Cats are extraordinarily intelligent, naturally curious and active pets. By doing so, they have earned a place in our hearts and homes.
They are also faithful companions and deserve respect for their unique nature. Even if we do keep them locked indoors, their uniqueness as pets deserve special treatment. This new imposed habitat may be far from the original wilderness. But the behaviour is almost the same as their wild ancestors’.
So if we want to ensure their well-being, we must cater to their needs and provide a stimulating environment. This environmental enrichment will make a difference for all the members of your family, especially your beloved pets. Thus contributing to a healthier and happier life.
Why is environmental enrichment so important?
The environmental requirements of our domestic felines don’t just concern the physical space, indoor or outdoor. Social interaction, including human contact, is just as important.
Cats do not often express obvious signs of stress.
In most cases, environmental enrichment is only considered when cats express behaviours that attract our attention. And not for the best reasons – they are the ones we label as bad, inappropriate or aggressive. Behaviours such as peeing outside the box, scratching our furniture, excessive hiding and aggressiveness.
Many cats may even develop diseases induced by constant anxiety. Such conditions include: urinary, respiratory and dermatological problems as well as obesity.
However, by anticipating and meeting their specific needs, we can avoid the triggers responsible for unwanted behaviour and medical issues.
When should environmental enrichment begin?
The answer is BEFORE the adoption even occurs. But who has never been carried away by a pair of puss-in-boots eyes and dived head-first into an unplanned pet adoption? Unfortunately, this lack of planning may be cause of much stress for our cat due to poor acclimation. Fast forward a couple of months and your cat’s behaviour will let you know how things went wrong.
Therefore, the environment should be prepared as early as possible, whether you’re moving to a new house or adopting a new pet. And you should always seek veterinary advice.
What exactly does environmental enrichment include?
Enrichment plans must always be adapted to each cat’s case. Bear in mind aspects such as age, degree of socialisation, pre-existing medical conditions and previous behaviour.
1. Physical Space
Whatever the size of the house or yard, the most important thing is that our cats feel they have complete control over it. A safe space, free of pressure and fear. Cats wish for nothing more than to maintain daily routines that allow them tranquility. These spaces must be seen by cats as familiar territory.
Resting areas: Allow some choice in the beginning. Once you’ve acknowledged where your cat prefers to rest, make sure these places are always available and easily to access. Also, keep them free from noise or other disturbing elements.
Perching and hiding: In addition, we should allow our cat a choice of vertical spots and hiding places at ground level (under a bed, sofa or table, or cardboard box). These work as excellent allies for a more reassuring environment.
Multicat households: Homes with more than one cat may present a challenge. It is important to provide separate spaces and multiple resources to avoid competition.
Outdoors: Access to the outdoors, in what would be their natural environment, is recommended. Even though some pet parents won’t be able to offer this option. However, even if you do give your cats access outdoors, it is imperative that you guarantee their safety. Often, fencing will be enough to keep them safe. Also, the use of a harness and leash, if previously trained, may be an option.
2. Food and Water
Cats can be very demanding with their food and water intake, but the refusal of these resources may also be associated with environmental threats.
Therefore, and because they evolved as solitary hunters of small prey, it is preferable that food bowls are individual and placed in strategic, quiet locations, out of sight of prying eyes and noisy equipment.
As they eat small meals several times a day, their food should also be made available with quantity control, in a combination of dry (kibble) and wet food.
Don’t forget that commercially available petfood, albeit nutritious and wholesome, does not allow for the normal expression of natural hunting behaviour.
To address that problem, there are countless options of puzzles or similar objects for food dispensing, which try to make up for this domestic life. Some of them can even be built at home with enough imagination and craft skills.
The main pain point with water is that it must be fresh (cats hate stale water) which can be achieved by using appropriate running water fountains. Also, it is important to provide several water bowls throughout the environment. Cats have many problems due to low water intake, so whatever we can do to edge them to drink a bit more is very good for their health.
3. Litter Trays
Nowadays, litter trays come in all different shapes and and sizes, which can make the selection process rather daunting. But some key elements remain essential:
- Favor wide and open trays, which allow the normal sequence of events and do not trap smells.
- Be aware that self-cleaning boxes, although more hygienic, due to their noise and movement can make the cat avoid them;
- Place litter trays in safe, quiet places, away from food and water, and in such a way that access is never blocked;
- Choose the type of litter according to the cat’s preference, with an excellent absorption capacity and in sufficient quantity to cover your cat’s business;
- Ensure daily cleaning and complete replacement every week (depending on the number of cats that use it), and avoid using products that are too active for this function;
- Last but not least, ensure that there is at least one litter tray per feline plus one extra in multicat households. For instance, if you have 3 cats, the ideal number of trays is 4. Number of cats +1 is a general rule of thumb for almost all feline resources in multicat households.
4. Social System
Cats are usually labeled as solitary, but when they share the same space with other animals (feline or not) and humans, and provided environmental enrichment is adequate, they can form and maintain stable family groups.
Therefore, it is not so rare that they cuddle with us or other animals, and even play with them or share moments of mutual hygiene. But they should always be the ones to define the type and duration of this interaction, so that they feel in control of the situation.
Stressful situations often arise, if relationships are not close, in cases of insufficient or inadequate resources or if abrupt changes occur. Many cats try to deal with theses situations by decreasing their activity or avoiding the stimuli they see as threatening.
In more severe cases, conflict can take on different proportions with the expression of noticeable signs – noisy meowing, chasing, pawing, scratching and serious fights with biting. These situations should be immediately reported to your veterinarian. Correct advice as how to correct the environment is warranted in theses cases. Also, there are some solutions that may be prescribed as a pharmaceutical aid to help your cat deal with stress.
5. Activity and Body Expression
Cats have very characteristic behaviours such as scratching, chewing, biting, gnawing and playing. Therefore, even inside our homes they should be able to express them naturally.
Of course, we don’t find it amusing when these manifestations happen on our precious furniture or decorations. Which is why it is so important that they have suitable conditions and specific items and toys.
Make sure you have:
- Different and appropriate scratchers, preferably vertical and near their resting areas;
- Plants or herbs that they can smell and chew, as long as they are safe for their health (always confirm that they are not toxic);
- Toys and playground parks that allow them to develop the normal predatory activities such as ambushing, chasing, attacking and capturing. They can be handmade. Just make sure to change them every week. Buy or make toys that can be thrown in the air, those that allow us to keep a safe distance from their claws and teeth, and those that stimulate their quick reflexes. At the end of each game, in order to avoid frustration, we should reward them with a ‘treat’.
Cats are truly special animals with wild souls but loveable personalities. So if your wish to give your cat best experience of life at your side, you must respect their nature and provide the best environment possible – safe, comfortable, nurturing and stimulating!
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