CAT BEHAVIORS AND LIFE ENRICHMENT
Cats and their behaviors have developed over thousands of years. Many cat behavior problems today are due to a lifestyle that is not compatible with some of cats’ inherent needs. In response to an environment that does not provide for the expression of their “cat-ness” in an acceptable way, natural cat behaviors may emerge instead in a form that is problematic in the home. A cat’s coping behaviors could include destructive behaviors (scratching, chewing inedible objects), self-mutilation (over-grooming or chewing), certain types of aggression, marking the home with urine and/or feces, etc. Providing a lifestyle that meets cats’ behavioral needs will serve to prevent, reduce or solve many of these problems.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION RE: KITTENS. It is important for kittens to remain exposed to other cats for most of their first year of life, especially if they are separated from the litter and/or mother at a very young age. If isolated from other cats during this critically important time of neurological and social development, they may suffer profound detrimental effects such as disturbed sleep patterns and other neurological disturbances which can be difficult to recognize and diagnose. These detrimental effects could be an underlying causative factor for behavior problems including, in some instances, aggression toward humans.
PREDATORY PLAY Cats are predators and hunters; they will benefit from opportunities for “kill play” and “chase play.” Caution: avoid using your hands or other body parts as toys. Tips: Catnip can be used to kick-start a play/exercise session. Store some of your cat toys in a gallon glass jar or similar container together with an open bag of catnip so toys can “marinate” in catnip fumes.
Kill play Provide larger toys for kitty to “eviscerate” with teeth and rear claws (instead of, say, your arm or ankle!). Rat size or larger catnip toys work well for “kill play.” Make your own by knotting a bulky, natural fiber sock containing catnip; place it inside another bulky knotted sock for a larger toy. Some children’s toys can be suitable for cats, but with cautions. Remove parts that can be dangerous if swallowed--plastic eyes, strings, leaking stuffing, etc. Avoid coverings or stuffings that are easily shredded especially if they are made with fibers could prove fatal if swallowed (long threads, large diameter fibers, synthetics fibers).
"Stick under the rug" game. Make slow movements with a (toy) stick under a throw rug to simulate a mouse crawling under the rug. Some types of stick toys, such as those with the sparkly strands, make gentle rustling noises under the rug (like prey moving in the underbrush). This is a great to alternative to “fingers under the bed blankets” which can teach the bad habit of biting you.
Chase toys Fishing pole type toys, esp. those w/ feathers on a string from a pole, are preferred by many cats. It is best if you can find a type that has soft parts where the cat’s mouth meets the toy. Timid cats may do better with the smaller “cat dancer” on a bouncy wire or the “cloth moth” on a wire. Avoid jerking the wire when it’s in kitty’s mouth.
Suspended toys. Make kitty jump to reach a small toy swinging on a line or stretchy line. If you have a very brave and athletic cat, try a big toy swinging on a large diameter rope. Caution: Any toy with string parts should be available to the cat only when under supervision to avoid dangerous tangling or swallowing.
Other chase toys include balls, treat-dispensing toys, and mechanized toys. Simple balls of wadded up paper (NOT foil-- fragments can cut intestines) are often favorites for cats, esp. if you "flick" them.
Ping-pong balls are great and can be offered in an empty bathtub to bounce around. For a change, try floating the ping-pong ball in a small pool of water in the tub (a litter pan size “pool” works well). Throw balls UP a flight of steps for kitty to chase for a good workout.
Laser pointer beams. If your cat likes this, it’s very easy for you to get kitty workin’ hard! Caution: Prevent laser beam eye damage. Do not shine the beam in the cat's eyes or at reflective surfaces that could reflect the laser beam back into the eyes.
Rotate toys and games to maintain novelty!
Feeding behavior and “hunting”.
"Cat plants" to chew (wheat grass, rye grass, barley grass, catnip, cat mint). Cat grass or herbs can grow under a wire mesh cover; kitty can chew the parts that grow through the wire. These also provide a bit of "live" food (vs. cooked food).
Hide food inside boxes, bags, packages. Find some acceptable places to hide kibble in your home so kitty can "hunt" for it.
Freeze treats into ice cubes (“fish-sicles” for example). Place in an empty tub, shower stall or sink for kitty to chase or chew.
Create “events” while you are gone for the day using timer feeders for surprise meals or other surprises. Small frequent meals may also be best for weight loss and for some medical conditions.
