SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Enrichment tips for cats

You might think that your independent, nap-loving cat can amuse themselves day-to-day. But that’s far from the truth! Just like people, cats like to explore, appreciate nice smells, admire views, and observe interesting objects.

Environmental enrichment is when you introduce these smells, sights, tastes and touch into your cat’s environment – and this is something they might not be getting in your home!

Enrichment is so important for your pets because it improves their physical and mental health. It reduces stress and abnormal behaviour such as aggression, vocalization, over-grooming and inappropriate toileting. With that in mind, here are our top 10 tips to enrich your four-legged friend and help them lead a happier and healthier life!

Tip 1 – Give your cat multiple small meals

Most cat owners feed their cats just twice a day and usually out of a bowl. Feeding them this way doesn’t require any ‘work’ from your cat to get their food, and as a result no mental or physical stimulation for them.

But there is an easy solution – divide your cat’s meals into several portions! Small amounts of food throughout the day recreates a cat’s natural way of eating, and will reduce possible boredom and frustration.

Tip 2 – Use puzzle feeders to feed your cat

An easy way to make your cat’s meals more interesting is using puzzle feeders! Puzzle feeders hold your cat’s food while they work out how to ‘solve’ the puzzle in different ways to release the food in small amounts.

Working for their food allows your cat to express some of their natural behaviours, and can be used to feed cats overnight, or keep your cat occupied while you are away during the day. There are many different types of puzzle feeders to choose from. Just make sure your cat knows how each puzzle feeder works first. Start with the easy ones before they get the hang of it - you don’t want your cat to become discouraged and give up!

Tip 3 – Create your own puzzle feeders

If you’re feeling creative, you can make a DIY puzzle feeder for your feline friend:

  • Hide some cups your cat cannot knock over around the house. Put some dry food inside so your cat has to find the cups and scoop the food out.
  • Cut a few holes in a cardboard box, put food inside and hide the box somewhere in the house. Your cat will need to find the box, then move it around until the food comes out, or they scoop it out.
  • Put some dry food in an old plastic bottle and cut some small holes in it. Your cat will need to roll the bottle around until the food comes out piece by piece.
  • Hide some food in a toilet roll pyramid.

These DIY puzzles will keep your cat busy for hours! As they become an expert forager, you can increase the difficulty level or introduce a different type of puzzle. You’re limited only by your imagination!

Tip 4 – Plant a cat grass and herb garden

Lots of people know that cats go crazy for cat nip, but did you know that cat safe plants are also a good way to give your cat sensory enrichment?

You could consider planting a cat garden outside, or plant into pots indoors. Your cat will love it! Just please remember to make sure any plants you have in your home or garden are not poisonous to cats.

You can find out more about safe and toxic plants here.

Tip 5 – Spend time brushing and stroking your cat

Touch is a very important part of your cat’s enrichment and keeping them mentally and physically healthy. They will enjoy having a variety of different surfaces to touch and explore such as scratching posts, trees outside, and DIY toys such as a cat self-scratcher.

Something as simple as brushing and patting your cat is another way to enrich your cat through touch.

If you have a long-haired cat that needs to be groomed, brushing can be a great bonding time and a way to keep their coat healthy and tangle-free.

Tip 6 – Train and play with your cat

Playing with your cat is not only fun for them, it’s also a way for them to experience visual sensory enrichment. There are so many different types of toys available for your cat. Many cats enjoy interactive toys such as wand toys. They may also like stuffed mice, balls to chase or feathers. It might take a few trials to figure out what toys your cats like best, but don’t give up!

You can also bond with your cat and provide mental and physical stimulation through training. Contrary to popular opinion, cats can be trained. Use reward-based training and keep training sessions short – no more than 5 minutes and always end on a positive note. The biggest mistake people make when training their cat is expecting too much too soon.

Start with simple things such as training your cat to come when called or to give their paw. Once your cat has these things mastered, you can start training your cat to do challenging but useful behaviours such enter their carrier or allowing you to trim their nails. Always break the process down into tiny steps and progress at their pace so it is always a positive experience.

Tip 7 – Give your cat the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, or view of outside.

Cat owners are increasingly moving towards cat containment as a way to keep their beloved pets (and native bird life) safe. Containment of cats can protect them from disease and injury through fighting and accidents. If you live in an apartment, or want to keep your cat safe and contained to your property, there are many ways you can let them enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, smells and noises from outside. If you already have a securely fenced garden, cat rollers can be attached to the top to make these cat proof, giving your cat the freedom to explore whilst keeping them safely contained in your garden. A catio (and outdoor cat enclosure or cat patio) is a solution to the indoor/outdoor dilemma and these have become enormously popular as a way of providing cats access to the outdoors whilst keeping them safe. Catio designs range from the simple and cheap to make to quite extravagant - look online for inspiration.

Allowing your cat to have access to a screened window in a sunny spot is another great way to offer visual stimulation. This is popular for both indoor cats and cats who venture outside. You could put a bed near a windowsill, a cat tower near the window or buy a specially designed cat window seat from a pet store.

Tip 8 – Give your cat a vertical space such as a cat tower

Cats naturally want to climb up high and use these high vantage points to survey their environment and to feel safe, so providing cats with a vertical space is very important.

Giving your cats raised areas that they can easily access allows them to express their natural climbing and observing behaviours, gives them more opportunity to get away from other animals and people, and provides them with a sense of environmental control.

Vertical space also means your cat can spread themselves out more in a restricted house environment. This is particularly important if you have a multi-cat household – vertical space not only helps cats cope with social stress, but cats use vertical space to separate themselves from each other, reducing hostile interactions.

These spaces can take the form of cat trees, scratching post towers, shelving units and wall-mounted shelves. You can encourage your cat to use spaces with treats, toys, and soft beds.

Tip 9 - Give your cat hiding spots

Provide hiding areas for your cat. Cardboard boxes with holes cut into them or a chair with a sheet draped over it are great for hide and seek games. Your cat’s favourite games will be the ones that involve you as they will be able to use their instinctive pouncing behaviour and release pent up energy by chasing.

Providing cosy hiding places is also a great idea for when your cat wants a nap or if they are feeling anxious. It is also a great idea in multi-cat households as sometimes it allows cats to have their own private space.

Tip 10 - Provide scratching opportunities

It is very important for cats to be given opportunities for scratching. Cats need to keep their claws healthy and conditioned, which can be difficult in a home environment without access to trees. Scratching posts also provide an appropriate outlet for emotional release for frustration, anxiety or excitement.

Scratching posts come in different shapes, sizes and materials. Not all cats will like the same scratching post, so you might need to try a few different styles before you find one which suits your cat. Ensure the post is sufficiently tall to allow your cat to fully stretch, and sturdy enough to allow your cat to lean against the post.

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