Food Enrichment for Cats

Cats are natural predators, so how can you satisfy a domestic cat’s hunting instinct? A new study investigates the use of food – specifically, sirloin – dangled on wires as a form of enrichment for a captive colony of cats. The results are useful for the average cat owner as well as for animal shelters.

A cute tabby kitten rolling on the floor playfully
Photo: Damien Richard / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The study by Juliana Damasceno and Gelson Genaro (University of São Paolo) took place at a captive cat colony in São Paolo, Brazil. The 35 cats that participated in the study had all lived as a captive colony for four years, in a caged outside enclosure. One of the experimenters was already very familiar to the cats since she had spent some years helping to take care of them.

Previous work has shown that food can be used as enrichment for cats, but there are individual differences in how cats interact with such items. One of the aims of this study was to look at those differences, and see if changes to the enrichment program would lead to more cats interacting with the items.

The enrichment item chosen for the study was sirloin. It was suspended on a wire so that it was off the ground but the cats could still reach it. It was provided for two-hour periods at different times of day to see if the cats had preferred times of day to investigate it. The scientists also looked at differences between having one and three suspended pieces of sirloin.

26 cats spent time interacting with the sirloin, while the other 9 did not. Cats interacted with it more in the mornings compared to afternoons. Cats tend to be more active in the mornings, and less active (or sleeping) during the afternoons, so this is as expected.

More cats interacted when there were three separate sirloin stations, compared to just one. This is not surprising since having more items meant that more than one cat could interact with an item at once.

It turned out that certain cats tended to monopolize the sirloin. It seems unlikely the other cats did not like sirloin, although it is possible. However it could be that they were not able to gain access when other cats were there. So the scientists tried another version of the experiment, and took away the eight cats that interacted with it the most. They found this meant other cats, that had not previously interacted, began to do so. This shows they were interested in the food, just not able to get access before.

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Nobody expects the average cat owner to suspend meat from the ceiling for the benefit of their feline, but there are take-aways for pet owners. One is simply that food puzzle toys can be used as an enrichment item. Most people feed their cats at set times each day, which means the cat does not have to do anything to get food. There are many puzzle toys on the market, and it is also easy to make your own simple activities for cats. For example, putting wet food in cupcake holders and hiding it in the house for your cat to find, or constructing puzzles from used cardboard tubes in which you can hide treats.

The other message from this study is to make sure there are multiple enrichment items in multiple-cat households. The same would apply to shelter situations, in which cats are often housed in groups.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society for Feline Medicine (Ellis et al 2013) have some wonderful ideas about how to satisfy a cat’s environmental needs, available in full online here, with a nice client handout. Like Damasceno and Genaro (2014), they say it is important to have multiple locations for resources in households with multiple cats, and to think carefully about their placement. They say, “Providing multiple environmental resources that are out of view of other resource locations allows cats easy access and gives them a sense of control. Environmental resources include food, water, toileting areas (litterboxes or trays), rest and sleep areas, and elevated areas (perches).” 

What do you do to enrich your cat’s environment?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Damasceno, J. and Genaro, G. (2014) Dynamics of the access of captive domestic cats to a feed environmental enrichment item. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 151, 67-74. 
Ellis, S.L.H., Rodan, I., Carney, H.C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L.D., Sundahl, E. & Westropp, J.L. (2013) AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15:219-230.

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