Enriching Your Cat’s Environment

Durham animal hospital

Vivo and Cadi enjoy sitting on the screened deck.

Indoor Only or Indoor/Outdoor Cat?

Anyone who has  a pet cat is faced with decisions about the cat's environment.  Many of us struggle with the question of whether or not to let our cats go outdoors. Cats are natural hunters, and enjoy stalking. We see this with kittens stalking toys, feet, bugs or anything else they see. Letting our felines outside provides opportunities to exhibit their natural behaviors, but also has many risks.

While outside, cats can encounter any number of threats. They may find themselves imposing on the territory of other cats, including feral cats. A fight may ensue, and your cat will likely need medical attention no matter who the “winner” is. Your cat could also end up with a life threatening disease like FIV as well as injuries.

In addition to cat fights, your cat could potentially encounter another animal that sees your cat as prey, she may hunt an animal that is sick, or be hit by a car. These are just starters. Your cat will be exposed to fleas and ticks as well as other parasites. In addition to the parasites themselves, your cat may get a disease from them including Lyme disease and heartworm disease.

Making Indoors More Fun

So how do we allow our cats to behave naturally and still protect them? As the veterinary profession spends more time studying felines, we are learning many new things about their natural behavior and finding ways to let cats be cats.

There are a number of simple things you can do in your home to provide your cat stimulation. Having small toys accessible is simple. I have a couple of toy baskets around my home, each containing several items including toy mice, various types of balls, and items my cats have shown me make good toys. One basket has a plastic spoon that Topaz likes to swat around the kitchen floor.

Meal time can be a good time for enrichment. There are a few ways to do this, the best one being determined by your cat's dietary needs and interest. If you have multiple cats requiring different diets, this can be more challenging. I have a couple of puzzle feeders, and will rotate them along with the bowls between my cats. Something as simple as a muffin tin with the kibble divided into different sections can be used. I will sometimes toss some kibble on the floor and the cats will have to walk around to get it. Or toss kibble one or two at a time for a particular cat.

Bringing the outdoors in can allow a cat hours of entertainment. A bird feeder can be strategically placed for viewing from a favorite window. I have multiple feeders requiring my cats to move between different windows in order to monitor them all. Window boxes are wonderful. There are bird feeders that bring the birds right up to the window, and also window boxes extending out that your cat can sit in for a panoramic view.

Maine Coon cats on cat tree

2 square feet of floor space can become many square feet of cat space.

You can provide enrichment to the indoor environment with the furniture you have or with elaborate custom made perches. By arranging furniture thoughtfully, your feline residents can leap from one piece to another and one height to another. Adding shelves to your walls can provide additional places to hop to and from along with vantage points for viewing the room.

Some cat owners have created cat walks along their walls and between rooms, allowing their cats to wander throughout the home without ever touching the floor! By keeping your cat's perspective in mind, you can expand their territory without moving to a larger place.

Just remember that vertical spaces count, so having several levels one on top of another adds territory. An example of this is a cat tree, with several perches at different heights. I frequently have multiple cats hanging out on the tree in my house, often playing by running up and down the supports or swatting between the levels.

Protected Outdoors

If you want your cat to have fresh air, there are plenty of ideas to be found. I recently screened in my deck, and the cats love sitting out there watching me mow the lawn! A portable pen or dog kennel can provide a way for your cat to sit outside watching the neighborhood and breathing fresh air.

We are seeing more cats with a harness and leash. I had one cat that enjoyed taking me to the mail box every evening after work. As soon as I came home, Yo would run to the closet where his harness and leash were kept.

Some folks are using chicken coops to create an outdoor habitat for their cats. By screening in the openings, their cats can play in the coop, see the great outdoors, and enjoy fresh air.

Many ideas can be found online, or you can use your own imagination for your space. Providing an environment that keeps your cats active both in body and mind will reduce stress, reduce the likelihood of behavior problems, and provide you with the enjoyment of watching how your cat reacts.

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