Is your cat happy? Understanding cat enrichment principles can help you improve your cat’s enjoyment of life indoors. A veterinarian explains how to approach engaging your cat’s mind and improving their environment to make your cat happy.
Anytime you have a cat engaging in any behavior that you object to, then a significant part of changing the outcome will need to be enriching the cat’s environment and providing more mental engagement. That is the one thing that almost ALL cats are missing enough of in their life, and the single most effective thing that is part of ANY effective cat behavioral treatment plan.
Owner’s almost always dismiss this suggestion with an announcement that their cat has plenty of toys. That statement alone indicates that the cat guardian does not really understand how to provide a truly enriching environment for their cat. A truly varied and engaging enrichment plan is a key core component to any feline behavior management plan. Also one of the cheapest and easiest to institute!
Environmental enrichment and mental engagement go a long way to alleviating feline stress from any source and making a cat happy. Furthermore, distraction onto acceptable activities is a beautiful tool. You will need to put on your thinking cap and modify to your cat(s) as works best for them and your situation!
A great cat enrichment plan will go a long way toward transforming your bored cat into a happy cat. The same can be said about transforming an anxious cat into a happy cat.
The idea behind this info is not to provide every possible toy idea in existence that claims to hold the key to making a cat happy. I will certainly provide a few examples that you are welcome to go have a look at, but frankly you can make toys on your own that are equally as engaging as any that you purchase. Additionally there are hundreds of videos on the world wide web that show you how to make engaging cat toys.
The purpose of this information is to help you understand the different ways to try to reach and help your individual cat. We want you to understand how to develop your own cat enrichment plan to support your efforts to create a happier more fulfilled cat. So rather than throw a bunch of toy links at you (beyond just a few to make clear what type of toy I refer to, I will try and to explain the different concepts of how to engage their beautiful active minds better.
Is your cat bored?
All too often there is a bunch of stuff dropped into the environment and then left there for weeks and months on end. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard, “My cat never plays”. That makes me sad for the cats every time. If a cat never plays – then it has been bored out of its mind, or become too obese to move, or it is painful, or some other creature in the house makes it too afraid to venture out from under the bed.
Normal healthy cats do NOT just… stop playing. Most of their ‘natural’ play activity involves hunt, chase, and catch a moving object while they explore all the ‘new’ stuff in their territory. That sort of occupation continues their whole life in the ‘wild’, and should continue to do so for a mentally and physically healthy indoor cat. Onward!
Cats often get stuck in beautifully clean and tidy houses where nothing changes from day to day. That is the MOST boring cat environment ever. Smart bored animals fixate on things that THEY find interesting and engaging. Things that we are not usually happy about like clawing up furniture or attacking moving feet walking down a hall. Smart, bored active minded animals will also fixate territorial protection of their territory from outside cats, AND the cats within their home. Under-engaged active cats will begin to be excessive with their predatory play with both human and others animal family members.
Remember while you read this over – cats were meant to explore their rather large territories daily, and look for what is new. The same old same old every single day = bored cat. NEW is a BIG deal for cats. Very entertaining. The same stuff every single day is mind numbing for them. Cats need NEW. Different. Daily. Changing variety = happy cat
Ways to keep your cat happy
Interactive Hunt, Chase, and Capture Play
Most any cat will usually benefit from focused extensive play time where they can ‘capture’ the play toy successfully. I am not talking about just chasing a moving object that they cannot really grab hold of physically or bite (like a laser or a big rolling hard plastic motion activated toy). Instead try games where they can grab a physical little fake mouse or bird or piece of cloth, even a repurposed empty toilet paper roll, etc. and heave on it, claw it, shred it, smack it around, and bite it. (Here is one wand toy option.)
YOU have to figure out what sort of presentation they like this play in. Recall what I said – if they will not engage then chances are you have not figured out what they like, or they have a physical issue involved that makes activity difficult so they refuse to engage.
If the WHAT they want to chase does not engage them then try working on the HOW you present the play object. Do they favor a slow drag again and again past their field of vision, or perhaps they like an erratic zagging jerk, or maybe a sudden flip up in the air so they can catch it on the fall down. Watch them and see what catches their interest – some cats are drawn to the same motions, but some change their preference with the day of the week. Even with this type of interactive play – try not to do the same exact thing, in the same exact way, every single time.
Next in keeping with the NEW theme required to keep a cat happy – work out a good way to change the catch toy on the end safely. Try washing it now and then or rub it with some good quality cat nip = you made it NEW! Rub some pine needles on it, maybe a tiny bit of some spice from your cabinet = you made it NEW! Change the end toy entirely (this wand toy comes with multiple end options)= YAY!
