats:

•Reuse and recycle: Leave out an empty box on Monday. On Tuesday, place the box upside down, put something on top to weigh it down, and cut “mouse holes” in the sides; cats can reach inside for treats you’ve hidden. On Wednesday, turn the box right side up and sprinkle catnip inside. On Thursday relocate the box to another room. On Friday, place a small ball or squeaky toy inside the box.

•Look up for inspiration: Use elevated spaces, such as window ledges, cleared bookshelves, or cat trees. If you’re really ambitious, build catwalks. In multi-cat homes, the more raised surfaces for individual cats to call their own, the less conflict between cats.

•Use visual aids: Outdoor bird feeders are entertaining for both people and cats. Some cats also enjoy watching DVDs featuring birds or reptiles. And laser lights can be great, especially for kittens or active cats. With lasers, it’s important that throughout the game and at its finish, you drop a piece of kibble or a cat treat so the cat actually gets to “kill” something.

Learn more enrichment techniques through The Indoor Pet Initiative.