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

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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.

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.

If you'd like to learn more about how to have a happy cat, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

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 award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, 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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