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Enriching your cat's environment can lead to improved happiness

By Dr. Joanne Hach

Cats are an important part of daily life for many people. They wake us in the morning and greet us after a long day at work or school. They make us laugh as they run and romp like elephants through our homes. They give us comfort when they purr and snuggle with us. In turn, we need to consider what we can do to help our cats experience a rich and enjoyable life, too.

Cats have certain needs and predictability in their routines that create an inviting and stress-free environment.

The term environmental enrichment means to make available within a cat's confined environment the resources and necessities to stimulate and challenge the cat and allow it to perform natural behaviors.

Through better knowledge and understanding of our cats' natural behaviors and needs, we can improve the welfare of our feline friends. This should be considered an important part of preventative health care and stable mental health of our cats. As veterinarians and pet owners, our goal should always be to improve and maintain good health for our cats and help them live longer, happier lives.

To design an enriched environment for our cats, we need to understand feline behaviors in their natural, wild environment. Cats are naturally solitary hunters, not part of a pack or herd. They spend many hours hunting, stalking, catching, and consuming multiple (10 to 20) prey throughout the day. Cats need to be able to hide from predators, perhaps by climbing to high perches to escape. They will defend their home territory from real and perceived intruders. Felines depend more on smell than on visual cues to communicate with other cats, locate food, and detect predators. In their outdoor environments, cats will scratch to stretch muscles, leave scent marks, shed old cuticles, and sharpen claws. When cats are brought into our homes, we need to provide an acceptable outlet for these natural behaviors.

Even though we provide many important resources, cats prefer to feel in control of their surroundings. Predictability and daily routines help cats experience less stress and anxiety. Stress can affect the overall well-being of our cats and make them susceptible to illness and behavioral problems. Stressors in their indoor lives are presented by us as owners and families, other cats in the home and other pets in the home. As we become acquainted with our cats, we, as owners, need to create and maintain a caring, learning, and non-threatening environment. We need to provide positive reinforcements through rewards and treats for acceptable behaviors.

If an owner needs to use negative reinforcement on his or her cat, it should not be done through physical punishment but rather through creating an environment that provides that feedback. For example, to deter a cat from scratching a certain area, apply double-sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, or nubby underside of rubber mats, which cats do not like the texture of on their toes. When we bring multiple cats together in one home or location, we need to consider that appropriate amounts of coveted resources are made available: Space to rest, eat, drink water, and use the litter box. When other pets (specifically dogs) share the home, cats need to have the ability to escape the situation at all times as well as to have a place to feel safe and secure while observing the situation.

Below are basic resources that are critical for every cat to have available in his or her environment/home.

Each cat should have his or her own food bowl, which should be cleaned regularly and located away from air ducts or appliances that may suddenly turn on and frighten the cat. Also, cats prefer to be fed at the same time each day, and dry and canned food should be offered in separate bowls. When a change in food is being introduced, the new food can be offered in the original food bowl and the old food in a new bowl such that the cat be allowed to make a choice to try the new food or not.

Cats naturally prefer to hunt and scavenge for food. Therefore, it can be more exciting for some cats to be challenged with toy puzzles to pull food from or to hide some food throughout the home so they need to look for it.

Cats should have access to multiple sources of fresh water. Each cat likely has his or her own preference for standing water, water fountains, or dripping water. Cats also have variable preferences for the bowl or glass from which they drink. As owners, we often tend to put water and food together, but many cats prefer to seek out different locations.

Resting spots
Cats need space for both sleep and quiet observation of their surroundings. They will seek areas of quiet refuge for resting, where they will be warm and comfortable when resting. Owners can help with this by providing beds with large towels, blankets, fleece, etc.

Additionally, cats enjoy hiding in boxes and bags. These areas should also be away from machinery that may suddenly turn on or create unexpected noises. Cats are naturally climbers and prefer to have perches that have an elevated vantage point to look down on the world below. There are many varieties of cat trees, shelves, and windowsill seats available, or you can be creative with elevated cat walks. High perches provide that coveted place of escape for cats and a place to feel more in control.

Litter boxes
There should ideally be one litter box per cat in the home plus one additional box. These litter boxes should be an appropriate size and height for each cat depending on their age, body size, and mobility. The litter boxes should be located on multiple levels in the home and in a private/low-traffic area that is away from machinery. The box should not be located where other cats can sneak up and surprise cats in the litter box. Felines tend to prefer unscented clumping litter, but there are certainly many litter types available.

When changing or trying different litter types, make sure the old and new litter is available so the cat can make a choice and demonstrate its preferences. The litter should be scooped daily and replaced weekly. The litter box should be washed regularly with a mild detergent, and owners should consider replacing the plastic litter box every few years. Cats are sensitive to smells and perceived threats, so we need to make the litter box as clean and appealing as possible for them.

Social play and environmental exploration
We may not always think of play and exploration as an essential resource for cats, but these activities are important to the mental and physical health of our feline friends. Social interactions include providing the opportunity for cats to play with owners and/or other cats daily. These interactions may also involve petting and grooming our cats.

Cats are independent by nature and prefer to initiate play themselves and keep things on their own terms. They also need to be able to readily disengage at any time and have that ability to escape if they would like. Cats often prefer shorter, more frequent social visits, which often may be in contrast to what we would desire.

In consideration of cats' natural behaviors for scratching, chewing, and hunting, we need to provide appropriate outlets indoors for our cats, too. Multiple scratching posts, both vertical and horizontal and of varying composition (cardboard, carpet, sisal rope, burlap), should be available. Be sure to provide a scratching post of appropriate height for the cat's age and size. Place the scratching post near common resting areas and activity areas to encourage proper use and discourage them from exploring other inappropriate areas.

Many cats like to chew on cat grasses or roll in and consume cat nip. There are many options available to provide play toys and prey like toys for cats. Cats enjoy toys they can carry places, readily pick up, and toss in the air. Also, they need toys that move like prey; there are all sorts of toys that mimic birds, mice, and bugs. Cats like to chase and capture their pretend prey. It is important to rotate the toys regularly to maintain interest and stimulus.

We can modify our homes to be more cat-friendly using many different ideas, with the objective being to provide them with safe and comfortable environments with predictable routines and interactions. The above resources are critical to all our feline friends as they provide a means for owners to have an integral role in their cat's well-being and preventative health care.

This article was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Pet Tales, a supplement distributed by Messenger Post Media. Learn more about Dr. Hach, co-director of Cats & Critters, here.

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