Enrichment Tips for Cats (That Many People Miss)

Cats have a moderately-enriched life, but people need more knowledge about their felines in order to do better, according to a new study.

Enrichment tips for cats that many people miss. Photo shows Abyssinian cat playing in a cat tree
Photo: Oksana Bystritskaya (Shutterstock.com)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

There are many ways we can improve our cats’ lives: toys that let the cat simulate stalking prey, social interaction with people, providing spaces high-up for cats to go. This is called environmental enrichment, and is especially important for indoor cats.

A new study by Ana Margarida Alho et al (University of Lisbon) finds that although most cats do quite well, there are some things many people are missing. Here are some of the highlights.

Food toys 

“Taking into account their low cost, the fact that they also can be homemade and free, the ease of assembly, and the inherent advantages promoting locomotion and decreasing inactive behaviour, we find it regrettable that such a small number of guardians use them,” say the scientists.

Only 5% used food toys such as balls, puzzle toys and hiding food. There are many types of food-dispensing toys for cats on the market, some of which have adjustable difficulty levels so you can start off easy and make it harder once your cat has got the hang of it. It’s also very easy to make your own, as with these examples of interactive food toys, many of which involve cardboard tubes or yoghurt pots. Another option is simply to hide food for your cat to find.

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Providing water separately from food

Cats prefer it if their source of water is not near their food, yet the study found most people provide them adjacent to each other. It’s a good idea to provide both still water and moving water (such as via a dripping tap or a specially-designed water dispenser).

The researchers also say food and water bowls should be in a quiet location so the cat does not feel stressed while eating or drinking.

How to provide enrichment for your cat, and the tips that many people miss which will make your cat happier, illustrated by a beautiful cat in a cat tunnel

Litter boxes

The researchers say most owners did well here, but some were not aware of the need to put litter boxes in a quiet location, and to have one extra litter box (e.g. if you have two cats, you should have three boxes).

Where some people didn’t do so well was in hygiene. Although most people scooped daily (65% of single-cat and 56% of multi-case houses), in a few households the litter tray was only scooped once a week or even once every two weeks. It’s better to scoop the litter tray twice a day, especially in a multi-cat household.

High places, hiding places, scratching places 

Most cats did quite well here, although there was room for improvement. Cats like to have access to a window with an interesting view, and cats like to have high-up places to sit and rest, as well as places they can hide. Cat trees, cardboard boxes, hammocks and shelves are all a good idea.

As well, cats need horizontal and vertical places they can scratch, as this is a normal behaviour to them. Cats use scratching posts when they are provided and this can save the furniture. The best cat scratching posts are usually rope (sisal) and over 3 feet high so they can get a good stretch; they also like cat trees with multiple levels.

Play, grooming and petting 

Most people in the study played with their cat every day, and also had daily petting and grooming sessions. This is good because earlier research suggests that a daily playtime helps to reduce behaviour problems in cats.

Other enrichment strategies 

Other ways to provide enrichment for cats that the scientists looked at included the use of scents (such as catnip, lavender and pheromones), television or video for cats, and rotating toys so the cat does not get bored of them. None of these were very common.

The study asked 130 cat guardians to complete a questionnaire. It was a convenience sample of people who brought their cat to a particular veterinary hospital, so may not be representative of the general population, but it usefully highlights many areas where people can make improvements.

The researchers conclude that the enrichment practices least likely to be used were those requiring either more effort on the part of the owner, or more knowledge about feline behaviour, suggesting that better education will go some way to improving feline enrichment.

How do you provide enrichment for your cats?

