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Cuyamaca Animal Hospital’s Guide to Environmental Enrichment for Cats

Aside from having a furry companion to love and care for, having an indoor cat has other benefits. Indoor kitties are known to live longer and have less of a risk of being exposed to disease or potential outside dangers. On the surface, choosing to live with an indoor cat seems to be “easier” than being a dog parent. Many cats are relatively independent and low-maintenance animals.

However, indoor cats are actually more likely to develop different behavioral issues, including but not limited to: 

Why? Indoor cats have a higher tendency to become mentally stagnant, bored, and stressed due to a lack of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment means creating an environment for your kitty that is mentally and physically stimulating and ensuring that the home environment is meeting their primal needs (like catching prey).


Here is how you can create and maintain environmental enrichment for your cat:

Food

Cats prefer to eat individually in quiet locations where they won’t be threatened by other animals or startled by sudden movement. For instance, while kitties are eating, they can become startled by an appliance beginning operation unexpectedly like an air conditioner or refrigerator kicking on. These are small ways you can be mindful of where your kitty eats.

Another best practice is to offer a new diet in a separate, adjacent container rather than removing the usual food and replacing it with the new food. Natural cat feeding behavior also includes predatory activities, such as stalking and pouncing. Try stimulating these feeding situations by hiding small amounts of food around the house or putting dry food in a treat ball. You can also toss kibbles of food if your cat will chase and eat them!

Water

First and foremost, always keep your cat’s water fresh and clean. Be sure to clean her food and water bowls regularly. Cats also tend to drink water down if it is filled to the very top. Beyond that, it’s helpful to know that cats like water that moves (such as the way water moves in natural sources). Consider using a water fountain or turn the faucet on low and see if she’s interested.

Some cats don’t like their whiskers to touch the side of the bowl, so you may want to use a wide one. You can also add meat or fish-flavored ice cubes to the water. The idea here is to encourage more water-drinking in your cat, as they can become dehydrated especially if they are on a kibble diet. Consider offering more canned  (wet) food and adding flavored water/broth to the dry food. 

Litter Boxes

Enhanced management of the litter box is essential for cats, especially those with cystitis. Litter boxes should be accessible in several locations throughout the house in quiet, convenient locations that provide an “escape route” if necessary. The golden rule of cat ownership is to have 1 litter box per cat + 1. So, if you have 2 cats, you should actually have 3 litter boxes. 

We know it’s tough, but litter boxes really should be cleaned daily and completely changed out weekly. Although tempting, hooded litter boxes are discouraged as most cats prefer to not feel confined when going to the bathroom. As far as sizing goes, we recommend litter boxes that are greater than 1.5 times the length of your cat. 

Space

Your cat’s physical environment should include opportunities for scratching (both horizontal and vertical), climbing, hiding, and resting. Many cats prefer to monitor their surroundings from elevated vantage points, so climbing frames, hammocks, platforms, raised walkways, shelves, and window seats may appeal to them. When cats have alternative forms of marking (as with cheek marking and rubbing), they are less likely to urine mark.

Playing a radio to habituate cats to sudden changes in sound and human voices may also be useful. Consider providing visual stimulation by playing videos for them (such as leaving the TV on), especially if you are gone for an extended period of time throughout the day.

Providing your cat access to outdoors is also helpful, even if just a few hours. If you live in a dangerous area, then consider building an outdoor enclosure. Try walking them with a halter!

Play and Attention

One of the most important things you can do for your kitty is to help her avoid boredom. Cats enjoy playing with toys that are small and that move, mimicking prey characteristics. Many cats also prefer novelty, so a variety of toys should be rotated or replaced regularly. Lasers are also a favorite, but make sure you reward with a treat so that your cat doesn’t become frustrated.

Your cat also requires petting and grooming fulfilment, and not just from themselves! Spend at least 15 minutes a day interacting with your cat through petting and grooming (as with a brush they like), and see how their mood improves.

Conflict Management

It is most often the threatened cat who is more likely to develop elimination problems, particularly in multi-cat households. The causes of these include competition for resources (space, food, water, litter boxes, safe spaces, and attention). In severe cases a behaviorist should be consulted, and you may want to consider behavior-modifying medication. Provide a separate set of resources for each cat, preferably in locations where the cats can use them without being seen by other cats. 

Consider your cat’s perspective if you have more than one cat or if you have a dog. No matter how docile your dog may be, he or she still may represent a predator to your cat, as your cat is small prey themselves! To ensure that your cat feels safe, she must be provided with avenues of escape that can be used at any time. Cats also may perceive rough play as predatory, so playing with your hands is discouraged. 

Pheromones

Pheromones are chemical substances that transmit highly specific information between animals of the same species to affect emotional statuses. Feliway Multi-Cat, a feline facial pheromone, was developed to decrease anxiety-related behaviors in cats. The effects of these pheromones are likely improved by combining these pheromones with environmental enrichment or drug therapies. We actually use Feliway here at Cuyamaca Animal Hospital to help cats adjust to veterinary appointments. Other scents to try include catnip, silver vine, tatarian honeysuckle, and valerian.

As you can see, cats are actually a lot more high-maintenance in ways us humans may not expect! Finicky felines need all the support they can get so that they can live long and happy lives with their favorite humans. 

Bring your cat in to see us at Cuyamaca Animal Hospital so we can go over the ways you can improve environmental enrichment for your cat. Call us at (619) 448-0707 and we can go over specific recommendations based on your unique cat’s individual needs.


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