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Designing an Enriching Environment for Cats

Environmental enrichment advice for better health & welfare of cats 

Cats are unique and complex creatures, they each posses their own personalities and behave in different ways when confronted with a particular situation. 


They are highly adaptable, capable of surviving in wide variety of surroundings and social conditions and have very specific needs when housed indoors (even outdoors). Cats are very curious, they possess hunting instincts and skills and are very much influenced by their environment. They require lots of stimulation and an enthralling setting to keep their investigatory and communicative behaviour.

While cats confined to indoor lifestyle generally live longer, contract less disease and are at less risk from car accidents or death, if deprived from expressing their natural activities, they may exhibit or develop unwanted behaviours and related health issues. 

Whatever the environment - indoors and/or outdoors (if there is access to outdoors) - it has to contain the resources needed for each cat to indulge all its species-precise aspirations. 
It’s important to understand what normal cat behaviours are, their social structure, what kind of environment they prefer to occupy and how cats prefer to express their behaviours. 

Understanding your Cat

Your cat is: 

1) A hunter – the cat has evolved physically and behaviourally to be an expert hunter motivated and determined by the sight and sound of prey. To be a successful hunter, the cat’s natural pace coincides when its prey (small creatures) is active; usually dawn and dusk. 

2) Emotionally sensitive – cats can feel pleasure, fear and frustration similar to humans. 

3) Territorial – cats would normally hunt, patrol and defend their area and are very attached to their territory. Cats don’t usually leave their territory so owners need to be sensitive to their desires. 

4) Scent sensitive – cats are highly sensitive to smells, sounds and vibrations unobserved by humans. Cats use their scent and sense of smell as a method of communication with one another and to define their territory. 

5) Agile – cats are physiologically designed to hunt silently and to escape danger through their flexibility and strength, they are physically adapted for short frequent spurts of activity rather than lengthy periods.

5) Self-reliant and like being in charge – cats are mostly lone hunters, independent soles and must remain in control at all times. Cats will hide and run away if they feel they’re in danger. They are also brilliant at hiding pain or signs of illness, they tend to stay silent so not to attract unnecessary attention, hence why pain and illness is difficult to detect and monitor in cats.

6) Highly aware – being a solitary hunter, cats are highly reactive and always alert to dangers. They are more susceptible to stress from sounds, sights, smells and the unaccustomed, they may react quickly or defensively if frightened or disturbed.


Consequences of lack of resources, adequate space and enrichment for cats of all life stages can result in undue stress, anxiety, health conditions and behavioural problems such as house soiling which is one of the most common problems in indoor cats, aggression, self-injury, related disease such as idiopathic cystitis and compulsive disorders like excessive grooming and scratching is also common. 

When your cat is restricted indoors, its territory is limited, so it is vital for the owner to make the environment challenging and stimulating

To decrease tension, enrich the mental and physical atmosphere and mimic a more natural environment, you should try and satisfy the cat's most crucial areas of enrichment. These are:
Sensory, Cognitive, Social, Food and Physical habitat whereas aspects of their environment can be organised into five basic classifications: physical, nutritional, elimination, social and behavioural. 

Environmental Enrichment Strategy Suggestions

#1. Physical Environment 

* Access to Elevated Area / Vertical space

The average inner-city apartment or home is too small for the typical cat. To ensure cats have a physical environment that is enriched, challenging and one that facilitates natural climbing, camouflage and hunting behaviour, it’s important to provide access to elevated areas which are suitable for rest, observation and safety from predators or strangers. 


Raised area ideas: wardrobes, cupboards, floating shelves, window perches, cat trees, wall and door mounted shelves.

* Bedding

Cats like to sleep in diverse locations depending on their mood or time of day. 


Your cat needs comfortable soft bedding or a synthetic thermal fleece to personalise their zone in a quiet area for sleep and recovery which will provide them with an extra security feeling, reduce stress and anxiety at different life and health stages.

