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5 Areas You Can Improve Right Now to Increase Your Cat’s Happiness and Health

Black cat laying on a sunny window sill.

Cats are known to be quite self-reliant and aloof, and you may think that they don’t really need anything beyond a sunny window and some Temptations to be happy, but is that really true? September is Happy Healthy Cat Month, and in honor of America’s most popular domesticated pet, I thought I would see what I could find out.

Indoor Kitties Need More

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s official stance on the indoor/outdoor discussion is cats that are free-roaming live shorter lives, are at greater risk of injury, suffering, and death from exposure to a multitude of dangers, ranging from disease to poisonous substances. Kind of a no brainer, but stay with me. Outdoor cats can also negatively impact the local wildlife species and piss your neighbors off when they use their nice flower bed as a toilet (fluffy neighbor's cat, I’m looking at you). Indoor is safer for all concerned, but is living their entire life within four walls actually fun and healthy for cats? Yes, with a little help from their owners according to a paper authored in 2010 by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVB and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN.

Indoor cats can survive with minimal extra stimulation but this can also result in behavioral or health problems. If you think of indoor cats as being in the same boat as zoo animals it makes perfect sense; when you take an animal out of its natural environment, the natural behaviors are still there, even when the natural outlet for those behaviors is removed. For cats, that would be scratching, chewing and eliminating, and if you are a cat owner, you know that these behaviors can wreak havoc on your home and sanity (and possibly turn indoor kitties into shelter kitties).

So what is the responsible indoor cat owner to do? Turns out, it really doesn’t take that much to significantly enrich an indoor cat’s life, and if you have an indoor/outdoor cat, adding extra stimulation t the indoor environment may cause him to want to spend more time inside.

A cat’s environment can be divided into the following 5 systems, each of which contains features ripe for improvement. Pick one or two at a time and see what happens.

Cat in a sunny window behind a modern gray sofa

Physical Resource System (Space)

Drs. Herron and Buffington start with a cat’s living space, which should offer your cat a living space that provides a certain amount of predictability, with freedom from fear and stressors. Ideally, it would allow the cat to feel it has some control over its daily routine.

Enrichment Ideas:

  • Allow unrestricted access to quiet resting areas away from stressors (dogs, kids, loud noises, other cats, animals outside).

  • Provide soft perching areas throughout house, preferably somewhere the cat already enjoys being.

  • Try free-access crate training, or FACT, to teach your cat that a crate a safe space.

  • Not all groups of cats that live together form social groups, so provide plenty of comfortable spaces for each cat to keep a distance of 1 to 3 feet- horizontally and vertically- from one another if desired, ideally in multiple safe havens (spaces with food, water, litter box access, scratching substrates, and so on).

  • Pick up some Feliway, a man-made version of the feline facial pheromone. The scent tells your kitty that it is safe, and is good for cats that need calming.

Nutritional System (Food and Water)

No matter what you choose to feed your cat (and that is a discussion for another day), how it is presented is equally important. Offering food in ways that encourage a cat’s natural exploratory and hunting behaviors can richly enhance their daily life.

Enrichment Ideas:

  • Although normally used for dogs, offering their meals in puzzle toys, slow or puzzle bowls, and hollow toys, which require cats to have to “work” to remove the contents stimulates the brain and allows cats to use their investigatory behaviors. Check out this article for DIY food puzzles.

  • Cats can be partial to running water- try offering water in the form of a fountain.

  • Cats evolved as solitary hunters- multi-cat households may be happier with their food dishes out of sight from one another.

  • Rather than one or two large meals, most cats prefer to eat multiple small meals throughout the day.

