Feline Enrichment 101: How To Get Your Fat Cat Moving

Patty Khuly

Got a couch potato cat? If your cat lives indoors, it’s unlikely you’ll fail to respond in the affirmative. After all, indoor cats spend most of their days lazing about, hunting sofa, pillow, and windowsill, alike, in an apparent attempt to conquer the day one sunspot at a time.

Not so for their outdoor brethren. For all the perils the outside world poses (and they are numerous enough to recommend even the laziest kind of indoor living over most urban or suburban environments), these cats move about with far more vivacity as they enjoy the many privations of a world that’s constantly offering new and different stimuli.

Hence, their sleek and fit appearance relative to their indoor cousins.

But the need for increased activity isn’t just about the perils of excess poundage and all its health-related risks. It’s also to do with our cats’ daily degree of general engagement with the world. Because whether you like to admit it or not (and many of us don’t), our felines’ ultimate happiness absolutely depends on a term veterinarians and animal behaviorists call “enrichment.”

Enrichment, in the context of feline indoor living, means that cats’ are given ample opportunities to live a biologically appropriate existence consistent with the kind of normal behaviors they’d engage in outdoors. As a concept, it makes a great deal of sense, which is why the notion’s been gaining traction across a wide swath of veterinary medicine.

In fact, it’s become such a popular concept in cat medicine that The Ohio State University’s Veterinary School has launched a whole program to help combat the doldrums our indoor felines often confront. The Indoor Cat Initiative, as it’s billed, is a project designed to address all facets of feline enrichment. Here’s how it describes its mission with respect to animals in general:

“The fundamental importance of mental health to overall health and well-being has long been identified in human medicine. Poor welfare and chronic stress in animals can lead to and exacerbate many mental and physical health problems. When we as veterinarians embrace the connection between mental and physical health, we can offer some of the best in preventative and therapeutic care for our patients. Poor mental health in pets can lead to behavioral disorders, that, when left untreated, can be just as serious and disabling as physical diseases.”

The impact of mental health on physical health is why we veterinarians believe it’s our job to help tackle the problem of boredom too often left untreated in our patients’ lives. After all, how many diseases might we prevent should we effectively address our felines’ psychological states as well?

With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of all kinds of cool ideas to help enrich your cats’ lives (and help trim their bottom lines while you’re at it):

  1. Feeding and treating
    Catching food and finding interesting water sources is a constant “game” for outdoor cats whose importance to feline mental health we take for granted. So make finding food fun for your indoor guys, too.

    Hide small amounts in hard-to find spots you know she’ll eventually learn to look for, for example. Or toss treats like green peas or corn nibblers across the room. (You’d be surprised at how readily cats can be trained to adore these tiny, non-meaty tidbits.)
  2. Watering
    Water doesn’t have to be boring, either. Why else does running water attract cats? Sure, freshness helps, but the very evanescence of tap water in most households means it’s not only a fun game but an opportunity to interact with you, too.
  3. Elimination needs (aka, litter boxes)
    Let’s be honest, finding spots to pee and poop in is an engaging activity for lots of territorial species. Keeping your litter box fresh means endless opportunities to engage with a new bit of terrain. Adding more litter boxes can also help. Some enrichment experts advocate trying different shapes, sizes, and substrates (litters).
  4. Scratching
    Posts and boxes made of different materials in different configurations can provide hours of amusement.
  5. Climbing
    Giving cats ample opportunity for climbing and jumping only makes sense. That’s what they do for exercise in the wild, too.
  6. Perching
    Window sills, shelves, kitty condos, what have you. They all work.
  7. Hiding
    Safe spots to sleep and hide are critical to a comfy, enriched existence. Make sure you’ve got lots of these.
  8. Chasing
    This is why some people keep Roomba vacuum cleaners. Did you know kittens can’t get enough of these?
  9. Toys in general
    Gotta love the fishing pole toys, most of all, but you can be creative about it and turn almost anything into a toy. One of my clients even puts a rubber ducky in the toilet –– to her cat’s endless delight. Just be careful all your toy choices are cat-safe.
  10. Brushing and petting
    Of course this is enriching! And bonding, too.
  11. Plants and other miscellaneous edibles
    Catnip and indoor patches of edible grass can be great fun for cats. But you already knew that.

That’s just my short list. Check out OSU’s page (link above) for even more fun stuff, or Gina Spadafori’s book, Cats For Dummies, for a whole range of other fun enrichment possibilities. What are you waiting for? Get started!

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