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What is Environmental Enrichment and Why Does Your Cat Need it?

what is environmental enrichment for cats

Environmental enrichment is a phrase that may not be familiar to you but if it’s important that you become familiar with it and what it means to your cat. A boring environment can contribute to problems such as destructive behavior, intercat aggression, depression and anxiety. Under-stimulated cats are at risk of developing boredom-related or stress-relieving behaviors such as over-grooming, chewing inappropriate items, picking on companion pets, retreating into isolation, over-eating, self-mutilation, compulsive behavior and loss of appetite.

Cats Were Born to Move

Cats have finely-tuned senses. The ears can move independently and hear sounds that humans can’t. Cats can pinpoint sound location with amazing accuracy. Their binocular vision has excellent low-light ability and can see in conditions humans consider totally dark. Then there’s a cat’s sense of smell. Odors can be detected that we’d never know where present.

Now let’s look at the cat’s body. Cats can jump 5-7 times their height. Cats walk on their toes for speed and stealth.  They’re incredibly flexible and able to perform lightning-quick directional changes. Whiskers help navigate in dark environments and also help in detection of prey, among any other functions There are so many other facts about a cat’s body that enable them to have incredible speed, stealth and accuracy.

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Imagine having all that equipment and it never gets used. That’s the way it is for many cats. They’re brought indoors (and we want them in indoors) but there’s nothing to do. Cats weren’t meant to be sedentary and eat mountains of food. Cats were born to move.

Why Environmental Enrichment Works for Cats

First, there’s physical health. If your cat is active she has a greater chance of staying in better shape. Her muscles get a good workout, her bones stay strong and she’s more likely to develop a normal, healthy appetite.

Now, let’s look at the benefits you may not be aware of. A cat who has positive experiences usually has more confidence. Fun, safe environment = happy, confident cat. Stressful or boring environment = unhappy, stressed cat.

Since cats are sensory-driven, if a cat has no tension release, she may come up with one that isn’t beneficial. A common anxiety-relieving behavior is over-grooming. The cat may self-groom so much that bald spots appear. By providing outlets for energy release, the cat has something to do so she doesn’t need to engage in destructive behaviors.

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Studies have shown when a cat is hunting, a brain chemical (dopamine) is released that creates a feeling of eager anticipation. This release is initially triggered by the sound or scent of prey. Cats enjoy being in hunting mode. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, who was a neuroscientist at Washington State University and a researcher on this topic, referred to this feeling as the Seeking Circuit.  An analogy might be the way kids feel on Christmas morning before presents are opened.

When in the seeking circuit, it would make sense that the cat would be less anxious, depressed or bored. Opportunities to experience eager anticipation and exploration are important. Luckily for us, we don’t have to supply mice and birds so cats can experience the seeking circuit; it can be done through toys and playtime.

Implementing Environmental Enrichment

You can include food-related environmental enrichment whether you’re home or not through food-dispensing toys (aka puzzle feeders). A puzzle feeder in its basic form is simply a plastic ball with a hole in it where dry food randomly falls out as the cat rolls it around. Several manufacturers make a variety of ball-shaped puzzled feeders for dry food. Some puzzle feeder balls have computer chips to enable you to record a voice message for your cat. I’m not a fan of dry food for cats but if you do feed dry food, this is at least a way to include enrichment and playtime instead of just dumping a mound of food into the bowl.

There are many other styles of puzzle feeders. Aikiou makes the Stimulo which is one of my cat’s favorites. This puzzle feeder uses tubes and the cat has to reach in to get the food. You can customize the length of the tubes to match your cat’s ability. Since I don’t feed dry food to my cat, I place pieces of freeze-dried treats in there. She loves it! The Stimulo is readily available through various online sites as well as at many local pet product stores. Another terrific company that makes puzzle feeders for cats and dogs is Nina Ottosson Products. Here a video from YouTube with cats “working” for food rewards.

You can also make homemade puzzle feeders by using plastic water bottles. Cut holes in them and place dry food or treats inside. Even the round cardboard insert from paper towels works well. Cut holes, put kibble in there and fold the ends closed. If you use odd-shaped treats, as I do since I use freeze-dried ones, you’ll have to cut the holes larger or make sure you break up the treats into small enough pieces.

The concept of working for food is natural for a hunter; she’s hard-wired to use her senses and physical skill to get prey. Batting a ball around provides activity and fun as opposed to hunkering down at an over-filled food bowl. The other benefit of puzzler feeders is that the cat will eat slowly.

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If you feed wet food you can also set up puzzle feeders.  Something as simple as a muffin tin can be a great wet food puzzle feeder. Put a drop of wet food in each compartment. For cats who eat too quickly, you can smoosh the food down a bit so she has to work a little harder for her reward. You can also put wet food in a mug placed on its side so the cat can use her paw to reach for it. Here’s a video from YouTube where a cat parent shows how she created simple wet food enrichment

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