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Enriching the Lives of our Feline Friends for Mental and Physical Well Being
–By Steve Dale
You know how you felt being quarantined, trapped inside your home. Still, you had NetFlix and an array of TV and cable options.
Think about it. Our cats are under quarantine 24/7 every day without TV or Zoom or books to read.
The other option, to let them outside to explore, is downright dangerous. Outdoors, cats just don’t live as long. The data varies–if you go to ten sources, you will see 20 different answers on how long outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats live compared to indoor-only cats, but experts agree that it shaves off 3-10 years of their lives on average.
Still, there’s no doubt that life outdoors is more exciting for cats. The secret sauce to rectify the problem of bored, unstimulated cats is simply to provide an enriching environment indoors, which means allowing cats to–well, be cats–and express natural behaviors.
“Enrichment shouldn’t be thought of a nice thing to do for cats, but instead it’s a necessary thing to do,” says Chicago-based veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a contributor to Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones (2020), authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
But is enriching cats’ lives so simple? How do you provide changes in the home for a species that, more than anything else, detests change?
Ballantyne laughs, “Well, that is a good question and the answer is like anything else with cats, take it slow and gradual, and always at the cats’ pace.” While some cats may love you adding five empty boxes and 20 toys all at once and with unusual scents, most cats may prefer a more measured approach.
Understand that you are providing enrichment for cats to benefit not only mental health, but also their physical well-being, explains Mikel Delgado, who is a PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in Sacramento, CA.
She explains that legendary veterinarian, Dr. Tony Buffington, discovered that cats urinate outside the litter box often because it’s painful–and these cats typically don’t have urinary tract infections as many once assumed. These cats suffer a condition first called idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), which he found was later linked to feline interstitial cystitis, or Pandora Syndrome, which can occur in response to stress that affects the central stress response system. In other words, cats who are stressed or unstimulated can develop painful conditions.
We now understand that cats need proper stimulation, and aren’t a low maintenance pet compared to dogs: they just require a different type of maintenance, Delgado explains: “So many cats are living under-stimulating lives. And that’s a problem for cats. If the cat doesn’t engage with the environment that could even lead to medical issues, and yes depression.”
Cats can even lose their lives as a result of unenriched environments. Cats with FLUTD and/or feline interstitial cystitis may experience pain when they urinate, and are therefore inclined to go outside their litter boxes. Unknowing cat parents may feel they’ve tried everything, and become frustrated when the human-animal bond then fractures. If this occurs, the cat is at risk of being relinquished to a shelter or even booted outdoors permanently.
In fact, Buffington now refers to the entire range of physical symptoms in cats living in dull and unenriched environments as Pandora’s Syndrome, since it goes beyond bladder issues, and can even cause GI problems, such as vomiting, for example. Buffington and her colleagues have shown that these cats weren’t so much in need of a magic drug, but instead of a magic cure: making their lives more exciting and fascinating.
Enrichment ideas are numerous, including understanding that many cats want a place to hide or somewhere to be alone with their thoughts. Unlike humans, cats utilize vertical space, and seek out places to climb. Cats must feel safe and secure and being up high offers that confidence to “get away from it all and to oversee what’s going on below”.
Ballantyne is a fan of cat parents scattering food puzzles around the house, so the cat has to seek or hunt, even indoors. Ten years ago, there were only a pawful of such products, but today there are dozens. Cat parents can even place food in a small dish, and over time, add distance, putting the dish even further and further away from where the cat normally eats, so the cat has to seek out their food.
Enrichment also goes well beyond food or treats; Ballantyne suggests that we consider the importance of a cat’s sense of smell, and periodically provide novel smells in their environment– from silvervine to catnip, to packaging from a fish product or a spritz of perfume–all of which may be interesting for cats to discover. You will have to pay attention to your cats’ individual likes and dislikes in this process since, as Ballantyne points out, “what’s interesting to one cat might be offensive to another cat. And make sure whatever scents you offer are non-toxic.”
While few cats may be interested in Netflix, there are YouTube videos of birds and other critters which some cats binge-watch just like we do . If you have an iPad or iphone, your cat might use it more than you: download free games like Friskies Jitterbug, Mouse in Cheese, Catz Play Game for Cats, Mouse for Cats, or others.
Another idea is to plant butterfly-attracting flowers and put out a hummingbird feeder outside your window, to support wildlife while allowing your cat to indulge in their own guilty pleasures.
Finally, if you want to provide your cats with the stimulation of the great outdoors, you may wish to try an enclosed catio, or teach your cats to walk on a leash or take them for a stroll in a kitty stroller. Your neighbor may think you are crazy, but your cats will have a blast.
Enriching the lives of our feline friends allows them to live their best lives.
–Steve Dale, CABC certified animal behavior consultant, is the host of two nationally syndicated pet radio shows and is heard on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s authored and contributed to many books, including Decoding Your Dog and Decoding Your Cat (both authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists). Steve speaks at conferences around the world, and can also be seen on TV. Read more at stevedale.tv
The American Association of Pet Parents (AAPP) is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping pets happy, healthy and in their loving homes – and out of animal shelters.