Preventing Boredom for Your Indoor Cat

My cats have been indoor cats for many years.

After losing two cats to outside dangers when I was in my 20’s, I promised all future cats that I would work harder to keep them safe and I have. Granted, though, not all of those cats wanted to be indoor cats especially the ones who had been born feral. Being outside was all they knew even when rescued as kittens.

So I decided to learn as much as I could about environmental enrichment and found that it’s a fascinating subject. By helping to keep my indoor cats interested and amused as well as providing physical exercise for them, I also alleviate boredom. If my cats aren’t bored, they’re less likely to get into trouble. That makes all my research worthwhile as far as I’m concerned.

What is Environmental Enrichment?

Environmental enrichment came into being primarily for wild animals kept in captivity. Old fashioned zoos kept animals in cages or enclosures designed more to keep the animal enclosed rather than keeping it amused or entertained. Unfortunately, those living conditions lead to mentally unstable (even mentally ill) animals.

Now, however, interesting enclosures are more the norm. For example, today an enclosure for a big cat may have dirt, grass, bushes and shrubs; maybe even trees. There will be hiding places, heights for the cat to climb to and rest. There may even be a small stream of water running through the enclosure. This is basic environmental enrichment 101.

More advanced environmental enrichment for this big cat might consist of feeding him by scattering food throughout his enclosure. He’ll get exercise moving around looking for the food and his brain will be stimulated by hunting for it. He’ll have to think, look for the food, and smell it. His food might also be hidden in food dispensing toys. Perhaps a chunk of meat might be hidden in a cardboard box or frozen in a block of ice.

Environmental enrichment can also include introducing the animal to new things. Smells from essential oils dotted throughout the enclosure are great for getting the animal up and moving and hunting. Did you know big cats like catnip as much as our domestic cats? Catnip in a cardboard box is a great toy.

Environmental enrichment is the process of creating a richer living place for an animal so that the animal can use his natural instincts and behaviors, and in the process can use his body, senses, and brain to live a better life.

Photo courtesy pablo on flickr

Photo courtesy pablo on flickr

Food is Life

Life depends on food, so when introducing environmental enrichment, food is usually the first thing to use. Many cat owners begin by moving their cat’s food at feeding time. Don’t make a drastic change, however. If your cat is used to his food being in a specific spot and suddenly it’s not there and is nowhere to be seen, your plan will backfire because your cat will be upset, angry, scared, and hungry. Instead, move the food a few feet away or across the room in a visible spot. A few days later move it again but still in a visible location.

When your cat is expecting to look for his food, then add a few challenges. Divide his food into three or four parts in empty yogurt containers (the kind with wide top openings). Put one container of food in a visible spot where he might expect to find it and hide the others in the same room but in slightly harder to find locations. Help him find the first container, then once he’s eaten the first part of his meal, go to the second location and call your cat, encouraging him to find the second container of food. Then help him find the next one, too.

As your cat gains experience hunting for his food, then don’t help him as much, although your participation is still important. After all, your companionship is a big part of his happiness, too. As far as your cat is concerned, you’ll both be hunters finding the food.

Food Dispensing Toys

There are several food dispensing toys on the market expressly for cats. (The ones for dogs are generally too big and too heavy for cats to use.) Most of these toys are designed to put treats or kibble in them, then the cat must manipulate the toy to get out the food.

Some of these toys are balls that the cat needs to roll for food to fall out while others are puzzles. One that my cats enjoy is a flat piece of plastic (the size of a serving tray) with sections. One section has attached bowls so that the cat must scoop the food out with a paw. Another has wavy raised sections too narrow for him to fit his face between so again, he must scoop the food out with his paw. Additional challenges on the board require the cat to think, experiment, and use his brain to figure out solutions.

You can make an easy food dispensing toy by folding in the end of the cardboard paper towel tube. Put some food in the tube and then fold the other end. A couple of holes in the side of the tube can release bits of food as the cat plays with the tube. A plastic water bottle can be used the same way.

Photo courtesy Susan_3115 on flickr

Photo courtesy Susan_3115 on flickr

Cats Like Cat Trees

There’s a reason why cat trees are so popular and are found in so many shapes, sizes, and forms; cats love them. Most cats can easily learn to scratch on the cat tree rather than on furniture (a bit of catnip helps) and the cat trees also provide hiding and resting spots.

I have several cat trees for my cats and have them in different rooms of the house. In addition, each cat tree is different. This keeps things interesting; plus each cat has his own likes and dislikes.

I have found that most cats like the trees with upright supports wrapped in rope. This is an overwhelming favorite for scratching. Plus, the rope is different enough from our furniture that a cat using the rope-wrapped supports is going to be less likely to scratch on furniture.

I also choose tall cat trees as all of my cats have liked tall resting and hiding spots. I think the cats like the visibility from a high spot. Plus, the dogs can’t bother them if they’re sleeping in a tall cat tree.

Random Objects of Interest

To use the cat trees as a part of your environmental enrichment efforts, sprinkle some catnip here or there, varying the spots you use. You can also hide a new cat toy in a favorite resting place or place something unique and new on the cat tree. A feather dropped by a bird outside or a sea shell that you find on the beach will both be eagerly inspected. A pine cone, some clean blades of grass, some rose petals, or a non-toxic leaf off a tree are all fun. After visiting a friend who has sheep, I brought my cats a handful of fleece from the sheep. Wow! That was exciting and kept the cats occupied for an hour as they sniffed, shredded it, and each took of with a small piece of it. Plus, the pieces remained fun toys for days until they were so shredded they disappeared the next time I vacuumed the house.

Use Your Windows

Even indoor-only cats are interested in what’s going on outside. A simple shelf placed under a window where the cat can see (and hear) birds in a tree will become a favorite resting spot. If there is a bird feeder handing from that tree your cat will have the equivalent of kitty television.

A cat tree placed in front of the window can work, too, especially if it has some resting places at the window’s height. Make sure the cat tree has a heavy base so it won’t tip over if the cat energetically jumps on or off it when excited about a bird.

Be cautious of opening the window and trusting screens to contain your cat. An excited cat who sees a bird at the feeder or a lizard on the fence can shred a window screen and end up outside. What you can do, though, is use a pet guard that is made for screen doors and cut it down to fit your window screen. If possible, place it on the inside of the screen so the cat is faced with the guard rather than the screen.

Photo courtesy norse Oh on flickr

Photo courtesy norse Oh on flickr

Moving Water

I have to admit, when I first saw water fountains made for providing moving drinking water for cats I was skeptical. Why go to that much trouble when my cats will drink water out of a bowl? Cats love moving water, and since many urinary tract problems are the result of cats not drinking enough water, the fountains can help amuse your cat and help make sure he drinks enough water to stay healthy.

There are several different models so chose one that will hold enough water for your cat or cats, and that you have the space for it as some of them are bigger than others.

Place a rubber-backed bath mat under or in front of the fountain as cats playing in the water can splash and make a mess.

You are the Best

Our cats today are companion animals; they need us and are happiest when with us. Even if your cat is asleep on the cat tree in another room, don’t underestimate him; he knows where you are and when you get up to do something. How else does he appear if you open the cupboard where the cat treats are kept?

So although environmental enrichment is important, it’s not enough if you don’t also spend time with your cat. He needs play time with you, petting, grooming, silly kitten talk, and cuddling. Of course, all of this time with him is good for you, too, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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