Environmental enrichment is defined as enhancing the health and welfare of an animal by modifying their environment. Cats are very sensitive to “stressors” in their environment which can change their mood, increase pathologic pain and decrease the immune response (similar to depression in humans). There are six environmental enrichment categories which you can implement in your house to help decrease your cat’s stress and increase your cat’s enjoyment in life.
- The Basic Resources – Food, Water, Eliminations: Cats feel most vulnerable and are most likely to become frightened while eating, drinking and eliminating. To avoid stress during these times and to avoid behavioral issues, such as inappropriate eliminations, the owner should be aware of the location of food/water bowls and litter boxes. Some factors the owner should consider include the type of food (dry vs. canned), running water vs. still, the features of the litter box, and the type of litter used. In addition, to this the location of food/water bowls and litter boxes is very important to cats. These basic resources should be placed in an area where the cat feels safe and not placed near machinery that starts up unexpectedly, locations where the cat may be startled or feel trapped. In addition, each cat should have their own food and water bowl and their own litter box (the rule is 1 litter box per cat +1). The litter should be kept clean and the litter should be unscented and all containers should be washed weekly.
- Structural Features: A cat’s natural behavior includes scratching, climbing and hunting and these behaviors can be encouraged without damaging the owner’s house. The cat should be provided with appropriate toys to encourage scratching, playing and also be provided with a safe area to hide without the risk of other animal or people disturbing them. These goals can be achieved by allowing your cat to have the ability to move about freely, to explore, stretch, and play. In addition, each cat should be provided with opportunities to climb, a variety of scratching posts, a perch to sit on and survey the surroundings and his own resting area. Remember, you may have to encourage cat or train your cat to use these toys.
- Social Interactions: The social structure of cats can be very complicated and many cats can be reticent to permit others into their group. Due to the cat’s complex social structure intercat aggression is one of the most common forms of feline aggression in multi-cat households. Make sure each cat has the ability to seek safety in their resting area, they have the opportunity to move about and play freely and that each cat gets their own play and petting time. Make sure new cats are introduced slowly to the household and given their own litter box, food/water bowl and safe place. The addition of a Feliway (feliway.com), a synthetic pheromone that helps cats to feel relaxed and safe can be added to the environment may help to decrease intercat stress.
- Human Interactions: The owner can provide structure in their cat’s life by developing departure and returns rituals, having interactive play sessions everyday and grooming regularly. The play interactions should be biased on the preference of the cat with toys such as feather wands (simulates birds), laser pointer or small pieces of food (simulates insects) and small rodent toys. Some cats prefer grooming and petting which is also an acceptable form of human interaction.
- Audio-Visual Features: This form of enrichment includes ambient sound (such as the radio or TV being on), access to a window, a fish tank to watch, etc. These forms of entertainment can decrease a cat’s stress when they are left alone.
- Olfactory Stimulation: This can include catnip or Feliway (feliway.com) as a way to enrich the cat’s life and decrease a cat’s stress.
Remember you know your cat and your environment best. You know what will work best for your cat in your environment. These are suggestions for your cat feel free to modify these suggestions to fit your life style. If these suggestions do not resolve any behavioral problems (intercat aggression, inappropriate elimination, fearful cats, etc.) please contact your veterinarian for further suggestions and medical advice.
For further information on implementing environmental enrichment visit the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center webpage at indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/.