Cat lovers keep their pets indoors for a variety of reasons, which mostly have to do with safety. Trauma, infectious diseases, and toxins are just a few of the common life-threatening problems that affect cats which live or go outside. On average, indoor cats live longer and have safer lives than their outdoor counterparts. However, without ensuring they have the right things in their surrounding environment, they may not necessarily be happier.
Many behavioral problems in cats are due to us owners not understanding their basic needs. Simply put, indoor cats don't experience the same things that outside cats do, and it's a much bigger issue than just simple boredom.
Part of our job as responsible cat owners is to understand that cats experience natural desires to scratch, stretch, perch, hunt, and fulfill their prey drive. Your cat may be inside and completely safe from harm but this doesn't take away their instinct to do things they need to do to feel secure and comfortable in their homes. Cats that can't fulfill these basic requirements end up being bored or frustrated, which can result in problems with their mental and physical health.
Veterinarians and behaviorist refer to the process of improving a cat's home life as “environmental enrichment.” A cat's basic needs include eating and drinking, urinating and defecating, hunting, scratching, sleeping, napping, and playing.
Below are the most important things you can do to ensure your cat's home life is the best it can be and to help them fulfill their instincts and basic needs.
- Climb: Get your kitty a cat tree, the higher the better. Cats love to climb and perch in high places because it allows them to survey their environment for “dangers.” In the wild, cats who are high above ground are also more protected from predators. Some owners construct their own cat trees from carpet remnants, sisal rope, and more, but remember: always make sure the tree is stable before allowing your cat to climb on it. Provide some safe opportunities for your cat to climb when at all possible.
- View: Cats love a good view of the outside world. They benefit greatly when allowed a perch or other spot to look out from. The squirrels, birds, and other comings and goings on the street are all great ways to keep your cat engaged and entertained. Window beds and seats are real cat favorites. You can create your own window bed by placing a chair or stand at or above window height and topping it with a comfy blanket or pet bed. Give your cat things to look at both day and night. In particular, consider things that provide an entertaining night view. Cats are able to see form and movement in very low light intensity where we humans would not be able to see anything. This sense is biologically important as it helps cats hunt for prey at night. If possible, arrange a spot in one window where your cat can spend time after dark. If you don't want to leave blinds or curtains completely open, consider leaving only the bottom 5 – 7 inches uncovered for a vantage point that takes advantage of your cat's finely tuned night vision.
- Scratch. This behavior often gets a bad rap, but scratching (and items that allow cats to do it in an appropriate fashion, such as scratching posts) is important for a happy cat. It is natural for a cat to stretch and scratch. Doing so makes them feel great and helps them clean their claws by removing dull, dead materials. The right scratching post should allow your cat to get up on their back legs and stretch to the tip of their toes as high as they can. One common mistake pet owners make is to get a post that is too short for their cat's needs, so it's best to get one that might be too long versus one that is too short. Some cats love corrugated cardboard, some tree bark, others rope textures and others carpet. See what textures appeal to your cat and provide a variety of similar materials.
- Eliminate. Make sure you have enough clean, appealing litter boxes to fulfill your cat's elimination needs. The ideal litter box should be located in a quiet place that is easily accessible, without scary, unpredictable noises such as furnaces, washing machines, or dryers. The process of elimination can make cats feel very vulnerable so they like to be able to see the area around them when urinating and defecating. One great option is a clear deep storage container about 2 ½ feet long by 1 ½ feet wide. (Wider and longer is even better.) Cats want to see around them without being squished in a small space where they can barely turn around or scratch. They also love high sides so if they want to spray toward the side as they urinate, they can. The best litter for a cat is unscented scoopable litter that's easy to clean frequently. Most cats don't like the perfumes and scents that can be appealing to humans. So many litter boxes are designed for the happiness of people, not cats (hooded boxes with scented litters are the worst) so it's important to keep your pet's needs in mind when choosing a new litter box. Also, don't forget to make sure you have enough boxes. Some cats really look at certain places in your home as “their” territory and will only use a particular type of box or boxes in certain locations.
- Play. Playthings that crinkle, buzz, fly, zoom, or entice with catnip are the most entertaining and the best value. The best cat toys are filled with good quality catnip such as those by Yeowww!® in shapes such as cigars or bananas that cats love to wrap their paws around and “bunny kick” with their back legs. One trick to keep your cat interested in their toys is to buy several and rotate them out. Purchase a big tub of catnip and place the toys that aren't being used in the tub to “marinate.” Wait a few days until the toy is good and smelly, then reintroduce one every few days while you place different toys in the bag with catnip. Another great toy is the feathery flyer type of toy; these are wands or poles with feathers or tails attached to the end. When swung and twirled in the air, the feathers will often mimic birds or other fuzzy flying creatures.