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Cat and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

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:

Alho, A., Pontes, J., & Pomba, C. (2016). Guardians' Knowledge and Husbandry Practices of Feline Environmental Enrichment Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 19 (2), 115-125 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1117976

More cat stories:
Five things to do for your cat today
Interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat
Most owners say cats are part of the family 
Education about cats may reduce feline behaviour problems

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  1. Wonderful article, thanks for posting, I really enjoy your articles. I also believe us cat guardians can do more to provide stimulation for our indoor feline friends. I like your tip about providing sufficient water bowls/fountains and keeping it far away from food. We have a permanent 'watering hole' setup at a window, which combines a drinking fountain, two-tiered cat bar stool and a selection of grasses where the cats can graze, drink and time-share sun puddles throughout the day. We found that having many water bowls throughout the house encourages them to drink more and perhaps this is one reason their urine does not have a strong smell as it's perhaps more diluted? Not sure about that one.

    We're a multi-cat household and found that our cats 'argue' less when they have access to their catio in the summer :) I also think the value of clicker training for cats is underestimated and is a great way to stimulate their little brains and keep them active and happy :)

  2. I put bird feeders and a bird bath just outside of her favorite window. she loves it!!

  3. Thank you so much for referencing one of our posts! :)

  4. The cat treats are wide open in terms of play. We play basketball and hockey with our three cats, using freeze dried chicken treats as the ball/puck. If it's basketball there's no equipment involved. We just throw the treats at a fake backboard on the wall. They will try to catch them in the air, or knock them away and then pounce. If it's hockey, there's equipment. Two boxes on either end of the hallway and a couple of tunnels just for fun. The treat is slid on the floor from either end, aimed at the boxes for the goal. All of my cats cheat at hockey. Laying in the middle of the floor to block the shots with their bodies. Or pouncing on my hand as I line up the shot. They will also, on occasion, decide to just pounce on the bag of treats and try to take off with them. I also like to throw the treats on the bed, while the cat is on the floor. The cats see where the treat has been throw, but not exactly where it lands, which gives them a chance to 'hunt' for it. This works best with an unmade bed, to make the hunting area more complex/interesting. Plus, anything that requires an unmade bed matches my housekeeping tendencies. :-)

  5. Great information. Some of these things I already do but will start to improve on the others. The water thing is taken care of have both types of water as I have one cat who prefers running water and a couple of others who like the water bowl. Food and water in two different rooms and cat boxes in quiet locations. Several cat castles and scratching items but need a few more. Play time at the evening for treats. Thanks again.

  6. Great ideas. Some I have already in place... but will work on the others. Lots of toys and high places . Water is in another room and I have both types. Treats and play at the end of the day . Always looking for better ways to enrich their lives... thank you

  7. You've written about a topic dear to my heart, even since I became a cat lover. I myself have started to write about enrichment, but I'd also like to become more of an expert on the topic. Any suggestions?

    Most of the ones you've suggested, my husband and I have already implemented. Food toys are ones I just discovered last year and gave to my cats for Christmas. For the most part none of our cats have taken an interest in television or videos. When our feral took interest, I did start looking for videos and became an addict myself. ;-) I also teach my cats obedience and agility, although have yet to find many who do. If anyone has ideas does this, I'd love to get more tips! In particular, a friend of mine and I have bounced around starting a club for doing these with other cat owners. One thing we have yet to try, but hope to when we have our own house, is a catio.

    For whoever posted a comment as Unknown, I love your idea of playing sports with your cats. I used to "box" with my first cat. (I batted her paw; she batted my hands.) It was one of our favorite past times.

    Here's an article I wrote about cat enrichment:

  8. Don't be disappointed if some of these things don't work. Two male domestic litter mates that died last year at the age of 18 were polar opposites. One liked running water, the other one totally ignored it. One loved playing games, the other slept 20 hours a day. One loved fresh fish, the other one would only eat dry cat food etc. Cats can be as different as people.

  9. I live in an apartment building. Rue likes to walk in the hallway so I trained her on the leash. She doesn't seem to mind it and enjoys the attention she gets from NY neighbors.

  10. Kitty pacman: scatter their allotment of treats for the day on the rug and see how fast they hoover them up. Entertaining for us and the kits :D


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