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Cats Home Alone

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Americans have grown much closer to their pets in the last 20 years or so, coming to regard them more as fellow family members rather than simply keeping them for some utilitarian function (such as rodent control). As part of this "warming" trend, cats now tend to be kept indoors to keep them safe from the risks of outdoor living.

An indoor-outdoor cat has hazards of traffic, dogs, other cats and wild animals with which to contend. If an outdoor cat is not killed or injured on the roads, shaken to death by a neighborhood dog, or injured by another cat or wild animal, there is still the risk of contracting some debilitating disease. Basically, it's not a safe existence out there and most owners now know that.

But indoor life can be tedious for some cats. They lack the all-important aspects of daily life in the wild, including the freedom to hunt, mark, protect and defend, and to interact with others of the same species.

It is our duty as cat owners to enrich our cats' indoor lives to make good some of these deficiencies. Without gainful employment cats merely exist within boring but luxurious homes. Also, without some species-specific entertainment, they may get into trouble, psychologically or physically, leading owners to seek behavioral modification advice ... or not.

Below is a list of suggested means by which a cat's environment may be made more user friendly. The underlying principal is "think cat." If you do this you may even be able to add a few conceptions of your own.

The Big E's (Environmental and Managemental Enrichment)

  • Climbing Frames. Cats really appreciate a three-dimensional environment, as evidenced by their constant attempts to climb up on top of things. To facilitate this innate compulsion, provide climbing frames in strategic locations so that your cat can elevate his position with ease and obtain a panoramic view of the outside world. This is the closet thing to a cat newspaper. From their perch they can survey their immediate environment in safety and catch up on the latest comings and goings.

  • Bird Feeders. The instinct to watch and stalk birds still courses through cats' veins even though it may have been generations since they relied on catching prey for a living. The provision of window feeders for birds can provide cats with a lot of viewing opportunities at no risk to the birds.

  • Fish Tanks. For similar reasons, a fish tank (with its lid firmly attached) can be another great pleasure for cats. Even though they never catch the fish, that failure does not detract from the thrill of "fishing."

  • Food puzzles. In nature, cats had to work for their food. Hunting consumed a great deal of their time and energies. Yet we simply put their food down and leave them to scoff in as little as 5 minutes. What do they do then – sleep? If you get creative regarding your cat's feeding opportunities you can spin out those meals and make the process of eating more entertaining. Ideas include:

    1. Putting your cat's kibble inside a Buster Cube, a plastic cube with various compartments for food that falls out as the cat bats it.

    2. Feeding kibble via a toilet roll tube, with the ends taped over and holes drilled in the sides to release kibble intermittently. (The tube rolls around and is fun to chase.)

    3. Ping-pong balls with a hole drilled in the side to allow you to put a single piece of kibble inside.

  • Non-toxic grasses. Some cats respond well to fresh catnip or cat grass grown especially for them. Along the same theme, some cats also enjoy lettuce or green beans. Other cats can be redirected onto pieces of thin rawhide coated lightly with fish oil or cheese spread. Owners should offer the rawhide chews only when they will be directly supervising their cat.

  • Predatory games. It is almost mandatory to have various feather wands or fishing poles with string attached to entertain your cat. You should probably put aside several minutes a day for this activity. This will exercise and mentally stimulate the cat, and help to dissipate otherwise undirected predatory tendencies. Some predatory toys are automatic and allow activation by the cat even in your absence. For those of you who don't want to spend much cash there's always the old milk-bottle-seal-on-a-string trick or a bunch of table tennis balls that you leave around on a smooth floor. Laser mice are at the high tech end of the spectrum of toys and there are new electronic toys in the pipeline.

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