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How to keep your cat intellectually stimulated: environmental enrichment for indoor cats

Published on 12 Nov 2021

What do cats need from life and what is environmental enrichment? 

Have you ever considered environmental enrichment for your cat? You are most probably already doing a lot to enrich your pet's environment without necessarily giving it that name. Environmental enrichment is the process of making changes to an animal's environment to allow them to perform normal behaviours, to encourage adequate physical activity, and to maximise the animal's comfort. Good environmental enrichment can provide huge benefits for your cat's health and happiness.

An important principle of animal welfare is that animals of all species should be entitled to the following “Five Freedoms”:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour 
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

While these principles are most often referenced in relation to farm animals and zoo animals it is really important to bear them in mind for our pets too. They are completely dependent on us for their health, happiness, and general well-being. 

In this article we will discuss ways you can enhance your indoor cat's life. Most of this will  be applicable to cats who spend some of their time outside too!

Why Keep Cats Indoors?

Keeping cats indoors is undoubtedly safest for them, and for our native wildlife. There are many hazards that threaten cats in the outside world, including the risk of being hit by a car, of being attacked by other cats and dogs, being bitten by snakes and ticks, and the risk of going missing. 

While there are many advantages to an indoor lifestyle, it is also important to consider that by keeping cats inside we are taking away a lot of their opportunities to keep themselves intellectually stimulated and entertained. For this reason, it is particularly important to think about ways to enhance our cats' indoor lifestyles, so they can be happy as well as safe.

Toys and Games

Play is an important aspect of life for cats and a great way to keep indoor cats stimulated and active. While kittens are almost always keen to play and often with lots of energy, adult cats should also be encouraged to play too. There are hundreds of wonderful toys available to help entertain our cats. 

There are lots of ways that cats can play, independently, with you, or with other cats or even with friendly dogs in the household. Try to have toys of different types, for example, some which you use to play with your cat, and some which they can independently play with. Some toys are puzzles to exercise your cat's mind,  while others encourage physical exercise. Variety is the spice of life!

Some examples of puzzle toys:

Some examples of exercise toys:

(Please note, laser toys are unsuitable for dogs, so keep this for your cat only.)

  • Every cat should have a tunnel, they love to charge through them or just hang out inside:
  • It is great fun to “go fishing” for your cat and play games with wands.
    These sorts of games help cats to perform the behaviours they would normally do when hunting. Do remember never to let your cat or kitten bite any part of you in play, always restrict rough play to toys. If your cat becomes too worked up by predation type play, stop the game and give them space to calm down again. 

Having a range of toys but only having a few out at a time will help to keep your cat interested. Inspect toys for damage periodically and replace them if they are broken. 

Grey Kitten in wooden box

Feeding Fun Times: Environmentally Enriched ways to feed your cat

Nearly every day that I see cats in practice I find myself quoting from a wonderful lecture I went to at the World Feline Medicine Congress that “no cat should get any meal for free”. Then I feel a bit guilty because quite often my own cats are presented their dinner in a dish. But ideally, cats should be working for food as often as possible. 

In the wild cats will hunt for numerous small prey items each day, so if we just give them their food in a dish we are robbing them of a lot of their thinking, planning, and physical activity for the day. 

There are numerous ways to make your cat companion work for their supper, including:

As with toys generally, it is good to rotate which puzzle feeders you use so your cat does not become bored. 

You can also make your own puzzle feeders, for example by hiding kibble in toilet paper rolls, or getting your cat to fish their wet food from the bottom of a plastic cup (messy, so I would suggest doing this in the bathroom!!)

You can even enrich your water provision for your cat, as some cats like drinking from a water fountain.

On occasions you are offering food in a dish, ideally the dish should be wide enough not to squash the cats whiskers. Ceramic, metal, or glass bowls can be easier to keep clean than plastic ones.  

A room with a view, a throne to look down from and a comfy bed

Cats really like to feel in control of their environment and love to have comfy places to rest. Many cats really love to have vertical spaces to escape to, in other words, a high place from which they can look down upon their loyal subjects. Placing a bed on top of a bookshelf or similar is one option, while some people build specific wall shelves just as cat hidey spots. 

A lot of cats will also enjoy looking out the window, and this provides interest to their day.

