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Feline Environmental Enrichment - keeping your feline friend happy and active!

Feline Environmental EnrichmentWe all want our cats to be happy, but happiness for most cats is more than just providing food, water and a litterbox.  Cats are innately active creatures with finely tuned senses.  They are born with greater senses of smell and hearing, can see well in low-light conditions and have flexibility and maneuverability that would make any athlete jealous.  If a cat is not given the opportunity to use these abilities, they will not reach their happiness potential.  Unhappiness can lead to a whole host of things, including behavioral problems and obesity.  Inappropriate urination, anxiety, aggression, overgrooming and overeating can be just a few of the symptoms of an unhappy cat.  The good news is there are lots of things you can do to help enrich your cat's environment to keep them active and less stressed.

1. Food and Water
Every cat needs food, but how we feed can really make a difference.  Cats are natural hunters so having food poured into a bowl for them a couple times per day is not very mentally satisfying.  Instead, try food puzzles for feeding. There are countless options available at pet stores and online.  If you'd prefer the home-made variety, it can be as easy as cutting a couple of holes in a plastic water bottle with your cat's food inside.  They have to move the water bottle around in order to be fed.  Even if you feed wet food, there are lots of options available and Youtube and Pinterest are full of great ideas for creating more interaction at feeding time.  Feeding your cat smaller amounts more times per day allows them more brain stimulation, reduces overeating and more closely mimics general feeding behavior in cats.

Another option for feeding is called the NoBowl system.  This set consists of 5 little mice-like food dispensers that are meant to portion out food and be hidden around the house.  The cat then "hunts" for their meals as they get hungry and, once satisfied by their catch, they go on to other activities.  The NoBowl systems mimics the natural hunt cycle and allows for the stimulation that they crave.  The NoBowl helps increase activity while decreasing overeating and the "scarf and barf" that can occur when cats eat too quickly.

Water is also an opportunity for improving your cat's well-being.  It is important for cats to stay hydrated, particularly if you are feeding a dry food, and offering large water bowls (some cats do not want their whiskers to touch the sides as they drink!) of fresh water daily will help keep your cat healthy.  Consider a pet water fountain for added enrichment.  Many cats enjoy running water and will be drawn to a fountain.  Some cats also enjoy ice in their water so you can give that a try as well.

2. Play
Cats benefit from both interactive play and object play.  Having specific toys (think fishing pole with feathers on the end) that help you engage with your cat in a prey-type scenario is important for both mental and physical interaction.  You should also have objects (think crinkle balls or furry mice) hidden around the house for them to find and engage their curiosity and interest.  Putting these items in novel places (inside a shoebox with a hole cut in it) is an easy way to add enrichment.

3. Environment
Cats are vertical creatures living in a horizontal world.  Sprucing up the environment with cats in mind will help ease anxiety and add space in multi-cat households.  Elevated locations often equate to security for cats and having access to higher areas is important.  There are many options available to make or purchase such as cat trees, catwalks, shelves and window perches that add benefit to a cat's environment.  You can get as fancy as you desire.

It is also important to include options for hideaways.  They can be as simple as a box turned on its side with a blanket in it to provide a safe space for a cat nap.  Having multiple, comfortable places to hide helps to ease stress.  Some cats will also enjoy tunnels in their space.  There are many available for purchase, or you can even create your own with paper bags, tape and scissors. 

Appropriate areas for scratching will also help prevent furniture damage and eliminate the need for declawing.  Scratching is a natural cat behavior that serves many purposes including scent marking, stretching, and anxiety relief.  If you do not provide appropriate posts and substrates for scratching, the cat will find an outlet, approved or otherwise.  Scratching posts should be tall (think FULL stretch) and very sturdy.  They need to be in a location that the cat approves (probably not in a far off corner) and have an appealing texture (studies say sisal is most cat approved).  You may need to experiment to find what is right for your cat – don't give up after only one try!

The litterbox is a necessary part of our cat's environment that we can also seek to improve upon.  Having multiple box options (one more box than the number of cats in the household is ideal) available in different areas and/or floors of the house is recommended.  Cats often prefer that the boxes are larger than a standard litterbox (think under the bed Rubbermaid container) where they have ample room to move around with sides that are not too high, especially as they age.  Some cats don't like being confined in a covered box, so if you have one, make sure to offer an open option as well.  

And if you are really feeling ambitious, you can create the newest craze in cat enrichment: a catio!  "Catio" is short for cat-patio which is essentially a safe, enclosed, outdoor space for your cat to hang out.  Catios can range from basic window boxes to elaborate, multi-level outdoor palaces, but the main idea is just to add to your cat's environmental options by allowing them a space to lounge and enjoy the smells, sights and sounds of the great outdoors without the worries of an outdoor cat lifestyle.

The bottom line is... you don't have to replace all the furniture and wall coverings with cat-friendly alternatives or form a new friendship with Amazon Prime to enrich your cat's environment (although that's fun too!).  Start small by looking at the house from your cat's perspective and search for ways to improve small things.  The internet is a great resource for easy DIY projects and provides countless reviews for feeders, fountains, and perches.  The more we can do to improve our cat's environment, the happier our cats will be.  Happier cats have less stress and behavioral issues and will be healthier overall.  What changes will you make?