What is cat enrichment?

cat enrichment
(Image credit: Getty)

As a cat lover, you can significantly improve both the mental and physical health of your feline companions by investing a bit of time in cat enrichment. Enrichment refers to the practice of consciously providing animals with ways to express their natural behaviors. While the concept of enrichment is often associated with captive wild animals (zookeepers often spend large amounts of time preparing enrichment for the animals in their care, in order to mimic the mental stimulation they would be receiving from their natural environment), the same approach can be used to improve the lives of the pets that live in our homes, including cats. Providing your cat with ways to exercise their natural tendencies can have a number of beneficial impacts on pet cats. 

Why is enrichment important for cats?

While cats may seem like lazy couch potatoes much of the time, it’s important to remember that they are descended from hunters. Regardless of their laid-back appearance, cats maintain many of the hunting tendencies associated with their ancestors. When we bring cats into our homes and transform them into pampered housecats, they lose many of their opportunities to express their natural tendencies. This disconnect can lead to a number of medical and behavioral issues, while also decreasing your cat’s overall quality of life. 

Although an indoor lifestyle may be less than ideal from a cat’s perspective, we often keep our cats indoors because there are many safety benefits associated with doing so. Enrichment is the art of mimicking those outdoor experiences that our cats would normally engage in, within a safe indoor environment. An indoor lifestyle can be boring for cats, so we need to overcome that boredom by creating an environment that contains a variety of challenges and activities. 

Enrichment not only improves a cat’s quality of life, it can also prevent a number of behavioral and medical problems in cats. Stress is the underlying cause of many common cat behavior problems (including inappropriate elimination, human-directed aggression, and intercat aggression); managing stress is often the first step in preventing or managing these behavioral issues. Additionally, stress is associated with a number of medical conditions in cats. Cats that are stressed are more likely to develop urinary tract infection (feline idiopathic cystitis) and some skin issues (psychogenic alopecia). Enrichment is a useful approach to minimizing stress in cats, decreasing the likelihood of stress-associated medical and behavioral conditions.

How to provide enrichment for cats

When providing enrichment for cats, your goal is to introduce elements to your home that allow your cat to recreate their natural behaviors. As you begin to think about providing enrichment for your cat, think of how you can introduce elements that provide your cat with opportunities to rest, perch, hide, scratch, play, and hunt. These are all common natural feline behaviors. With a little bit of effort, you can easily expand upon your cat’s ability to engage in these activities within your home environment. 

The suggestions provided in this article are intended as a starting point, but feel free to think outside of the box! Anything you can do to allow your cat to exercise her natural tendencies will likely prove beneficial in the long run.

cat enrichment

(Image credit: Getty)

Cat enrichment ideas

As you begin to think about your cat’s basic needs and look for ways to meet these needs, you will find that there are a number of products for sale that can be used to provide enrichment for your cat. Don’t become overwhelmed by the number of available options; instead, purchase a variety of tools so that you can learn your cat’s preferences (or at least narrow them down a bit). Think about whether any given cat product meets your cat’s basic needs for resting, playing, perching, hiding, scratching, or hunting. 

Begin by providing a variety of the best scratching posts for your cats. Some cats prefer vertical scratching posts, while others prefer horizontal scratching surfaces. Some cats enjoy alternating between the two, benefitting from having multiple types of scratching surfaces in the home. Once you have learned what type of scratching surface your cat prefers, you can focus on purchasing that type of scratching surface in the future. 

Next, add a variety of the best cat toys to your home. While the available cat toy options are nearly endless, many cats seem to prefer toys that allow them to exercise their natural hunting instinct. There are a variety of hunting toys available, ranging from the ubiquitous fuzzy mouse toys to hunting feeders for cats. When purchasing toys, be sure to consider your cat’s safety. Avoid small toys and pieces of string that can be easily swallowed. Teaser wands can be a great option, but they should only be used under supervision because cats can chew through the string and swallow pieces of the toy. 

Finally, ensure that your cat’s environment has plenty of places to rest, perch, and hide. Rest spots should be distributed throughout your home, allowing your cat to follow the normal feline schedule of brief periods of activity followed by periods of rest. The best cat hammocks located near windows can provide your cat with endless entertainment, allowing them to indulge their hunting instincts by watching birds and other outdoor creatures. Finally, hiding spots provide the opportunity for your cat to take catnaps during the day, even if there are distractions in the environment. If you have multiple cats, ensure that you have at least as many cat beds, perches, and hiding spots as you have cats, to minimize competition that may contribute to stress. 

Cat enrichment for kittens

While kittens can benefit from many of the same enrichment opportunities as adult cats, there are several considerations that may uniquely benefit kittens. 

Kittens are especially playful. Therefore, you will want to be sure that you provide them with a wide variety of the best kitten toys for play. Buy a variety of toys for your kitten, so you can use trial-and-error to determine which toys your kitten finds most appealing.

Also, keep in mind that kittens are often not as coordinated as adult cats. While cat trees can be beneficial for both adult cats and kittens, tall climbing toys should be reserved for adult cats. If you have kittens in your home, consider a climbing toy that is relatively low to the ground, so that your kittens are less likely to become injured if they fall.

Enriching your cat's life

Appropriate cat enrichment can help improve the quality of your cat’s life, while also limiting the risk of various mental and physical problems. It’s worth investing a small amount of time and money to ensure that your cat’s enrichment needs are met, in order to improve both your cat’s life and your relationship with each other. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.