You can even attach a viewing platform directly to a window for them:

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Kazoo Pet The Lookout Deluxe Window - PetCulture.jpg

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Note that windows and glass doors can also be stressful for cats if another cat in the neighbourhood looks in at them. If you see your cat being distressed by another cat at a specific window or door, it is a good idea to try to block visual access for the cat outside. 

Offering a few different bedding options is also helpful to maximise your cat's comfort. Many cats like places they can really nestle into such as these:

Or an even snugger sleeping bag style:

Classic open beds are also popular, as mentioned, you can put them on top of a bookshelf or similar so your cat has a comfortable high throne.

Your cat may enjoy sleeping in lots of other places, such as boxes, couches, or in your own bed, it is fine to share with your cat if you're both happy with the arrangement, and it is like having a purring hot water bottle at a constant perfect temperature. 

Manicures and Pedicures

One of the behaviours cats strongly need to express is scratching things with their claws. Cats scratch to keep their claws in good condition, to exercise and stretch, and as a form of marking communication.

Unfortunately, scratching behaviours can cause lots of misunderstandings between cats and their owners, as often the things they scratch may be things you don't want scratched, such as your furniture. 

Most cats like to scratch both vertically (eg on a scratching post) and horizontally (eg on the carpet, but some have a preference for one more than the other.

It is fine to trim the sharp points from your indoor cat's nails. (Cats who go outside need their sharp nails for climbing to potentially escape from hazards.) 

Get your cat used to claw trimming by taking it slow, only clipping as many claws at a time as they will tolerate, and using a gentle technique. If you are unsure how to trim your cat's nails you can ask for a demo from your vet or vet nurse. There are also some great tips here: Trimming your cat’s claws.

So, to avoid your cat scratching things you value, you want to provide them with things you are happy for them to scratch. As described above it is good to offer them both vertical and horizontal scratching options. These days there are lots of cardboard-based scratching options, along with more traditional carpet and rope scratching posts.

Here are some vertical options: 

Here are some horizontal options:

Providing them with a few different choices will let you see what their scratching preferences are. 

Friends Do cats need Social Enrichment.jpg

Outdoor Enclosures

Just as cats enjoy the view from a window, if you have the capacity to add an outdoor enclosure to your home most cats will enjoy the chance to feel the wind on their whiskers, the sunshine on their fur and perhaps the opportunity to graze on some grass or dust bathe. 

Cat enclosures are a great option to allow your pet to venture safely outside. If you're in an apartment you can net in a balcony if this is within the rules of your building.

If you have a yard you can install either a freestanding enclosure, or even better, connect it to your house via a tunnel. This would be the cat's preference as they like to be in control and choose whether they are inside or out.

There are lots of companies that specialise in building cat enclosures, or if you are handy you could build your own. Just make sure it is really secure.

If you're putting your cat outside in a freestanding enclosure for part of the day make sure they have all the resources they need including comfy places to sit, shade, shelter from the elements, and water.

Safe outdoor spaces can really enhance the quality of life for indoor cats and add interest to their day.

Toilet time

Do you really need to consider environmentally enriching your cat's toilet? 

Yes, it's definitely beneficial to your cat to put some thought into your cat's litter tray conditions. Ideally cats like a tray with deep litter, and a tray that is at least one and a half times longer than the cat. This can be tricky with big cats, but it is their preference!

Cats usually do not like changes to their litter type, and they really like the tray to be scrupulously clean. Generally cats prefer unscented litters that are soft for them to dig in. My cats have always used Breeder's Choice Cat Litter which is both environmentally friendly and Australian made.

The location and number of trays is also important. Often trays end up in noisy locations like the laundry, which can be quite stressful for cats, especially if the machines start vibrating them at an inopportune moment. Choose a discreet, quiet part of the house if you can, where your cat can have privacy. 

Ideally, you should have a number of litter trays, with the recommendation being the number of “cat families” in the household, plus one extra. A cat family is a group where the cats groom each other. So, say you have two cats who groom each other you have one cat family, then to have one extra tray, you need a minimum of two litter trays. 

If you have two cats that don't groom each other you have two separate individual cat families so you should ideally have three litter trays. 

If your cats have complex social relationships and it is hard to calculate how many cat families you have, you can always just go one tray per cat plus one extra tray. 