Similarly, needs may change for senior or geriatric cats to supple and warm bedding with plenty of support as to prevent pressure sores and ulcers when/if they are immobile. 

* Ventilation / Fresh air

Provide fresh air and ventilation from an open window that your cat cannot escape or fall through. There are a variety of secure grills that can be installed to exposed windows that will allow exciting smells and breezy air to enter your home without risking your cat’s safety.

#2. Elimination  


* Litter containers 

Ideal number of litter trays in an indoor environment is one tray per cat plus one, placed in various discreet locations away from feeding areas and water bowls

Litter trays should be cleaned frequently and the litter should replicate the cat’s natural desire to use a sand-like material. Don’t expect an indoor cat to share their litter tray with another cat.



#3. Behavioural

* Scratching posts

Cats need to scratch to mark their territory, remain fit and preserve their claws. Claws can overgrow due to a reduction in movement and non-use of scratching post. 

Tall scratching post(s) with different variety of textures are highly recommended. Failure to supply necessary area(s), most likely will result in scratching of furniture

Scratching post(s) need to be high and strong enough to allow the cat to scratch vertically at full stretch, although some cats may prefer horizontal surfaces, the more scratching areas the better it is.

Creative solutions: hanging ropes, boards covered in carpeting for scratching, cat scratching cardboard stack and staircase cat scratching rail.

* Cat Toys

Ensure your cat has lots of toys to stimulate daily play and predatory behaviour with balls, ropes, fishing rods, tunnels, food dispensers, mice (not real ones!), DaBird, wand, snake toy, feathers, space station, Kong Kickeroo, Catnip Banana, cat dice and home-made toys. 

Laser penlights are widespread but can be frustrating for some cats as the light is impossible to catch. Rubbish can also be fascinating for your feline companion, especially things like; cork, walnut and rolled up piece of paper or tin foil thrown across the floor.

There are endless number of toys specific to your cat’s personality. You should provide toys that are suitable for lone play and also toys that you can use to play with your cat

Toys can become boring if they remain motionless in the same spot hence toys should be rotated to prevent the cat becoming uninterested with them. For a huge variety of feline toys refer to Jackson Galaxy.

* Novel items - Cardboard boxes, Paper bags and Wood

New substances such as paper bags (with handles removed), wood and cardboard boxes should be brought into the house on regular basis to challenge your cat’s sense of smell and desire to explore novel items. 
You can make playhouses from cardboard boxes as they are valuable hiding and play spots. A cardboard box placed on its side, allows easy access and a roof provides a safe place from perceived threats. 

For kittens and senior cats that may have limited mobility or agility issues, boxes, perches and shelves should be placed at lower height or at levels that can be reached to ensure ease of access. 

* Cat Safe Plants & Grass

Cat grass is essential, significant and beneficial for aiding of hairball elimination. It can be purchased commercially as cat-grass or grown from seeds. Similarly, unwelcome chewing can be circumvented by offering a variety of cat safe plants and grasses. Live planted greens and cat nip are some appealing options.

It’s very important to note that plants not toxic to other animals may be toxic to cats – such as associates of the lily family! Toxic plants or flowers should be removed from the home or kept in a secure area which your cat does not have access to.

* Private Spaces

Cats, like humans, need privacy and ‘time out’ from their owners and other cats, they need multiple places where to hide without being fearful of being found, such as inside cupboards, wardrobes, behind the couch or under the bed. We must respect these places and never disturb the cat while using their private area.

#4. Nutritional 

* Feline Feeding / Diet

Cats are solitary predators that consume small prey which they prefer to eat frequently and alone. Worldwide most pet cats live indoors and are fed highly palatable diets either ad lib, once, twice or three meals per day in a feeding bowl in one location.

Usually cats are given large volumes of food without specific consideration of each cat’s distinct energy requirements. This prevents normal hunting and foraging behaviour, leads to inactivity and obesity and negatively impacts your cat’s welfare.

Feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing is key with cats! Your cat’s daily allowance should be divided into numerous small meals and fed through the 24-hour period, using puzzle feeders whenever possible in conjunction with food foraging. 

Puzzle feeders or food puzzles are objects that hold food and need to be manipulated by your cat to release food. Puzzle feeders can be purchased commercially or made at home. Our favourite puzzle feeder which we use is the Trixie 5 in 1 Cat Activity Fun Board (seen below).
Hiding food encourages scavenging which mimics natural behaviour, increases activity, provides mental and physical stimulation and improves weight management.

Keep in mind that forcing a cat to eat in proximity of another cat (which they select to avoid) generates anxiety, stress and health problems.

* Water

Water is an imperative resource to cats and several bowls should be placed throughout the house. To provide interest and encourage drinking a variety of repositories should be placed away from your cat’s food. 

Pet drinking fountains and indoor water features are a drawing card: most cats love running water since it’s likely to be fresher. Collecting rain water can inspire fussy cats to drink. 
Cats prefer ceramic glasses, however stainless steel or glass bowls are also an option, plastic bowls tend to taint the water which is disagreeable to cats. Always fill the bowl to the brim and use wider bowls as most cats dislike when their whiskers touch the sides of the bowls

#5. Social 

* Cat-owner bonding

Inspire socialisation time and physical contact with yourself for those cats who like physical interaction. It’s imperative to let your cat dictate the type and pace. It’s best to respond to your cat’s approach rather than initiate it as it may be irritating or distressing for the cat.

* Grooming - Brushing

Long-haired cats need daily brushing otherwise their coats will mat while a short-haired cat can be groomed once or twice per week with either a fine-toothed metal comb or soft natural bristle brush. Start from the head all the way to its tail. Brushing will also prevent accumulation of fur balls within their stomach.

* Training – Cognitive Enrichment

Cats can be trained to perform many tricks, however unlike dogs, they don’t take kindly to coercion or rewarding by petting. Some cats are food driven and can even be clicker trained. 
Once you figure out their most desirable treat start with short sessions (a few minutes each day). The most important part is to make this a fun experience!

Target training, as displayed in this tutorial with Dr. Sophia Yin is also a wonderful way to start your kitty with techniques that can be developed upon. Training tricks should always be taught through positive reinforcement with lots of patience. 

Recent research suggests that teaching cats simple tasks such as giving a paw, sitting or high-five utilising food rewards may be an effective way to reduce frustration in indoor cats.

* Music & Videos for cats

Play calming music to ease anxiety and aid relaxation – preferably classical. 


Consider purchasing DVDs or playing entertainment cat game videos for your cats to watch and listen while you’re out of the house for intellectual and sensory motivation such as: www.youtube.com/videosforyourcat  

* Outdoor Access (where safety is an issue)

The decision to keep a cat indoors, outdoors or a combination lies with the individual owner. If possible, cats should have access to safe places outdoors, which is their natural environment. 

The outdoor environment can provide bigger space for interactive recreation. An outside enclosure or outdoor run protects your cat from injury, predators, aggressive dogs, intolerant humans and free-roaming cats which may increase risk of infectious disease exposure and allows your cat to have important stimulus. 

It’s crucial to have multiple outdoor locations for key resources whenever possible including access to fresh water, scratching areas and spots for elimination. 

Homes with outdoor-access flaps may be posing a risk of other cats or animals gaining access or introducing external scents, best to have a door or window flap designed to be operated by your cat’s microchip.

* Leash/harness walks

Leash walking is no longer for dogs only, your clever feline companion might be slightly perplexed to have a harness placed on them in the first few instances, however if you persevere with the use of rewards (i.e. food, toys), it will give you both a chance to explore the great outdoors in a safe manner. 

Once they grasped leash walking, you can take them travelling in the car as long as they don’t display anxiety symptoms. 

