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It’s Happy Cat Month! Even though Happy Cat Month is winding down we can still chat about one of my favorite topics: how to keep your pet happy and therefore healthy. We often joke about our cats’ self sufficiency, but do they have what they need to live a happy and full life? Do you know the five pillars of feline enrichment?

Why does feline enrichment matter?

Cats maintain a behavioral instinct for survival that is not present with most other domesticated animals. Many behaviorists believe that is because cats still are not fully domesticated. Those of us who wake up at 2am because darling kitty is pouncing and chewing on our toes can attest to that! Cats are highly adaptable as a result of evolving as both a predator and prey animal. While this is wonderful for apartment living, we have to remember that because of that adaptability and semi-“wildness” our cats need plenty of stimulation to stay healthy.

gray tabby cat staring at camera while hiding in a boxBoredom for your cat can lead to destructive and disruptive behaviors, as well as stress. Cats who are bored will sometimes scratch inappropriately (your brand new sofa) or exhibit aggression or excessive vocalization. According to veterinarian Dr. Liz Bales, cats who are provided with an appropriate environment and plenty of enrichment are less prone to stress induced illness such as obesity, feline lower urinary tract disease, respiratory infections, aggression or other behavioral issues, and over-grooming or other compulsive conditions.

An “appropriate environment” consists of ways for your cat to express all of his or her catty behaviors and I don’t mean a major cattitude! Cat’s natural behaviors include scratching, chewing, stalking, climbing, eating, and elimination. In a study by veterinarians at Ohio State University, Meghan Herron and C.A. Tony Buffington developed a set of five systems to take into account in environmental enrichment: physical resource (space), nutrition, elimination, social, and behavior. These are similar to the five pillars of enrichment developed by expert cat behavior consultant Marci Koski, PhD.

5 Pillars of Feline Enrichment:

1. Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources.

These key resources include food, water, elimination areas, scratching areas, play areas, and rest/sleeping areas.

Most cats prefer to eat in a quiet, out of the way area that will not be disturbed. If you have multiple cats/pets be sure to place their food where they cannot see each other, which could result in increased tension between the “competing” pets. Finding a place that is above eye level, if your cat can safely reach it, can feel much safer to your finicky friend. Often cats, with their fastidious nature, prefer running water to still water that has been sitting in a bowl (regardless of how frequently you replace that water bowl). In this case, try buying a water fountain for your cat to enjoy fresh running water and encourage hydration.

Be sure that you have enough litter boxes in your home and that they are in a safe, quiet area. The rule of thumb is have a litter box for every cat plus one. This does not mean if you have 2 cats, you should line 3 litter boxes up next to each other. Your cats should have multiple locations for safe litter box use. This way all boxes cannot be blocked by another pet in the case of resource guarding or an argument. You should attempt to set up all of the boxes in locations that have options for entrance and exit so that they could not be blocked at all.

Scratching is an important part of a cat’s routine. It provides an opportunity for stretching and allows the removal of nail sheaths to maintain nail health. Scratching can also allow your cat to leave visual marks and scents for other animals to show rank, gender, or other pertinent details. Many cats like to scratch and stretch after a nap, so placing scratching posts and pads near favored napping spots for each cat can be beneficial.

Often you’ll find that your cats have differing play styles. Giving your cat a designated space for their preferred play/toys can prevent disruption, disagreements, and unwanted behaviors when it isn’t playtime.

2. Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior.

Your cat has crinkly balls, strings, fuzzy mice, and wads of paper scattered around the house, but never plays with them. While providing multiple types of toys is wonderful, cats are rarely interested in things that don’t move (like with their water). Sure, they could bat at a fuzzy mouse with their paw, but how can that compare to a bunch of feathers whizzing through the air and under the sofa like a bird trying to escape! Movement and novelty are important for cats’ play because they so closely resemble hunting. Cats in the wild would need to hunt birds, mice, snakes, or bugs who all move, smell, and look differently. Providing interactive play for your cat is essential to keep him or her active and engaged. The paper bag you brought your groceries home in or the box that your groceries were delivered in could provide your cat with hours (or minutes) of new entertainment.

Think about the 4 C’s of play for cats: challenge, choice, change, and control. Cats should be physically and mentally stimulated with play. Find games that encourage problem solving like puzzle toys or trick/behavior training. Believe me, it’s possible! Just ask Charlie, a super smart tortie cat I visited for years. She learned how to high five and spent much of the visits smacking me (not always my hand!) to get treats and loving every minute of it. Provide your cats with a choice of toys/games to increase their confidence and engagement. Switch up toys often to prevent boredom. Behaviorists recommend that you change out your cat’s toys every 3-7 days. Providing multiple options or opportunities for toys, new scents or objects to explore, or training lets cats have some control over how they interact with their environment as well as the whether or not to do so. Cats require both that control and choice to fee secure and confident in you and in their home.