LITTERBOXES. In nature, cats never have to use a litter area that is too dirty, smelly, crowded or frightening for their liking. With their very keen sense of smell, a smelly litterbox is probably worse for cats than an outhouse is for us! A clean box is most easily achieved with frequent scooping (at least daily) or a self-cleaning box and the right kind of litter. Additional guidelines are listed here but, as with anything, some cats may have other preferences.
As many boxes as cats plus one. The number may be reduced somewhat if a self-cleaning pan is provided and maintained well, but still best to have at least 2 different locations for multiple cats.
Behaviorally, clumping litters are best. Most cats prefer the soft texture of clumping litter. Cleanliness of the pan can also be critically important to cats and that is most easily achieved with clumping litter. In addition to standard clumping litters, there are grain-based clumping litters such as World’s Best Cat Litter or S’Wheat. Caution: Avoid clumping litters for young kittens who may spend a lot of time playing in it. They may accidentally ingest some or breathe the dust and become blocked.
Not too deep, not too shallow. Litter that is 2” -3” deep is about right. Cats w/ medical problems that cause excessive urination may need special arrangements for their litterbox--extra litter, more frequent box cleaning and a non –absorbent covering of paper or fabric on top of the litter.
Physical features of pans Most cats prefer no liners, no hoods. Use a pan with low sides for kittens, arthritic or injured cats. Bigger is better. Research reveals that cats’ preferred pan size is about 2’x3’. That is hard to find, so you can substitute with large table-bussing pans or under-the-bed storage containers.
Location preferences: Be aware that some cats become afraid to use their pan if they’ve been frightened in it. Problems may arise in busy or noisy areas, esp. if the sounds are sudden (such as laundry machine cycle changes). Place pans in a protected area such as a corner or under a table. Cats prefer an open view from the pan to see if a disturbance is on the way (such as approaching cats or kids). Make sure there is an easy way out from the pan area away from dead end areas in case the cat is bothered or attacked while in the pan.
Make it easy for your cat to succeed. Place pans in a reasonable proximity to where they spend their time. Avoid making them “run the gauntlet” past a frightening dog, cat, child or scary person to a distant pan. Also avoid placing your cat in the pan (some cats will be so bothered by this they may become averse to the pan). Instead, entice/encourage kitty to the pan and to enter under their own power. Reinforce good behavior often.
CATS SCRATCH--and need to; it’s an important part of “cat-ness”. Nail grooming, muscle stretching, and marking territory are all functions of scratching. Provide a variety of suitable scratching areas. Anchor scratching areas well for stability.
Location of scratching areas is important to cats. They often prefer to scratch/stretch near their sleeping areas, near significant foot traffic pathways in the home, and on objects that are prominent in the room (such as couch corners). Let you cat be your guide; try different locations and/or place scratchers in areas they are already scratching (ex: next to couch arms). That also helps redirect cats away from your furniture and to an acceptable scratching area, especially if you use positive reinforcement when your cat uses the appropriate scratching area.
Textures: rope sisal, woven sisal, small sisal on back of carpet pcs. cardboard scratchers, some types of nubby or pile carpet. Some cats also like smooth wood; mounted driftwood may work well for them. Non-toxic branches (such as birch, willow, alder, elm) can provide a new interest in scratching or climbing. Orientations: Be sure to provide a stable, tall, vertical scratcher. Best heights are 30” or taller (unobstructed post height, no perches in the way). This offers a good stretch for kitty’s back and shoulder muscles and is an alternative to your tall and stable couch back or arm. Many cats will use a horizontal scratching area for on-their-side scratching. Try providing a scratching surface attached low on a wall or on a stair riser. Flat on the floor scratchers include sisal- covered boards, an anchored (perhaps under a couch foot) sisal-backed carpet remnant, or the very popular cardboard scratchers (single- or double-wide). Slanted scratchers are also available in cardboard or sisal.
CATS CLIMB, JUMP, BALANCE AND PREFER ELEVATED AREAS
A “no pets on the furniture” rule is incompatible with cat-ness. Nagging a cat about this will cause misery for all involved. Instead provide a number of elevated areas that are “ok” as well as suitable from a cat’s point of view.
Cat furniture Hopping posts (e.g. cat trees) are well-used by most cats. For a more challenging exercise, find or build a climbing post without the perches on the way up. (Instructions for building a true climbing post are in the book "The Cat's House" listed in Resources section at the end).
