What is enrichment?
Enrichment is the term used when we try to create an environment for our pets that allow them to display natural, species specific behaviours with the aim of improving their welfare and ‘enriching’ their lives.
Food enrichment is the most widely known and used form of enrichment in the pet owning community. Although sadly it is far more common for dogs than cats. There are a whole host of other forms of enrichment we can use in our homes and daily lives to help our pets.
To be able to provide outlets for natural, species specific behaviours we must first understand what our pet’s natural behaviours are!
Cats are a complicated bunch. They are domesticated, sort of…They are solitary… sort of. So, it is no surprise we sometimes make mistakes with how we care for pet felines.
Cats are domesticated to a degree. What this means is that they have evolved our thousands of years to adapt to living with people. However, the changes they have undergone and much fewer than those of the dog, arguably the pinnacle of domestication. Cats retain more of their original behaviours, but in modern society there are increasingly fewer outlets for these.
Cats are not a social species. They do not have the advanced forms of social communication or group structures which many true social species have. They will live in groups though if the conditions are right. That is why we see things like colonies of feral cats. The reason they do this is that all their needs can be met, they have enough space, enough food, enough privacy, many of the other cats are part of their biological family, and often there is the added benefit that humans come and feed them in their locations.
Cats are in fact self sufficient survivalists. They are lone hunters. They will do everything they can to stay out of trouble, because if they get hurt, they are in real trouble. They have large territories which overlap at the edges with other cats. They use long distance communication like scent marking to mark these areas without having to come in to close contact with their neighbours. They feed themselves by hunting, eating small meals multiple times a day. If you aren’t good at killing things you aren’t going to last long.
What are the problems with the modern cat lifestyle?
Pet cats in the UK face several problems. Firstly, UK pet owners have a tendency towards wanting to keep more than one cat. Although this can be achieved successfully it is also a common cause of stress for the cats. This is because their needs may not be being met as the groups we mentioned above are. They do not have enough space, enough privacy, they are not family members etc. If you are successfully managing a multi cat household, well done, especially if you have managed to get your cats to form a social group! But I would encourage people to think very carefully about adding a second cat to their home.
If cats are kept indoors this significantly reduces their ability to display natural behaviours including hunting, climbing, roaming. Even if our cats do go out, they often find themselves in a densely populated areas where multiple cats’ territories overlap. This causes great stress as other cats scent mark right on their doorstep, sometimes literally. This leads to regular close contact confrontations which cats are not well skilled at resolving.
Cats like killing things. People tend to not like their cats killing things… Cats like to spend much of their time hunting and eating. Yet in modern society we serve up pre portioned, pre-cut, chunks of ‘meat’ in a bowl twice a day and discourage our cats from any murderous activity. With no outlet for this predatory behaviour some cats will find other ways to express it, such as on other pets or people in the household. Cats tend to show a large overlap between predatory and play behaviours. So, if even if we don’t want them killing things, we can still try to help them express these behaviours through more playful outlets.
Cats also have highly attuned senses. Our world is full of smells, noise, movement… these can all be stressful for cats, especially as they spend a large proportion of their lives snoozing so peace and quiet is essential.
Some examples of enrichment for pet cats:
If you have multiple cats at home, you must ensure each cat has private access to these facilities and experiences. They should never have to interact with another cat to be able to access enrichment opportunities, if they want to share these experiences then that is great, but they shouldn’t be made to.
Use of space:
You probably can’t suddenly provide your cat with more square footage. But you can make better use of the space you have. Vertical space increases usable area as well as giving cats a higher vantage point which they often love. Things like shelves and platforms, steps up to the top of bookshelves and wardrobes, elevated beds etc are great additions to a feline home.
Safe areas to perform vital functions:
Cats want to be able to eat, drink, sleep and toilet in private. If you live in a cat dense area that is unlikely to be possible outside. Make sure your cat has ample space to do these things indoors, in private, even if they have outdoor access. It is also worth noting that cats toilet on the edge of the territory, so putting litters trays next to food and bed areas isn’t advisable.
Feeding in a more natural manner:
I’m not suggesting your cat needs to catch and kill all it’s food, or that you should only feed it whole mice… but there are things we can do to try and recreate a more natural feeding routine.
The type of food is important to consider. Cats should have a high protein diet. They are obligate carnivores. Sadly, many commercial cat foods are low in meat and high in carbohydrates. Variety is also important. Cats wouldn’t naturally catch the same prey day in and day out. Mix it up a little if your cat’s digestion can tolerate it.
How much and how often cats eat is also very different compared to their more natural state. Multiple little prey a day compared to two large meals. If at all possible, cats should be fed small meals multiple times a day. The way in which these are fed is also a great way of adding fun and variety whilst keeping their brains busy and bodies active. Puzzle feeders for cats are widely available (or you can make your own!) they are designed to encourage a variety of feeding behaviours such as use of the paws and they require the cat to think about how to get access to the food, rather than just having it sat right in front on them.
Predatory / Play Outlets:
If you don’t provide an outlet for your cat’s predatory instincts it will find it’s own, and that might be directed at your ankles…
The most popular form of play for many cats is predatory based play. This means the play session involves similar behaviours to those needed for hunting. These might include hiding, stalking, pouncing, biting, raking (kicking with the back legs), plucking and finally eating.
One of the differences between true predation and play is that when playing these steps do not need to be performed in sequence and they are often displayed in an exaggerated and flamboyant fashion!
My top tips for keeping safe whilst encouraging play are to use long toys, such as feather teasers and toys on strings so the biting and grabbing is happening at a good distance from your hands, do not try to touch your cat when they are in a heightened state of arousal and to end a session, I like to scatter some bits of food on the floor to finish the ‘hunt’ with a tasty prize.