Self Motivated Play
If they need more interactive hunt time than you can give, then try some self play toys like a new cat nip filled felt toy, or crinkle balls and toys that make delicious noises when assaulted. Check out some of the free rolling motion activated toys or the stationary motion activated toys. These may not allow them to catch and crunch but they have fun motion to chase in their favor. Cats are almost always attracted to motion. They are hunters trained by eons to watch for little motions and go investigate!
The key is do NOT leave them out constantly. Instead, put them away every other week or so. When they no longer approach them frequently then put them away for awhile. Trade their toys for one in the closet that can come out and be “new” once again! The same goes for those ring batting ball type toys and the like, once the ‘new’ has worn off, then put them entirely away! Trade them for a closeted toy that can return in fine NEW fashion. Again, add some new scent to an old toy to spiff it up and increase the interest in its return and chances are higher it will better engage a bored cat.
Laser toys – good or bad?
There is a world of opinion out there which pronounces laser play to be all bad all the time for all cats. I disagree. Certain types of cats (and some people) have problems with these toys, and behaviorists tend to see more of these sorts of cats, thus, they rightly tend to advise against them based on their experiences. Furthermore, ost people use a laser without realizing it can be frustrating for a predator to be alllll hunt and chase and NO catch and crunch!
Some cats, when over amped by anything (looking at strange outdoor cat in the window, an attack of the zoomies, having an argument with a feline sibling, playing with a favored toy, being exposed to cat nip, etc etc) will become aggressive and lash out at their house companions – human or feline. Redirected aggression is a common problem in cats. It is a factor of their personality, their level of mental engagement on a daily basis with satisfying activities, and being overamped by some activity. It is not, however, a problem uniquely triggered by laser toys by any means.
I believe that this generalization of laser toys as a ‘problem toy for ALL cats’ is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because a small percentage of cats have a big problem with these toys, does not mean that a very useful engagement tool should be dismissed out of hand for the other thousands of cats in the world. So whether they are good or bad = that entirely depends on the individual cat and the person operating the laser toy.
IF your cat seems to tolerate laser play well and calms down quickly and behaves normally after the play then use three adjustments to help it remain satisfying and useful:
- Play a short span of time and do NOT amp them up making them go crazy fast or jump crazy high all the time. That is not as fun as you think it is for them. It is agitating and becomes stressful if overdone and THAT tends to be what causes most redirected aggression problems.
- Have a defined end to the laser game every time. For example, run the dot onto a final physical toy that comes out at the end for them to assault. A new and interesting toy that only appears when the laser game is finished.
- Immediately mark the end of the game with a little crunchy dry food or their favorite beloved treats to eat. Give them a nice bunch of chewing to finish up with! Have the food/treats ready to go before you ever start so that it can come immediately upon the end of the laser time.
These adjustments can go a long way to preventing the whole “finished chasing and now I want to attack” redirected assault mode that some cats have trouble with. And remember, some cats just cannot handle the laser play without being driven to hostility and aggressive behavior. If your cat is one of those sorts = then do NOT engage them in laser play.
Provide them with some safe outdoor time to explore and get their mental exercise. How? Buy or build a catio outside so they can mentally exert themselves taking in the new sights and sounds and smells that each day brings. Even an outdoor window box they relax and watch and scent the world going by in can be cool for many cats. Hard to beat a safe jaunt outdoors as a great tool for cat enrichment.
Make your backyard cat proof for climbing and jumping (ie. fence extensions or fence rollers – check out the video)and let them burn their mental energy safely outside with a break away belled collar on to protect birds and tiny animals = hooray, safe happy cat!
Feeling really motivated? Teach your cat to wear and walk on a harness so they can go out and explore your yard. Or get a cat stroller and take them for a safe enclosed walk that let’s them see and scent the neighborhood.
Change their view
Most cats love to be able to climb and look down at their territory and everything in it from on high, so provide them a cat tree to do so, and if you can manage to get that cat tree near a window then so much the better.
You can also add different level window perches inside so they can watch goings on outside. A nice passive enrichment that will make your cat happy.
Food Oriented Play
Cats were meant to hunt for small meals throughout the day, not eat from a giant never ending bowl of carbohydrate laden dry food. Cats get fat from boredom eating just like people do, so use feeding time as part of your mental enrichment program too. Another nice passive way for you to provide enrichment to make a happy cat.
