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Feline Enrichment 101: How To Get Your Cat Active

By Dr. Patty Khuly

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Got a couch potato cat? If your cat lives indoors, it’s likely a yes. 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, 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.”

What is 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):

Basic Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats

There are basic feline needs in order to live a generally comfortable life. These can range from the bare minimum to more involved activities:

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.)

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.

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).

Physical Enrichment Activities for Cats

Some cats are more energetic than others and need room to explore, maybe even prowl! Other cats may have packed on the pounds from being stagnant. If your cat needs help losing weight, or is just a “get-up-and-go” type, these enrichment ideas may help:

Scratching

Most cats have claws – and they want to use them! Scratching helps cats keep their nails in check, it feels good, and helps them become comfortable. Posts and boxes made of different materials, such as wood or jute rope, in different configurations can provide hours of amusement.

Climbing

Giving cats ample opportunity for climbing and jumping only makes sense. That’s what they do for exercise in the wild, too. Providing a “cat tree” or leveled shelves can help keep your cat entertained and aware – which leads us to our next point.

Perching

Cats are very observant individuals who like to know what is going on in their surroundings. Even the laziest felines will feel safer when they can see over their domain. Window sills, shelves, kitty condos or bridges… they all work.

Chasing

This is why some people keep Roomba vacuum cleaners. Did you know kittens can’t get enough of these? Cats are natural prowlers. Let them channel their wild ancestors by giving them plenty of moving, albeit fake, prey.

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. From fake mice to a simple string of yarn, I can guarantee your cat will dig it. 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, and any environment they go in, are cat-safe.

Mental Enrichment Activities for Cats

Cats are varying pets in terms of socialization – some love company and others thrive on a more solo lifestyle. Regardless, all pets need time and tools to provide mental stimulation.

Hiding

This is more-so for the aforementioned “solo cat”. Cats need time to decompress, sleep, and feel secure. Safe spots to sleep and hide are critical to a comfy, enriched existence. Make sure you’ve got lots of these such as fold-over cat beds, blanketed cat trees, or even a nice closet space.

Brushing and Petting

Of course this is enriching! And bonding, too. I equivalate this to when someone plays with my hair. It is relaxing but keeps the cat socialized.

Mental Toys

While we covered active toys such as string and fishing poles, there are more mind-centered games as well. Try playing with a laser pointer to help your cat track the dot through the house. Another option is interactive food dispensers. These keep your cat active, mentally and physically, while helping them to control their consumption (great for cat weight lose initiatives, too!).

Plants and Other Miscellaneous Edibles

Catnip and indoor patches of edible grass can be great fun for cats. But you already knew that. Every cat owner loves to watch their beloved kitty’s eyes dilate, the butt wiggle of doom, and their final pounce. It keeps them active and distracted.

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