Elimination System (Litter Box)

Cats have a sequence of elimination behaviors that you may have noticed: digging before elimination, posturing, and digging after elimination to cover. It is essential that cats have the ability to express those behaviors safely in order to prevent elimination problems. Once a cat has a negative experience with a litter box, they will tend to avoid it in the future

Enrichment Ideas:

  • Most cats prefer open boxes, large enough for a cat to stand all four feet in and turn around in. Closed boxes can keep odors in (great for us, not so great in your cat’s view) and prevent cats from being able to see other animals approaching, which is not conducive to feeling safe. On the other hand, some cats prefer the privacy, so if you use a covered box keep it extra clean.

  • Litter boxes should be separate from food and water bowls, in a quiet area away from machinery that could startle the cat (washing machines, etc), and away from animals that could block the cat’s route to or from the box or sneak up on them.

  • Scoop at least daily, empty and replace litter at least once a week and clean at least monthly with unscented soap

  • The Golden Rule: have one box for each cat and one additional- cats need a place to mark their territory. Also have one on each level of your home (cats can be lazy and not want to walk too far).

Reddish gold dog sniffing a black cat's head.

Social System (Social Contact)

A cat’s social group is made up of all of the animals that share their home, whether they are seen as a threat (a dog), a resource competitor (other cats), or prey (birds and smaller pets). Since not all cats that live in the same home form close relationships (and, in fact, can be hostile) some multi-cat households may increase cat happiness and well-being by allowing each cat to have its own resources

Enrichment Ideas:

  • Allow cats to initiate contact with non-prey members of its social group, including humans; determining contact strengthens the cat’s sense of control

  • Just like humans, not all cats like the same type of interaction. While petting and grooming might be fine for one, another may prefer playing, so follow each individual cat’s lead.

  • In multi-cat households, be watchful for conflict between cats. Conflict can be open with hissing, stalking, and puffed fur, but it can also be silent. Silent conflict can manifest by the threatened cat spending more time away from the family and only interacting when the other cat is not around. At its worse conflict can cause stress related illness and in some severe cases, a behaviorist may need to be called in. The Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine has some great information on conflict between cats.

Two gray and beige tabby cats playing with a pink toy in mid-air.

Behavioral System (Body Care and Activity)

Scratching, chewing, and playing are normal behaviors of a cat, but they can cause a lot of trouble in a household if an appropriate outlet isn't provided.

Enrichment Ideas:

  • A scratching substrate is important for cats to maintain claw health; additionally, scratching is a form of visual and scent marking. Cats tend to like to scratch while stretching after a nap, so provide a variety of substances, llike sisal, carpet and tree-bark, both vertical (tall enough for your cat to stretch and scratch) and horizontal in the areas where they spend a lot of time.

  • Buy some cat-safe planted greens and catnip to prevent plants from being chewed on- smear with tuna juice or wet cat food to encourage your cat to choose their plants.

  • Some cats like dried fish or jerky to chew on.

  • Your cat has a prey preference- do you know what it is? Experiment with different types of toys (feathered, furry, bug-like) to find out. Read how in this article.

  • Experiment with toys that stimulate the stalking, chasing, pouncing and biting behaviors. Owner-led play should keep distance between body and toy so that play and biting of hands and feet are not reinforced into becoming an aggression problem. Some ideas are:

  • wand toys

  • battery operated toys that mimic prey

  • balls inside of boxes or bathtub

  • toys they can toss in the air and bat around

  • light-beam pointer toys (many behaviorists suggest following light-beam games with a treat or toy as a reward for the lengthy hunt and to prevent frustration)

  • Rotate toys to keep the novelty from wearing off

  • Wildlife window perches and DVDs made for cat stimulation can be great entertainment for cats that like them.

  • This is an easy DIY area- crumpled paper and old socks filled with catnip and tied up are just a few things that your cat may love. For more DIY ideas, this article by the ASPCA should get your creativity flowing.

There are many benefits for both you and your cat in enhancing your cat’s environment, and no, it isn’t just for the crazy cat people among us. Happy, less stressed cats are healthier and more relaxed, which results in the ability to have a better relationship with you, and that's the best benefit of all.

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