In an ideal world, the litter trays would all be in separate locations. It can be tricky to find enough appropriate locations in your house sometimes, but doing the best you can, and cleaning trays at least daily maximises the chance you can keep your cats toileting in comfort, and minimises the chance of them choosing to go somewhere inappropriate.

Friends? Do cats need Social Enrichment?

Humans in the house provide important social enrichment for cats, but should you get your cat a cat? It can actually be incredibly stressful for cats if you introduce a new cat, especially once either of the cats are about three years old, and have reached social maturity. Cats are not usually keen to spend time with cats they do not know.

Unless you know your cat is particularly friendly with cats generally, I would usually advise against getting another cat as a “friend” for your existing cat as it can really backfire if they do not get along. If you do want to get another cat, it is easier to introduce a kitten to an adult cat, than to introduce two adult cats. 

It is also generally easier to introduce a puppy to your existing cat, than to bring in a new cat. All introductions should be slow and careful, and your cat should be given escape routes and places to retreat to, so they are not forced to socialise with the new pet more than they are comfortable with. 

If you are starting out with cat ownership and are acquiring a kitten though, it is a great idea to get two at the same time, as they are likely to get on well with a cat they have grown up with, especially if it is a sibling. 

If you do have a multi-cat household it is important to make every cat feel they have adequate resources, so enough beds, scratching posts, litter trays and high spots that they can all access them when they want to. 

Additionally, when you feed them, cats prefer to eat in a quiet location out of sight of other cats. Ideally in a multi-cat household, your cats should also have escape routes so they can avoid each other if they want to. 

Other tips to make indoor life more relaxing

All cats are individuals so you will come to learn your cats' preferences for things such as toys, food, and resting places. If you want to help your cat have a general sense of wellbeing you can plug in a Feliway diffuser or give them zylkene. This is an especially good idea in times of stress for your cat such as around the time of moving house, or new people or pets arriving in the household. If you think your cat continues to feel anxious or seem stressed, talk to your vet. 

Indoor Hazards

While being indoors has many safety advantages there are a few specific things to be careful of, with indoor cats.

  •  Plants and bouquets of flowers can be dangerous to cats, especially lilies which are deadly. Before allowing plants and bouquets into your home, check that they are cat safe. One good source of information is the ASPCA Toxic and Non Toxic Plants list. You can also check with your vet. If in doubt keep plants out of reach of your cat, or don't even let them inside the house. Consider growing some cat grass for them to allow them to satisfy their wish to chew on grass.
  • Obesity is a particular risk for indoor cats. So it is important to keep an eye on their weight and cut back if they seem at risk of becoming what the internet has adorably termed a “hecking chonker”. It can help to feed your cat at least 50% wet food, and use puzzle feeding as described above. 
  • Male indoor cats are at a higher risk of idiopathic cystitis (a sore inflamed bladder, which can sometimes turn into a medical emergency where the bladder becomes obstructed). A number of factors contribute to cystitis including being overweight, stress, inactivity and a dry food diet. So keeping your cat slender, hydrated, active and entertained is best to avoid this disease. If your cat is ever straining to urinate, seek veterinary attention. If they develop an obstructed urethra (blocked bladder) it is a medical emergency. 
  • Balconies and high windows pose a risk for cats, and it is not uncommon for cats to fall and be injured. Bear this in mind and consider netting your balcony and fitting strong screens to your windows, if you live in an apartment. 

If you have any questions about ways to enhance the life of your indoor cat, don't forget that your vet is a great source of general pet husbandry tips, as well as medical advice. A stimulated well-resourced cat is most likely to be a healthy cat. 

References

  1. Making your Home Cat Friendly, accessed 28/10/21
  2. The Five Freedoms, accessed 31/10/21
  3. What is environmental enrichment?, accessed 31/10/21
  4. Scratching on furniture and carpets, accessed 31/10/21
  5. Basic Indoor Cat Needs, accessed 31/10/21
  6. Trimming your cat’s claws, accessed 31/10/21
  7. Playing With Your Cat, accessed 31/10/21
  8. Feeding your Cat or Kitten, accessed 31/10/21

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Heather Lance

Heather Lance

Veterinarian

Heather has been a practising vet since 2008 and finds daily joy in meeting people and their beautiful fur kids. With a love of all animals, Heather has a particular fascination for cats. Heather and family are blessed to live with three beautiful moggies, Charlie, Kitani, and Surinda, and one splendid Golden Retriever, Pickle.

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