Are you one of those cat owners who have been providing the best of everything to their pet, but still fail to keep them happy?
According to veterinary behavioral science research, cats need more than food and shelter to stay happy and live a fulfilling life; they need environmental enrichment.
What is Environmental Enrichment?
As defined by the College of Veterinary Medicine of the Ohio State University:
“environmental enrichment is the process of manipulating an animal’s environment to increase physical activity and normal species typical behavior that satisfies the animal’s physical and psychological needs.”
Simply put, it is the process of improving your cat’s environment to make it compatible with its natural behavior.
All cat owners who keep their pets indoors should understand that human homes are not ideal for cats; they usually lack aspects that are essential for the full health and happiness of cats.
You have to take certain measures to make your home a place where your cat’s instinctual needs are met. Otherwise, it will get bored and may also become anxious and stressed after a while.
Boredom and anxiety often also lead to the development of certain behavioral and medical issues among pet cats.
Why Environmental Enrichment is Important for Cats
Cats are naturally active creatures and they need regular stimulation to utilize their energy. Like humans, they also need a space of their own.
In order to stay happy and healthy, they need an environment that allows them to indulge in their natural behavior and fulfill, support, or allow them to meet their physical and emotional needs.
Since most indoor environments are restrictive and do not allow cats to live their natural way, they tend to get bored and become highly susceptible to health and behavioral problems.
Benefits of Environmental Enrichment for Cats
The purpose of environmental enrichment is to provide pet cats with the opportunities to create their own positive experiences, in order to keep them happy and healthy.
Here are some of the key benefits that environmental enrichment provides to pet cats:
1) Mental stimulation
By allowing them to practice natural instincts like stalking, climbing and hunting, enrichment reduces the likelihood that your cat develops signs of mental stagnation, sadness, or even depression.
In addition to keeping the feline brain functional, it initiates the release of dopamine, the happy hormone or feel-good chemical that elevates their mood. Regular production of dopamine will ensure the mental health of your pet cat.
2) Physical Stimulation & Exercise
An enriched environment also allows your cat to be more physically active, which then helps it stay in shape and shed the extra pounds it may have gained (yes, cats can gain weight and become obese too!).
Extra weight can make your cat prone to diseases like diabetes, fatty liver, and arthritis.
In contrast, an enriched environment can help your cat build strength, agility and flexibility – all characteristics that a cat in the wild would normally have.
3) Reduction In Damage To Your Home
Common signs that your cat does not have enough enrichment include destructive habits like scratching, shedding hair, urinating and jumping up on surfaces you don’t want them to be on.
Enriched environments provide pet cats with multiple channels to utilize their energy without causing harm to your home.
How to Know Your Cat Needs Environmental Enrichment?
As mentioned above, the lack of environmental enrichment can make pet cats sad and stressed.
But, how do you know that your cat is stressed and needs environmental enrichment?
Behavioral & Medical Problems
When pet cats couldn’t fulfill their natural needs and get bored and stressed, as a result, they generally develop certain behavioral issues, at first.
If their requirements aren’t met, they also start developing medical problems after a while.
These include anxiety, depression, aggression, eating disorders, and attention-seeking behaviors. They can also cause self-harm or develop compulsive behaviors, such as excessive scratching or grooming.
Defecating & Urinating
Defecating and urinating outside their litter box and scent-marking are the most common ways for cats to express their frustration and anxiety.
In case you don’t know, scent marking involves rubbing their bodies, spraying urine or scratching surfaces to mark their boundaries.
According to experts and cat owners, this is to establish control in an environment where cats feel vulnerable or anxious.
Why You Shouldn’t Punish Your Cat
Rather than addressing the issue that’s causing the stress, many cat owners (particularly the new ones) punish their cats to stop undesirable behaviors.
However, it only makes the situation worse; cats get more stressed and as a result, the undesirable behaviors are intensified.
How to Enrich Your Pet Cat’s Environment?
When it comes to environmental enrichment for indoor cats, most pet owners think that just providing a few cat toys is enough. However, this is not true.
Improving the environment of pet cats to ensure their well-being and happiness requires that pet owners first understand their pet’s intrinsic requirements and behaviors.
It is only when you know what your cat’s natural needs are that you can take measures to fulfill them.
In most cases, discomfort or stress comes from multiple sources.
For example, cats that are confined to indoor spaces usually cannot fulfill their natural needs for scratching, climbing, and hunting without getting their owners annoyed.
To help cat owners create a happy space for their pets, here we are highlighting the most important factors that you need to take care of:
1) Feed Your Cat in Ways That Can Satisfy Its Natural Instinct for Hunting
Cats have a natural tendency for hunting. Fulfill this need of your pet cat by using food balls, interactive toys, or food puzzles to feed them, instead of simply giving them food in a bowl.
This activity will also work as a mental stimulant and the reward at the end of searching will initiate the release of dopamine. This means it is one way to keep your pet cat happy and healthy.
Start this activity by hiding food at the same place every day and when your cat gets used to searching for the reward, you can change the hiding spot.
2) Provide Your Cat With Something to Scratch
Scratching is one of the natural behaviors of cats. If you don’t want your pet cat to scratch your furniture, make sure to provide them with some materials for that.
Make some scratching posts with wood, cardboard, rough fabric or sisal rope and place them throughout your house.
However, just like all other habits, you have to train your cat to only use those posts for scratching.
3) Give Your Cat Vertical Space
Cats like to climb and rest on high spots. To prevent your best friend from climbing on your furniture and other elevated areas of your house, assign its designated places.
Install cat shelves, perches, condos and trees, preferably with hiding spots, at your place to satisfy your cat’s need for climbing.
You may need to encourage and later treat your cat for climbing, if it has already become used to a sedentary lifestyle.
Looking for an Easy Way? Install or Build a Catio!
Does taking all these measures sound difficult to you? Or you don’t want to install multiple cat-friendly structures inside your house?
Since the stress from unfulfilled natural requirements can take a toll on the health of pet cats, experts have come up with a brilliant solution –an outdoor cat enclosure!
For those who do not know, an outdoor cat enclosure, also called a catio, is a safe and enclosed space that can be built in the garden, balcony, window, or patio to provide pet cats with an environment where they can fulfill all their natural needs.
By satisfying cats’ natural needs to be outdoors and perform certain activities, catios provide the enrichment they seek and keep them healthy and happy, without putting their safety at risk.
Due to the benefits that a catio can provide, outdoor cat enclosures are becoming increasingly popular among cat parents.
Made of wood or metal, domestic cat enclosures feature climbing trees, high resting spots, shelves, hammocks, scratching poles, and toys to allow pet cats to fulfill their natural behavioral needs.
The Final Word
Environmental enrichment is essential for raising a happy and healthy pet cat.
Limiting your cat to a restrictive indoor place where they do not have much to do will make them inactive, lazy, overweight, bored, and depressed.
As discussed above, this eventually leads to a number of behavioral and medical issues.
Instead, you can provide your cat with a fun and enriching space to play, exercise or rest by following the advice in this article or installing a catio for your cat at home.