You can connect with other cat owners who explore the great outdoors and expand your cat community by heading to Catexplorer. Cat Explorer is a community & resource for people who travel with their cats.


* Massage your cat

Massaging the coat by stroking it along the fibres of the hair will benefit your cat in countless ways. Massage strengthens the immune system, relieves stress and anxiety, transmits the psychological benefits of touch to your feline, improves emotional wellbeing and overtime this can lead to reduction in muscle soreness and pain.

* Cat Agility

Cat agility is a fun sport or hobby in which competent cats are enticed through timed obstacle courses by their trainers or owners. 


Agility is a great way to play and exercise and improves your relationship with your feline companion and no longer for dogs only. 

Cats are fast, excellent jumpers, have brilliant short-distance visual focus and accuracy. Cats practice agility because it gratifies them, not their handlers. While cat agility is fairly new, it’s gathering momentum as it rolls through the show circuit. 


Feline agility competitions are mainly hosted in the USA; nevertheless, we hope the sport will take off in Australia soon. To learn more, head to
agility.cfa.org 

* Multi-cat Households

Multi-cat homes are very common nevertheless since cats are independent and aren’t reliant on social relationships, conflicts with other cats can be a source of significant stress that might not be recognised by owners. 

In multi-cat households, a safe place should have multiple entry points to ensure access cannot be effortlessly blocked by another cat. Similarly, separate resources must be provided for each individual cat.

For more on how to keep the multi-cat home happy, please visit icatcare.org/advice/.

Summary

To enrich your cat’s habitat, it’s imperative to distribute bedding, food, water bowls, toys, dishes, scratching posts in various locations. It’s also vital to understand that if your cat is constricted indoors, they are solely reliant upon you to provide them with opportunities to jump, run, chase, stretch, climb, explore and hide in addition to the basic requirements of food and water, company and fun. 

If for whatever reason you aren’t able to provide adequate care, obtaining a cat may not be the appropriate species for you or your household.

Environmental enrichment reduces stress and illness, makes happier cats, aids with handling at home and in the vet practice, strengthens the bond between owner and cat, decreases stress in multi-cat households, provides mental and physical stimulation and consequently prevents behavioural difficulties and improves overall Quality of Life of your cat!



Additional resources: Feline Enrichment & Feline Seminars, Workshops, Webinars & Events Facebook groups. 

Written by Melina Grin, March 2019 from Pet Nurture (all rights reserved) for Australian Cat Lover

About the writer
Melina’s love of animals began in childhood, when she would care for sick or stray dogs and cats while dreaming of becoming a Vet. While working in the Veterinary field she found a distinct interest and passion in Small Animal Rehabilitation and Feline Behaviour. Melina has many years of experience handling animals: her own, as well as pet sitting, cat minding, dog walking, nursing and rehabilitating her clients’ beloved companions. 

Melina is currently studying to become a qualified Veterinary Nurse. She also gives her time and expertise to several animal rescue events and festivals. Melina’s discovery of holistic natural therapies started several years ago following her own diagnosis of a recurring digestive disorder, which was treated successfully with alternative treatments. Then, when her beloved cats suffered from anxiety, skin, mobility and digestive conditions of their own, natural therapies and bodywork were used in combination with western veterinary medicine to bring them back to full health.

Melina is also the founder and admin of the newly created Facebook group: Feline Seminars, Workshops, Webinars & Events.

Bibliography

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Finka, L. (2016, March 21). Managing stress in cats: single vs multi-cat housing - is it that simple? UK: International Cat Care. Retrieved March 01, 2019
Medicine, I. S. (n.d.). ISFM Guide Feline Stress and Health. (D. S. Sparkes, Ed.) Wilshire, Great Britain. Retrieved March 02, 2019
Rodan, I. (2014, 05 28). Human-cat bond - the good, the bad, and the ugly. European Feline Congress, 9-12. Retrieved March 05, 2019
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