Because most of our cats either free feed throughout the day or are given a pre-portioned amount of food at a set time each day, they have lost the need to hunt for their food. Finding unique ways to feed your cat can spice up his or her meal time and provide cognitive and sensory stimulation. If your cat eats wet food try putting their soft food into an ice cube tray or muffin tin or smearing it inside of a mug (just make sure your cat can comfortably fit his/her head in the mug, some cats do not like such tight spaces so this is not for everyone). For cats who eat kibble, treat dispensers like these and food puzzle toys are an excellent way to dispense your cat’s kibble in a more interactive and stimulating way. There are even treat toys that are shaped like mice that you can hide from your cat to emulate stalking and chasing prey! If you don’t mind some extra cleaning, many of the available puzzle toys can be utilized for wet food as well as kibble. Be sure to start with an easier puzzle toy for your cat to ensure success and subsequent motivation.

3. Provide a safe place.

Orange cat napping on green blanketCats are particularly sensitive to disruptive environments: your dogs barking, your children playing, or your disco dancing while singing to “Mama Mia” at the top of your lungs (definitely not speaking from experience). You do not need to halt all of those activities, indeed it would be quite difficult to do so. But creating a micro-environment or “safe haven” for your cat(s) in separate places is essential for their well-being. Put together a comfortable, contained, preferably elevated location for your cat to retreat when the world becomes too much to handle. If you have a multi cat household then be sure to have more safe spaces than cats to not cause resource guarding or arguments. Consider utilizing vertical space. Cats often feel most secure at heights so providing cat trees, window perches, or shelves can allow your cat to rest, hide, and perch to survey their domain in comfort.

4. Provide positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat social interaction.

Cats are sociable creatures; even feral cats live in colonies. However, they do develop social relationships at a unique rate. They are sometimes slow to trust and providing consistent interaction on their terms can make it easier for your cat to come to enjoy your attentions. Abrupt, loud, and sporadic/spastic movements are particularly offensive to cats and will cause them to retreat to a safe location if possible, or lash out if retreat is not an option. Ensuring that your interactions and reactions are always calm and smooth will go a long way toward helping your cat understand you and how to interact. Always give your cat the option to end interactions and never force attention on your cat.

5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of a cat’s sense of smell.

Cats have over 200 million scent receptors (humans only have 5 million), which means they have an incredibly keen sense of smell. A cat’s sense of smell is the primary way in which he or she interacts with the world. Their vomeronasal gland allows cats to detect pheromones that are released both by other animals and humans. Because cats can smell so much better than us we may forget that the body lotion or glade diffuser or even the scented litter that we think makes the house smell fresh can be overwhelming to your cat. Essential oils can be especially harmful to your cat so be sure to diffuse them in areas that are well ventilated and away from your kitty.

cat hanging on his belly from broken window blinds saying "human I request your assistance

So there you have it: the importance of feline enrichment and the core ideas behind creating a safe, happy, and healthy life for your cat.

Are you a catvocate for your cat’s mental and physical health? If you weren’t before, are you now?

Large longhaired brown tabby cat lying on a counter with his feet tucked under his body like a loaf of breadJune is National Adopt a Cat Month and let’s face it: We love to watch cats whether they’re being silly, adorable, regal, or cranky. Cats are the reason we need the internet. Cat videos on YouTube have been going viral for years and can be just the way to put a smile on your face. Even though many of us are fairly convinced cats are secretly plotting to take over the world, they’re more than happy to live with you and let you be their servant…I mean owner. But regardless of their world domination propensities, here are ten really good reasons to stop watching those cat videos long enough to go get a cat of your own. And who knows, maybe your cat can be the next YouTube sensation!

1. You can save more than one life by adopting a cat

Not only do you save the life of the kitty you adopted, but you can clear a space for more cats to be rescued and sheltered. Unfortunately, shelters have a limited capacity and many pets are euthanized before they are able to be re-homed due to lack of space or resources. According to the ASPCA over 3.2 million cats enter American pet shelters every year. Approximately 1.6 million of those cats are adopted. That means there are plenty who still need to be housed and cared for until they find their forever home!

Consider the adage “the more the merrier!” When adopting a cat, consider getting a bonded pair or two cats (provided you give them time to get comfortable with each other). You can save two lives and your kitty will always have a playmate or snuggle companion when you aren’t home.

Cat fact: Often older cats, special needs cats and kittens, or black cats are considered “unadoptable” and are the first to be euthanized. Consider adopting one of these kitties when you are looking for a new pet.

 

2. Adopting a cat is a sound financial choice.

When you adopt from a shelter, your new kitty has already been spayed or neutered, given necessary vaccinations, and microchipped. Some shelters will even include a bag of food, collar and id, or pet insurance in the adoption fee. This will help you save in the upfront costs of a new pet. When you purchase a cat from a breeder you must pay for these expenses on your own. Depending on the cat and what type of lifestyle you have, you may also save on any training or house/litter training expenses.

