Cat health: Environmental enrichment

Posted on July 6, 2011 under Cat Topics

A cat with pet insurance sits on a ledge.

By: Dr. Jane Matheys
Associate Veterinarian
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

We all want the very best for our cats, and that is why many of us choose to keep our cats indoors. This ensures their safety by reducing the chance for pet health problems like injuries and disease, but it also produces some potential health risks of its own.

Cats in the wild are very active day to day, and are mentally stimulated on a continual basis by their surroundings. This is very different from how the typical indoor cat lives. Lack of exercise and minimal mental stimulation can cause physical and emotional stress. Science has found a connection between chronic stress and disease in humans as well as in pets. Chronic stress is thought to play a role in some of the common inflammatory diseases of cats such as interstitial cystitis (sterile inflammation of the bladder) and inflammatory bowel disease (chronic vomiting or diarrhea). Your pampered, well-loved indoor cat certainly may not seem to be under stress, but his or her health could be telling you otherwise. Because these conditions are often seen in indoor cats, it’s still important to consider cat insurance for your indoor pet.

Environmental enrichment is a way of making your home more like the great outdoors for your cat. There are 5 basic categories of life needs that all cats have: territory, food/water, sleeping area, entertainment/exercise, and litter box.

Meeting theses needs for your indoor cat in the most natural way possible to help reduce stress by replacing the stimulation and activity that he would enjoy as an outdoor cat. The goal is to look at how cats act in the wild, and try to simulate that in the home environment. Let’s take a brief look at how this applies to each life needs category.

Territory is of utmost importance to most cats, especially if they share the house with other pets. Even though some cats are very social, they are independent by nature and need a space of their own where they feel safe. Competition among cats in the same house is one of the most common causes for behavioral problems such as urine spraying, defecating or urinating outside the litter box, and destructive scratching. Each cat should have his or her own space, complete with a separate litter box, separate feeding station, and a separate space to spend time or sleep. Even though some cats may be OK with sharing space, you still need to provide this option.

Cats in the wild hunt for their food and may eat up to 20 small meals a day. This is where they get most of their exercise as well as water requirements. By keeping cats indoors, we have created a situation where they must only walk into the next room to eat. They no longer have to work for their food and are much more sedentary than their outside counterparts. They tend to consume too many calories for their activity level which can easily lead to weight gain and obesity with a greater risk of developing diabetes. Although many pet insurance companies cover diabetes, it’s important to monitor your pet’s health through food as well. I currently recommend a diet of mostly canned food to help ensure they get enough moisture and protein. Having fresh water available at all times is still critical, and many cats prefer moving water. This can be offered in the form of a fountain or fish tank bubbler placed in a bowl.

In addition to the proper food, cats need a sleeping place that is quiet and safe. Many cats like to be alone when they sleep, either curled up in or under something or often high up where they are safe and can watch their surroundings. Providing a choice of sleeping areas is ideal. If your cat chooses somewhere to sleep, there is probably a reason. Try to be accommodating if possible. Cats have a sleep and wake cycle that constantly fluctuates. In the wild, cats hunt multiple times a day, so they must nap often to maintain that activity level. It is ideal to provide a number of suitable and attractive napping spots to help keep them happy.

Many indoor cats are lacking in exercise and entertainment. This is easy to encourage, and the sky’s the limit in thinking of inexpensive, creative ways to get your cat moving in both body and mind. Many cat insurance companies, like Pets Best Insurance, provide cat health and exercise tips on their websites. Scratching posts or climbing areas are desirable for helping to remove old nail and to provide for full body stretches, muscle flexing, and physical as well as scent marking.

Offer your cat a variety of scratching options including horizontal and vertical scratching toys as well as different substrates such as sisal rope, carpet, cardboard and wood. The scratching post should be placed in a busy part of the house so the cat is more likely to use it, and placing one near their favorite sleeping spot may increase compliance, as cats like to scratch and stretch as soon as they wake up.

Multiple perches near windows will encourage more jumping and movement during the day. Provide access to shelving or bookcases if possible. Cats have a natural tendency to want to watch their surroundings while feeling safe and hidden at the same time. Plant some flowers that attract bees and butterflies outside windows or install a planter box. Consider a bird feeder, birdbath or squirrel feeder also.

You can feed your cat up off the ground to encourage jumping to get to the meal. Make sure cats with arthritis can still comfortably reach the bowl. Changing the location of the food dish on a regular basis will help keep them active and forces them to “hunt.” Try to hide small portions of your cat’s food around the home on a daily basis. A play-n-treat feeding ball is a fun toy that cats must chase and knock about in order for kibble to be released. It can increase your cat’s activity and stimulate the mind.

There are videos you can play during the day designed just for cats. Play some soothing music while you are away. Cats get bored with toys easily, so rotate the toys every 1-2 weeks. Don’t offer the whole collection at once. Some easy and cost-effective toys to add to the rotation would be: paper grocery bags to play in, large cardboard boxes filled with crumpled paper to hide in, rolled up paper or tinfoil or tape, plastic milk rings, paper Q-tips, catnip stuffed socks. Interactive things that involve both play and exercise include dragging a shoelace on the floor, laser light pointers (never point at eyes), hang a toy from a doorknob, throw dry kibble across the floor as a treat, toss a ball across a hard floor surface, treat balls, playing hide-n-seek with your cat, a ping pong ball in the bathtub, or non-toxic cat bubbles.

Many cats like to chew on grass or houseplants. Offering a source of greens to chew on can help with this natural desire and is safe. Catnip, catmint or wheat grass can all be purchased or grown indoors. I recommend organic to reduce exposure to pesticides. Remember that greens are not a nutritional requirement and may make some cats vomit. There are also some plants that can make cats sick if ingested, so be sure to research which are safe to have in your home.

Some people introduce their cats to a harness, which allows them to be outdoors in the fresh air but under supervision and safe. Screened porches or patios, outdoor enclosures and special fencings are other options available. Remember to consider flea control during summer months if needed. Some pet insurance companies will even help cover a portion of these costs.

You may want to consider adopting a companion cat if you only have one. This can help provide company and a playmate. Slow introduction is important to make the new addition work.

In the wild, cats void in a new, clean spot every time. The litter boxes we provide are not at all like what they would choose outdoors in their natural environment. The goal is to make sure the cat box is the most attractive place so they will not be tempted to go somewhere else in the house. Attractiveness to a cat includes cleanliness, safety, and convenience. There are some basic rules to follow to help keep your cat happy. Following these will help prevent behavioral issues such as urine marking or defecating outside the box.

-Have a minimum of one box per cat and at least one box per level of house.

-Place the boxes in separate locations around the house to provide options.

-Use unscented, scoopable litter, preferably low dust.

-Don’t place the box near noisy appliances or air ducts.

-Scoop the box at least 1x daily and clean the entire box monthly with unscented soap and water, not disinfectants or cleaning products.

-Litter box covers trap odors inside and may make your cat feel trapped so remove them.

-Offer the largest boxes possible. I prefer plastic storage containers to actual cat boxes.

Remember to think like a cat! Consider how a cat behaves naturally in the wild and then try to enrich the home environment to provide similar opportunities for mental and physical stimulation. Your cat will be happier and healthier for it!