Cat trees, cat shelves (such as a long shelf above a doorway), or a means to get to the top of tall furniture can reduce behavioral problems in many situations.
Make sure that the cat has a safe way onto the kind of perch that works for that individual. Remove or modify objects, corners or surfaces that could cause injury if the cat hit it during a fall from the perch. It's true, even a cat can have a "bad fall"!
For balancing practice, try swinging kitty in a basket or a cat carrier. Work up to this slowly and with treats, perhaps try it with a basket at first. This is also a step on the way to conditioning kitty to ride in the carrier outside the home.
Some cats may even like the challenge of a perch that hangs and moves somewhat. An example of this is a carpet sample (approx. 2’x3’ or larger) with grommeted corners through which lengths of light chain are fitted for hanging. These perches are best used under supervision in case the cat becomes entangled in the chain or chain may be covered with tubing.
Cat-friendly resting areas
Expand your cat’s living and exercising area by providing several elevated resting areas. Elevated perches are also an aid in reducing problems in multi-cat households and in providing escape from dogs, toddlers or aggressive cats. The more cats you have the more “favorite” resting areas you need to avoid competition. Elevation, comfy bedding, a view through a window, and/or a good view of a room where you spend time are all elements of a preferred resting area for cats. Heat is an attraction as well. Place a resting area near a heat vent or place a special pet bed heater at the resting site.
Cats possess keen senses. Provide stimulation with novel sights, sounds, smells and spaces.
Olfactory stimulation: for some kitties, someone else’s old shoes or smelly t-shirt can be pure joy. Catnip and valerian (w/ veterinarian approval) are known to be treats for most cats’ noses.
Give cats some “sniff time” all year round with at least a few moments daily--year round-- of an open window or door. Some situations may call for extra-heavy screening on the window to prevent an escape of fall. ¼” hardware cloth attached to a custom frame works very well.
Window boxes extending beyond the walls of the building are avail for cats commercially. These provide an interesting view as well as a good place to catch some scents on the breeze.
Visual: Kitty videos, aquariums, bird feeder by window. One client reports feeding seagulls on her windowsill inches from her cat's nose!
Textural and General Stimuli
Water for play such as indoor fountains, waterfall drinkers, toys in shallow water in a tub or sink.
For novelty, "new" empty boxes or paper bags (not plastic), a box of non-toxic leaves (willow, alder, elm, birch for example), grape vines, corn stalks, etc.
Indoor hiding areas and tunnels
Light, Temperatures and Textures
Sunlight! A big favorite for cats, many of whom have desert ancestors.
Most cats seem to prefer warmer temperatures than what we might like. Geriatric cats especially should always have the option of supplemental heat. Electric pet bed heaters, microwaveable bed warmers, or kitty “space blankets" are well loved by most cats.
Preferred cat bedding textures are wool or poly fleece. Add these as a top layer over some sort of cushioning in a box or basket with sides so kitty feels secure while resting.
Live entertainment: another cat, dog or other domestic animal. Toys are good but sometimes too predictable; interactions with a living being are more stimulating. Another animal in the home can help to keep kitty stimulated while you are away. This also helps cats to become and remain “animal social”.
Be careful not to overwhelm your cat with introductions that are done too quickly. Choose for compatibility if you can --except of course, when “cats happen”. Always introduce animals slowly. Intros can range from a few days to 6 months for a full intro. Keep associations between the animals positive and avoid punishment. Progress carefully so that the animals can avoid fights or other serious negative associations between them.
Create multiple “territories” that multiple cats can “time share”, especially elevated areas for escape.
Tricks for cats: empowering kitty to turn on the treat machine. All animals work for food by foraging, grazing, hunting, etc. When food always appears automatically, regardless of the animal’s actions, there is no "job" for the animal to do; this is disempowering for the animal. Cats love to “work” for their food by learn tricks for treats. It is a great mental exercise for them to “solve the puzzle” of what to do to earn the treat. Inadvertantly, many cats have probably come to believe that meowing when the can-opener operates is the solution to the “puzzle” of obtaining food from you! From their point of view, meowing is their job to earn their reinforcement of their canned food.