- Play Preference. Cats love to play in a variety of ways. Some like squeaky mice, others love round balls, and yet more like “feathery flyers” that they can stalk. Take a minute to learn about your cat's play preference and the best type of toy for their needs. This can really go a long way to making your cat happy.
- Think. Consider about how cats interact in nature: they hunt their prey before pouncing and eating it. A big bowl of food right there on the floor is neither entertaining nor appealing for many cats. Make it more entertaining by hiding treats in different locations or providing puzzle feeders as an alternative. Aikiou makes a feeder that the cat must explore and interact with to find their kibble. This provides mental stimulation and simulates the process of “catching” their prey.
- Safety & Security. It's crucial to provide a quiet, private place for your cat to rest and feel safe when they need it. It is ideal to designate a room in the home as a “safe zone,” but creating a quiet spot can be as simple as placing an inexpensive pet bed or blanket on top of a high dresser or chair. Some cats prefer a quiet corner of the closet to snuggle up in, or love a special chair seat concealed by a tablecloth. Provide safe hiding spots to give your cat the feeling of comfort. This room should have food, water, and a litter box and the ability for you to shut the door. This is a great spot to allow your cat to “hide” or rest when possible stressors occur in the home such as when you have a party, noisy company or a service person or repairman is at the house. Safe rooms can also protect your cat from getting “out” of there is a lot of activity by the door.
- Greens. Some felines love cat grass as a wonderful addition to their environment. Although cats are primarily carnivores (which means they prefer to eat only meat), many cats are fond of vegetables and other plant material on occasion. If you've ever seen your cat chow down on a house plant, they're in good company! One explanation for your cat's craving for salad is their instincts. Cats evolved from ancient species of large felines who normally ate the entire animal when they caught it. Many of the animals that made up their diet were herbivores (plant eaters), and these ancestors ended up eating a lot of grass and plants from the stomachs and intestines of their prey animals. It's normal for cats to seek out plants to snack on but watch out: cats that don't get outdoors might nibble on your houseplants that can be toxic. Plant some cat-safe cat grass so they can fulfill their instinct of grasses safely. Read more on how to grow your own cat grasshere. For the more traditional cat lover, here are some tips on catnip.
- Water. Good quality fresh water is crucial for a happy and healthy cat. You might be surprised to learn though that most cats don't drink enough water because their bowls are so frequently dirty, smelly, or just plain empty. Remedy this by washing their bowls at least once a week and providing fresh water daily. Many cats love running water such as that from a faucet. If that is the case and you don't mind your cat on your sink, turn on the faucet and allow your cat to drink periodically. Pet fountains are also a favorite of some cats. (My favorite is the Pioneer Pet stainless Teardrop fountain; it is easy to clean and cats love it.) If you have multiple cats, it's best to provide multiple areas to eat and drink so different cats can feel safe and have their individual food preferences addressed. Another thing to consider is that in nature, cats search for water sources as part of their survival. Make their day more exciting by maintaining a consistent water source but also periodically hiding a bowl of water here and there for them to discover.
- Food. Catching food is what cats do in nature and many times they make a “game” out of the hunt. This behavior is important for good mental health and one that most cat owners don't consider as part of their indoor cat's needs. Having food provided in a bowl is great but it can be boring. Hiding treats or giving your cat a puzzle toy can fulfill their hunting and stalking instincts.
- Taste. Humans have approximately 9,000 taste buds on their tongue while cats have a mere 473. Taste is a difficult sense to stimulate in cats but by knowing that taste isn't their main motivation, you can appeal to their other senses. Most cats respond to food based on the texture and smell. Room temperature foods are generally unappealing; warming food can make it “smellier” and thus more appealing (a common trick that pet parents use to entice sick cats to eat). Theories suggest that eating recently killed warm prey is healthier than old prey, which may account for the preference. Some cats prefer food with a gravy-like consistency while others like “chunky” foods, so experiment with a few and see what your cat likes best.
