All cats need mental stimulation to keep them happy and healthy, but it’s especially important for cats we keep indoors. We tend to keep them inside to protect them, and it is true that indoor cats tend to live longer lives as they are less likely to suffer from infectious diseases or injuries. However, did you know that indoor cats are at a higher risk of developing a variety of behavioral and health problems, as they can’t always express their natural behaviors?
If a cat can’t express normal feline behavior then it is more likely to be stressed and show undesirable behaviors such as scratching furniture, aggression, toileting in the wrong place, or even have health problems such as urinary tract disease. You might wonder how a cat could ever be stressed when it has a loving home, food and water?
In this article we will answer that question by looking at the importance of mental stimulation for your cat, and how to enrich your feline friend’s environment. We will also look at how to tell if your cat is stressed, what problems stress can cause, and what to do about it.
Why is mental stimulation important for cats?
Indoor cats are more likely to become bored or stressed, compared to cats that can roam around freely outside.
The American Association of Feline Practioners (AAFP) states that if an indoor cat doesn’t have a suitably stimulating environment then it is at higher risk of many stress-induced conditions including:
• Lower urinary tract disease
• Excessive grooming
• Behavioral problems
• Upper respiratory disease
These unwanted behavioral problems are often a common reason for cats to relinquished or returned to shelters. Which is a pretty sad fact, as their destructive or aggressive behavior could well be a result of stress and have been improved through changes in their living environment.
What is environmental enrichment?
Environmental enrichment is the process of making your cat’s environment more mentally and physically stimulating, to encourage normal feline behavior.
By meeting your cat’s physical and mental needs, you can reduce stress and boredom (and the undesirable behaviors that go with them) and improve your cat’s overall health.
How to enrich your cat’s environment?
Basic resources for your cat include litter trays, food, water, hiding areas and things to do (mental stimulation). Enriching your cat’s environment depends on the cat’s current environment, age, temperament, if your cat is stressed or anxious, and if it has any underlying medical problems. It may be as simple as buying some cat toys or providing a hiding place, or as big as introducing a multi-tiered climbing perch.
You want to offer your cat the opportunity to do normal feline behaviors that he might do if he was outside, such as scratching, stalking and hunting (using toys!), climbing and resting in a safe place. Let’s take a look at the different ways you can make your home more “cat friendly”.
- Encourage natural feeding
Most cats are given food in a bowl once or twice day. Some cats graze throughout the day, others gobble it all down in one go. Naturally cats would spend a good part of their day locating, hunting and eating their prey, so it can be a good idea to try to mimic this. Try hiding small amounts of dried food in multiple locations so your cat has to search and move more.
You can purchase a puzzle feeder from your local pet shop or online, or make one yourself. Puzzle feeders make your cat work mentally and physically. Some puzzle feeders are balls, which your cat has to push and nudge around to get the food out, others are fixed in one place but require your cat to use his tongue or paws to extract dried food. Cats like having to plan and solve problems, so the satisfaction of getting the food is similar to capturing their prey.
- Provide a hiding place
All cats need a safe place they can retreat to when they feel scared or anxious, or which can be used as a quiet and secure resting place. One study, from the University of Bristol, found that a boxed hiding place helped to reduce stress levels in cats at rescue shelters.
Most cats like a place which is covered and raised off the ground, and which is cosy, so its only big enough to fit them. Cardboard boxes, cat carriers or an enclosed cat bed are common examples. This stylish cat felt bed or cosy cat cave are perfect hiding places for your cat if placed somewhere quiet ut ass every cat owner can tell you, something as simple as a paper bag can do the job just as well.
Ideally there should be at least one “safe place” for each cat in the household, located in different parts of the home.
- Provide vertical space
Cats like to be up high, it allows them to watch what’s going on from a safe and secure position. If you live in a small apartment, its also the perfect way to utilise your limited space. You can provide your cat with shelves or cat perches, climbing trees or ropes. These will encourage your cat to explore and show more active behaviour, while also allowing your cat to rest and retreat up high if he wishes.
A window hammock can provide your cat with a perch but with the added bonus of lots of mental stimulation, as your cat can observe outside. It’s a good idea to move perches, beds and hammocks regularly, to encourage your cat to explore and mimic a naturally changing environment.
- Provide a scratching post
Cats are hard-wired to scratch surfaces. As they do it they are flex muscles, stretch out limbs, mark territory and keep claws sharp and clean. If you would rather they did not do it on your sofa, then give them things they can scratch. Some cats prefer a horizontal scratch post; others prefer a vertical one. A piece of carpet or tough cardboard might be enough, or you could splurge on a sturdy scratching post.
- Provide Toys and playtime
Playtime offers a great opportunity to bond with your cat and a great way to provide mental stimulation. Five minutes twice a day is usually sufficient for most cats, but younger cats may want more. Rotating the toys helps keep your cat’s interest too. Cats often enjoy play which mimics their predatory behaviour, and fulfils their natural behaviour of hunting. Good examples are textured mouse toys that can be pulled across the floor, or feather wands.
- Your cat’s sense of smell
Cats have a very good sense of smell, and use it to evaluate their surroundings and maximize their sense of security and comfort. They also use chemical signals, called pheromones, to communicate with each other. Have you seen your cat rub its face or body on certain places in your home? It’s using pheromones to mark its territory and make it feel secure and happy in it’s environment.
A study on hospitalized cats, showed that synthetic feline pheromones, decreased signs of anxiety and increase food intake. Feliway is a commonly used synthetic feline pheromone, available as a spray, collar or plug-ins, which can reduce anxiety and stress related problems in cats.
The International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) recognises that environmental smells are an important means of enrichment for your cat. Certain smells can stimulate or excite cats, such as catnip or matatabi, so toys made from these plants can be an interesting addition to your cat’s toy box.
Find out more about matatabi for cats here.