Enrichment for House Cats

Renee DiPietro, CVT
Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator

Since Ancient times we have held the domestic cat (felis domesticus) as a beautiful and noble companion, a reliable pest eradication system and even as an object of worship. The joys of sharing our lives with cats are many. One attribute of cat behavior is their independence when compared to dogs. This is one reason why cat owners are at times inclined to let their cats roam.

It is agreed by many veterinary health professionals and cat owners alike that the safest way to keep a cat is in an indoor environment to protect it from the inherent hazards of exposure to the outside. Some of the dangers that are inherent in most outside environments include exposure to infectious disease and parasites, toxins, traffic, wild and domestic predatory animals, and battles with other cats.  Cats allowed freedom to roam outside tend to have a much shorter lifespan, often well under 10 years while the indoor cat tends to live to between 15 and 17 years. The fate of many beloved cats becomes unknown to their families when one day they disappear without a trace never to return home again.

Wildlife professionals also advocate for keeping cats indoors to protect small wildlife such as song birds. Free ranging cats are suspected to be responsible for the deaths of millions of small wild animals each year.

Simple solution, right? Let’s just keep cats indoors.

In actuality it is not that simple. Not everything about living an indoor only life is best for our friend the house cat. There are trade- offs to keeping cats solely indoors that contribute to physical and mental health issues and to behavior problems. To make a long story short, living indoors can in some ways be stressful and unhealthy for your feline buddy. The cat is a complex character, starkly individual, and inherently more sensitive to deficits in care or daily routine then is the dog.  With the quiet joy of cat guardianship can come a series of health and behavior problems when cats are not provided with the optimal environment.

The cat is a precision hunter, obligate carnivore, and masterful athlete, an animal designed to be a lithe, active creature of nocturnal nature.  As with any animal the most appropriate indicators of its proper husbandry are found by studying its natural history.  Our feline friend is meant to roam, climb, stalk, observe, kill, and contemplate.

As cat lovers, we strive to protect our cats from the many dangers of outdoor access by keeping them confined to our homes. While these are acts of love and protection, the practice of keeping cats indoors can significantly alter the occurrence of instinctual, intellectual, and physical pursuits essential to health and mental wellbeing. When we rob our cats of their natural life style, no matter how good our intentions, we set on course a domino effect of potential problems.

Obesity, inappropriate elimination, hair plucking, destructive scratching of household objects, rough attack play directed at owners, excessive vocalizing, disturbing nocturnal activity, ingestion of foreign objects, and general anxiety are all examples of the consequences that can be sequelae  of confining our cats to an indoor habitat.

What is the answer to this quandary? This is where enrichment designed especially for the confined kitty comes in. Many of these problems can be eliminated or greatly reduced when we provide our cats with an environment and activity that speaks to their natural senses and instincts. How do we enrich our cat’s lives and support their natural instincts and behaviors? There are many opportunities.

That cats are solitary creatures is a widely held myth in my opinion. While some cats do seem to prefer to live alone, many cats enjoy living with one or more companions. Interaction with a feline friend can help to decrease loneliness, boredom, and at times prevent behavior issues.  Cats can frequently be found grooming and sleeping with their companions.  Play between cats can promote physical and mental health and as an added bonus provides entertainment for human companions.

Getting a pair of kittens instead of just one can be an optimal way to provide your cat with a lifelong playmate. It can also reduce damage in your home caused by your kitten’s attempt to play with anything and everything.  It is also possible to introduce a second cat later but as cats get older and more set in their individual ways it can be more challenging to add a friend. Slow non-invasive introductions and patience, are the key to helping your cat accept new feline family members.

Protected access to the outdoor environment is in my opinion the optimal way to support your cat’s happiness and tendency to follow its instincts. This can be achieved in a variety of ways. Some people take their cats on supervised outings on a leash and harness. This can be very stimulating for your cat and if done safely and on a regular basis can provide both physical and mental exercise integral to a happy cat. Other ways to provide this type of access is to build or install a protected outdoor environment for your cat. There are many products available on the market such as fencing to create an escape proof and protected area in your yard. This can be as big as your imagination and your budget will allow and include many natural and fabricated obstacles and enhancements such as small trees, hammocks, hiding spaces, gold fish ponds, and man-made climbing obstacles. For those with less space another option is a catio, a smaller screened in access to the outdoors that still provides your cat with more than window enjoyment of the outdoors. Catios and Cat fences can be purchased pre-fabricated or built by those with a little construction sense.  When a cat fence or catio is attached to your home via a window or cat door it allows your cat the freedom to go in and out as it wishes. This freedom provides exercise and mental stimulation that will support your cat’s health and often prevent the formation of behavior issues. The catio to the right was hand built by my daughter’s fiancé.

Not everyone has the luxury of creating protected out door spaces for their cats.  For those who live in apartments or other types of housing without out a yard, out door access may be impossible. In these situations we can still be creative and provide our cats with sources of enrichment.  Carpeted cat trees and scratching posts, toys, and play sessions between you and your cat can all go far to increase overall happiness for your and your cat. Playtime with your cat can also strengthen the bond that you have with your feline companion.

Some cat owners are able to build elaborate indoor environments for their cats such as shelves or ladders that support the feline instinct to be at higher elevations and that provide continous exercise.

My friend Mandy, a veterinary technician, has built a cat room in her home for her cats to enjoy.

Photo credit: Mandy Masching

There are great resources for ideas on how to provide enrichment for your house cat. The Indoor Pet Initiative https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats is one such resource with a wealth of information for providing the best for your indoor housecat. You can also get great ideas from veterinary professionals, pet sitters, and other pet professionals.  Creating a healthy and happy indoor home for your cat(s) will pay both you and your felis domesticus back many times over in so many ways. I challenge you to see what you can do for your indoor cat today!