If they are currently fed in a never ending bowl of dry food then figure out a 3-4 day average of how much they eat in a single day. That will now be their defined amount of food for a 24 hour period, so stick with only that measured amount each day going forward. Measure it, do NOT just eyeball it or guesstimate! Multiple cat households will adjust easily on their own as long as you have the food allotment for the day split in more than one feeding station that cannot be blocked by a single cat.
So how do you incorporate food into play to help keep your cat happy? Split a portion of the newly defined daily food portion out and make them work for it! Hide bits of it here and there in the house (start close to their bowl and gradually move it farther away so they start to work out the game). Gradually move some from room to room in a bowl, or hide the bowl under a NEW box in a different room each day.
Soon they will be hunting each day in active play to figure out where their hidden bits of the day’s meal are AND walking all over the house for exercise = YAY, happy cat! Feed from toys they have to bat around to get some of their daily allotment of food.
There are a zillion food toys, and a zillion internet instructions on how to make your own. One of the easiest is empty toilet paper rolls, with small holes cut to let chosen stuff fall out and the ends taped or folded – fill with some kibble, or treats. Great fun and perfectly ok to be shredded for the really determined tiny tiger predators!
Sight and sound engagement
Are they left alone often? Then do not forget sound and sight as methods of cat enrichment in your absence. Leave the tv or radio on a nice calm channel line up where people talk a lot, calmly – a great use for eternally sappy Hallmark channel 😉. Aim for the calm normal ebb and flow of human conversation in the background, not loud noisy westerns and car crashes.
Consider looking up You Tube bird call channels for your tv or perhaps on your tablet down on the floor where they can watch the birds AND listen to the calls. Find a cat TV channel or put on a cat aimed DVD.
Everyone seems to forget that cats very much read the world through scent too, just like dogs. Anyone that travels will tell you that when they come home, their luggage gets mobbed by the cats immediately!! Incoming strange, exotic smells from other places to take in = what fun, easy way to make a cat happy!! Bring in outdoor smells like a pine cone from outside, a cedar sprig or branch, maybe some pine needles for your toilet paper roll toy.
Add some cat nip, or a small sprinkle of some spice they find interesting to their toys. Take old fabric toys and wash them, then rub them with some cool new scent = instant NEW toy! Set toys outside for a couple of days, then bring them back in. FUN! Make cat snuffle mat – hide some of the share of kibble in it, sprinkle a little of some new seasoning lightly on it each day, see what most amused them and make note. New scents are fabulously interesting most of the time all on their own and an easy way to make a cat happy. Scent is one of the main reasons they love new boxes so much.
Why are boxes so appealing and such an easy way to intrigue a bored cat?! They are new, they are covered and filled with different smells from outside and other places!! Finally something NEW came into the house!!
When you add all those interesting smells to a brand new place to crawl in and explore then my, oh my, you have a world of new AND fun in one package, and a very happy cat. Make a box fort. But then CHANGE it up. Get new boxes often. Make them interesting to explore with new crooks and crannies to find. Add new smells, branches from outside to claw, leaves to pounce in, hide treats to be found, fill it with crinkle toys – experiment. Your cats will adore your efforts and you have some cheap easy cat enrichment.
Cats also tend to enjoy different textures to lay on, to paw, and to claw – so experiment with that. It could be something simple like construction paper crumple balls, crackly crunchy toys, different types of scratch mats, bed textures, or different textures on their scratching post. See what textures and sizes and shapes amused which cats and use that to modify future plans. See our article on scratching posts because there is a great deal more to providing adequate scratch post needs for your indoor cats than most people realize or plan for.
Training and Tricks
Running out of things to try and enrich their day with? Try teaching them some tricks and cues. The internet abounds with many videos on how to teach your cat to target, sit, come, place, etc. We have an article on how to teach your cat a positive interrupter cue. Cats are quite teachable if you can manage to be persistent and consistent!
The most often ignored part of any feline behavior modification plan is cat enrichment. Without fail, the incidence of behavior problems will decrease significantly and obviously IF a better mental engagement and environmental enrichment plan is instituted to help make the cat happy. It will not always solve the problem on its own but it never fails to help most any behavioral issue cropping up.
Fighting cats in the house = give them something else to think about other than their grudge match or land war! Young cat attacking moving feet and small moving toddlers = give them something else to stalk and occupy their minds. Stressed out cats urinating or pooping outside the litter box = enrich that environment for ALL the cats and watch things improve a little (along with proper litter box care).
If there is a problem, give their bright active selves more to do and think about that you do approve. Think about some of this stuff and see what you can institute to help return to a state of happy cat in your home. Variety is the spice of their life, change things up often to help reduce stress and keep your cat happy!