3. There are a wide variety of cats available and their personality is already known.

At most shelters you can find almost any type of cat: young or old, long haired or short haired, in all colors and sizes. If you have your heart set on a specific breed, like a Siamese or Persian, you can also check for breed rescue or cat-specific organizations. These manifold felines spend their days with volunteers, behaviorists, and trainers. Each cat’s needs and personality is studied carefully so that you know what kind of kitty you’ll get. You may want an active playful cat who will entertain you for hours or all you need is a couch potato to join your Netflix binges. Either way, the shelter personnel will be able to help you find your match.

Many pets wind up at shelters due to a change in family circumstances, such as a divorce or a move, rather than through any fault of their own. These pets are happy, healthy cats who are already house trained and accustomed to living with a family. No need to train them yourself, they come ready and happy to fit into your home!

Cat fact: Young cats and kittens can go through personality changes until they are fully grown. A snuggly kitten may not be a snuggly adult. If you want a specific activity level or personality, consider getting an adult cat. If they sit in your lap today, very likely they will be a lap cat for the rest of their lives. Since cats can live upwards of 18 years, you’ll still have plenty of time to love an adult cat.

 

4. Cats are good for your health, both mental and physical.

orange tabby snoozing on its back with one paw resting up by her faceAccording to a study performed by Deborah Wells, owning a cat (or any pet you adopt) can improve your sense of happiness and well-being and can help reduce the strain of stress, anxiety, depression, or loneliness. Cats can provide a quiet, soothing presence when we need it most, during times of strain or grief. Other studies have found that having a cat may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke. One such study in 2008 showed that having a cat can reduce your risk of heart attack by up to 40% by reducing stress and anxiety! We’ve also found that a cat’s purr can help lower your blood pressure, promote bone health, heal ligaments and muscles with minor injuries, and decrease dyspnea. A study by the Journal of Pediatrics published in the National Library of Medicine states that having a cat in the home with children can expose those children to allergens at a very young age, making them less likely to develop allergies or respiratory issues later.

5. Cats are the perfect apartment roommate.

If you live in a small space, like an apartment or condo or even a dorm room (if the school allows it), a cat can be the perfect companion. Most cats instinctively know to use the litter box and scratching posts. They are less likely to track mud through the house or tear up the garbage than dogs. Cats tend to be neat and tidy animals although many do shed so invest in a good vacuum! Cats, with the exception of some long haired cats, require less grooming than dogs. Most cats take care of their own bathing and brushing without any help!

Cats often don’t need as much playtime as dogs and will value their time lounging around the house or just being with you since they sleep up to 16-20 hours per day. They don’t require a lot of space and lengthy walks like dogs do. They can be fairly low maintenance, just make sure of give them plenty of toys and places to climb, like cat trees or window seats. Most cats are independent creatures and can frequently choose to keep to themselves. And when they do want to snuggle, they’re warm, fuzzy, and the perfect size for your lap. While cats are happy to be around their humans, they are able to stay home alone all day unlike dogs. Cats do not require as much constant care as dogs, making them a preferred pet of many busy professionals.

6. Cats are good for your home and the environment.

Mostly white calico cat sitting in a window reaching a paw out to a mouse standing on its back feet at the corner of the windowCats are good pest deterrents. They help keep control of any mice, rat, or bug populations. While some cats decide they’d rather befriend small animals, most are very good hunters. If it moves, they pounce! Many farms keep barn cats just for that purpose. The Working Cats program helps re-home otherwise “unadoptable” feral cats to work on farms and in businesses as pest control.

Cats also leave a smaller carbon footprint on the planet than dogs do. The biggest factor in a pet’s carbon footprint is the amount of food they eat, and since cats eat far less than dogs, they leave a smaller footprint. In this way they are better for the environment than dogs. Just don’t let your house cat outside to attack the local birds!

 

7. Cats are wonderful companions, particularly for the elderly or other pets.

Calmer cats, particularly those that are older, can make wonderful friends for older adults. Their easy care and peaceful dispositions can be a blessing and stave off loneliness. Cats can also keep other pets company during the day. If you have a cat or a cat-friendly dog you may want to consider getting a playmate or sidekick to enjoy. Just make sure to temperament test both pets and give them time to adjust to each other.

Cat fact: Often cats are more reserved and stressed about their shelter environment. They need routine and a safe environment to flourish. It’s easy to see your future best friend in those cute dogs ready to wag their tail and lick your hand. But consider taking the time to get to know some of the cats in the shelter. They can be just as loving as a dog and lower maintenance!

 

8. You’ll change a cat’s life forever.

Not only can you be proud that you’ve helped a pet in need and created space for more pets to be helped, but you’ll get a new best friend out of the deal. Cats may be selective with their affection, but once you’ve earned their trust, you’ll have a loyal friend fur-ever. The quote about rescuing a dog can be applied to cats as well: “Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.” 

So are you ready to head out to the shelter to find your forever friend? According to Indiana University Media School, people who watch cat videos were “more energetic, felt more positive and had fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness after watching cat videos online.” If that can happen while watching cats, what do you think would happen if you owned one? And if you are unable to, then head on over to YouTube to get your kitty fix and lower your stress levels!