Environmental Enrichment for Cats

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Environment Enrichment for Cats

Environmental enrichment has been defined as the provision of stimuli which promote the expression of species appropriate behavioural and mental activities in an under stimulating environment. The subject has probably been most discussed by those concerned with the welfare of wild or undomesticated animal species living in zoos or other confined or restrictive conditions. However, I'm sure most people would agree that other animals, as well as humans, could find themselves in situations where some enriching of the environment would be desirable.

Recently, it is becoming more common for veterinarians to recommend environmental enrichment as one of the therapies for pets experiencing behaviour problems. Cicero was a 3 year old neutered male, sable Burmese brought to a veterinarian because of his habit of sucking on certain articles of his owner's clothing. Cicero seemed particularly attracted to woolen items - mittens, scarves, sweaters and a lamb's wool throw blanket. Cicero would sit on his owner's lap and aggressively suck and chew on this blanket which the owner used to cover her knees while watching television. This is one of the most common compulsive behaviours exhibited by cats. Other compulsive disorders seen in cats include fabric eating, over-grooming/hair barbering or hair-pulling.

Wool sucking is predominantly seen in oriental breeds although other purebreds and cats of mixed origin as well as domestic long and short hairs can exhibit this condition. Siamese cats appear to be particularly susceptible and account for approximately 50 percent of affected cats. Compulsive wool sucking is thought to have some genetic basis.

Cicero lived as a pampered pet in a home with a loving owner who had no intention of depriving him in any way. Nevertheless, various ways to attempt to enrich Cicero's environment were discussed with his owner in efforts to resolve the wool sucking. I believe these measures could be considered as possibly beneficial for other cats even though they may not have any behaviour problems. Think about them for your cat.

• Consider installing some climbing frames - many cats enjoy climbing frames that make their environments more three dimensional and allow them to express their natural tendency to climb trees.
• Use bird feeders, fish tanks - placing a bird feeder near a window where the cat can observe the birds may help keep it entertained. Some cats will even watch bird videos. Fish tanks are also entertaining for cats, but be sure to protect the fish with a secure tank cover.
• Create prey facsimiles - toys attached to strings, feather wands and fishing pole toys stimulate predatory behaviour. Daily rotation of toys will better keep the cat mentally stimulated.
• Non-toxic grasses - some cats respond well to fresh catnip or cat grass grown especially for them. Some cats enjoy eating lettuce or green beans. Under owner supervision, cats can be offered pieces of thin rawhide coated lightly with fish oil or cheese spread,
• Develop novel feeding opportunities - have several different feeding stations so the cat will have to search for its food. Try to create "food puzzles" that they must bat around in order to obtain food. Food puzzles can be purchased in pet supply stores or try crafting your own. Punch a number of holes in the tube of an empty toilet paper roll. Make the holes large enough to release the kibble. Fill the tube with kibble and securely tape the ends to contain the food. You may have to show the cat how to roll the tube to get the food. Make several food puzzles, fill with the cat's meal and distribute them around the house - now your pet can hunt for his food.

Enrich your cat's environment and yours will improve as well, as you watch your pet being mentally stimulated and enjoying new activities.