- Grooming. Give your cat the stimulation and benefit of brushing and petting. Most cats love a bit of attention – some more than others. Brushing your cat not only makes their skin and hair healthier, but many cats enjoy the interaction and stimulation from being touched. A product called The Kitty Tongue Glove is an especially good tool for grooming. It's a glove with Velcro bits on the fingers that simulates a cat getting licked by another cat's tongue. This can be a huge comfort; I've seen sick cats, fearful cats, and kittens soothed by the Kitty Tongue Glove.
- Chase. It is normal for cats to want to chase and run as part of their predatory behavior. Even short bursts of running to pounce on their prey can liven up their day. To encourage this behavior, I love tossing stuffed mice or using feathery wand toys to engage cats in a little chase time. Some cats will chase a treat which is a fun simulation of the prey hunting experience all in itself.
- Sleep. The amount of time a cat sleeps can vary but it typically ranges from 13 to 16 hours each day. Cats look for a place that feels comfortable and safe. Comfort includes having the right temperature and warmth. During warm weather, cats often seek out shaded sleeping nooks; on chillier days they usually look for a spot in the warm sunshine or curl up next to a heat source. Cats will often snuggle up with their face between their paws to reduce body heat loss. If you see your cat doing this, they may appreciate a little assistance from a heated cat bed placed in a spot they feel safe. These types of beds, such as those made by K & H, provide low levels of heat that safely soothe cats without the danger of burns.
- Warmth. As I mentioned, cats enjoy a toasty warm place to live. When cold, some cats can become irritable or lethargic. Most cats prefer house temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit or even warmer temperatures of 71-74 degrees. Cats love warm sunny windows because they can stretch out for a nap or move away from the sun depending on their desires.
- Smell. Cats have 200 million odor-sensitive cells in their noses compared to about 5 million for humans. Your cat's sense of smell helps him communicate with others of his own kind and assess the potential risks and pleasures. Because of this amazing sense, cats can even detect the presence of other cats outside the home and can identify any strange animals you've come in contact with simply by smelling your clothing. Your cat will deposit its own odor by urine marking and deposition of skin secretions to mark its territory and important objects in its environments. His olfactory (smelling) ability can even help him taste his food to determine whether the food you've offered him is appealing. The introduction of interesting smells from outdoors or even an especially fragrant can of food can be a welcome diversion for your cat.
- Hearing. A cat's ears contain several muscles that allow them to “funnel” sounds to the brain. Their ability to pinpoint the source of sound is amazing. Cats hear very at very high frequencies which allows them to hear their kitten's cries as well as the ultrasonic calls of small rodents. Because of this increased sensitivity, some sounds and types of music can agitate cats. To appeal to your cat sense of hearing, I recommend you do three things:
a. First, provide some quiet spots away from loud music and TV noises.
b. Provide sounds that soothe. Music CDs such as “Music My Pet” provides tones that help soothe cats while carefully avoiding those that agitate.
c. Provide sounds that appeal to cats and stimulate their sense of hearing. For example, Our Pets Play-N-Squeak "Mouse Hunter" chirps at frequencies similar to a real mouse and cats love it. These generally retail for under $5 and they're a great deal.
- Health. A cat's nature is to survive, and to that end they are very good at hiding their illness from predators. What that means to us pet parents is that we need to stay informed and aware of our cats' behavior. Subtle signs of illness may include being less eager about their food, not finishing their food, and sleeping more. One thing I personally like to do to help keep an eye on things is to feed a small amount of canned food to my cats once or twice a day. If they don't come running, I know something is wrong long before many pet parents who feed dry only (which is typically less appealing) or feed less regularly.
- Stressors. As you try to make your cat happy by enriching their environment, it is equally important to understand what stresses cats out. Every individual is different but there are some things that most cats avoid. These include sudden changes (including in food and litter), loud or harsh noises, sudden movements, traveling, strange or aggressive animals, and unfamiliar chemical smells such as those at the vet's office, just to name a few. Try to minimize these factors in their environment if possible. Learn more about cat stressors and what you can do.
- The Little Things. Sometimes the details make all the difference. Really think about the little things your cat may enjoy. For example, the next time you're at the grocery store, think of your cat and get a paper bag instead of plastic. Toss the paper bag on the floor as you are putting away groceries with a pinch of catnip. If you get a delivery in a box, try taping the box closed, cutting a hole in the side of the box, tossing in a toy, and engaging your cat in some playtime. There are also DVDs made for cats which are filled with feline-specific visual and auditory stimuli. Try letting your cat play with milk ring and twist ties as toys (only under supervision for their protection). As you go through your day, consider the little things you can do to make your cat's environment more enriching and fulfilling for their instincts.