Tricks such as “sit” can also be used as effective tools when working with some behavior problems. IMPORTANT: Make sure all of your kitty companions respond reliably to a well established “come here” cue. This can literally be a lifesaver in the case of an emergency or disaster. This is also useful in case a totally indoor cat suddenly finds him/herself outdoors. See that the behavior is practiced frequently and with gradually increasing levels of difficulty (more distractions, further distance, etc) Reinforce this behavior immediately and well (with something the cat truly enjoys) every time that kitty responds, even if he/she is slow sometimes. If you prefer speed, give better reinforcements when your cat responds more quickly. As the saying goes---"you get what you reinforce", so be generous rather than stingy with your reinforcement. Reinforcements can include food, body rubs, a freshly scented catnip toy, or an interactive game with you.
See “Resources” at the end of the outline for info re: a cat trick training book.
Comprehensive enrichment: The Great Outdoors!
“Cats love being outside! If they can do cat things safely-eat grass, watch birds, lie in the sun, just enjoy the outside-you’ll have a happier cat” Amy Marder, V.M.D.,Vice President of Behavioral Medicine, A.S.P.C.A.
Outdoor enclosures An outdoor enclosure or an enclosed balcony accessed by a cat door or window can provide hours of changing sights, sounds and scents. Search “cat enclosures” on the internet for many ideas—enclosures can be anything you want them to be. Tall ones serve the cats’ needs best as they can allow climbing and elevated perching areas. You can even add non-toxic branches for these purposes. (Some non-toxic woods include willow, elm, alder, and birch. Some woods to avoid are fruitwoods and red maple. For hiding and play use bush branches such as non-toxic pyracantha or escalonia. Avoid rhodies, azalea, laurel and other toxic-leaved bushes).
Try a cat tunnel --perhaps elevated-- leading to an outdoor enclosure if you need to solve entry/exit problems from the house to the enclosure..
Car rides A ride in the car can be a great way to expand your cat’s world. Most cats will accept car rides if simply taken for rides frequently. Adapting to car rides is easy for young cats but will probably require gentle pre-training for older cats to make it a positive experience. Avoid car rides when the cat could overheat or chill in the car.
Walks outside the home Even a walk in an apartment hallway can be an effective enrichment via exposure to new scents and a “bigger world.”
If you cat is going to join you for outings in your yard, first cat-proof your fencing, trees and bird areas. (www.catfencin.com is one resource for cat-proofing fences).
Walks on a harness and leash often require some gradual pre- training. Do use a harness; avoid attaching the leash to a collar. Before taking a newly leash-trained cat to an unenclosed area that is unfamiliar to your cat, make sure kitty first learns the area well from the safety of a carrier or other portable enclosure. Cats are able to wiggle out of a number of harness styles. Cat Walking Jackets are one type that is more secure.
Be Creative!! First and foremost, be creative in providing for your cat companion’s behavioral needs. The ideas presented here can get you started, but gradual change and gentle challenge are your main weapons against stunting boredom for your feline friend. And besides, it’s fun to see kitty respond to your brilliant ideas, providing you with glimpses into that mysterious feline mind.
Equipment: Pet bed heaters, timer feeders, soft-tipped fishing pole toys, and other sometimes-hard-to-find items are available at reasonable prices from several pet supply catalogs (such as RC Steele/Petsmart catalog PH: 1-800-872-3773).
Cat furniture: www.catmanfurniture.com for his catalog of high quality off-the-shelf posts. He will also come to your northwest WA home for custom designed posts, catwalks, enclosures, etc.
Also see "The Cat's House" by Bob Walker for great ideas or the website www.thecatshouse.com
Training info. Book for teaching cats tricks and useful behaviors, “Clicker Training for Cats”. A kit (book and clickers) avail at the author’s website at www.karenpryor.com. This site is a great resource for the most professional positive reinforcement-based training information (cats, dogs and others).
Newsletters are a great source of information and they offer the advantage of including very current information. The following are excellent publications:
Catnip-“A newsletter for caring cat owners” published by the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. For subscription info call 1-800-829-0926
CatWatch - “The newsletter for cat people” published by the Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine. For subscription info call 1-800-829-8893.
The Whole Cat Journal- “ A monthly guide to natural cat care and training”. This newsletter covers conventional and alternative approaches to cat care. (24 pgs) For subscription info call 1-800-829-9165.
Catnip mice: Wendy Ann Creations, P.O. Box 58426, Tukwila, WA 98138. Cost is about $1.50/catnip mouse-- a real bargain. My cats love these!
BEHAVIORAL RESOURCES, INC.
134 N.W. 59th Street, Seattle, WA 98107
All rights reserved. Behavioral Resources, Inc., 2005.