Keeping Indoor Cats Happy and Fit

by Dr. Julie Hunt

You have done everything in your power to treat Fluffy like a queen. She gets the best food, the best medical care, and you keep her safely indoors. But is she really happy? Our homes are set up perfectly for humans but may lack qualities that cats instinctively need to be satisfied. Food, shelter, and a clean litterbox are the basics. Environmental enrichment means making our home more amenable to a cat’s instinctual needs. Cats get bored, anxious, or stressed if their environment does not meet all of their needs and this can can lead to medical or behavioral problems. “Scarf and barf”, retreating/hiding, inappropriate elimination, waking owners in the night, marking or destroying furniture, and overgrooming can all be due to lack of environmental enrichment.

To enrich your cat’s environment, start by creating safe spaces. Cats in nature can be prey, so being out in the open can make them feel unsafe and unable to relax. Provide hiding places like cat trees, simple cardboard boxes, perches, cat tunnels, cat condos, kitty slings, and cat beds. If you have more than one cat, it’s imperative to create multiple safe spaces to eat, eliminate, and rest. In general, you should provide 1 litter box per cat plus one extra. When cats are forced to share critical resources, it creates stress. Elimination problems often stem from not having enough litter boxes or not keeping them clean.

Cats in the wild spend the majority of their day hunting. They average 8-10 mouse meals per day so they are natural grazers. When we feed cats kibble in a bowl, it hampers both the hunting behavior and the built-in exercise. No wonder indoor cats are so prone to obesity! Did you know feeding just 10 extra kibbles per day over a year can add up to 1 pound of excess weight? To prevent boredom and obesity, use toys that express hunting behavior and feed multiple small meals. Or better yet, put the food in toys that make the cat work (hunt) for their meal. Try the Pipolono cat feeder, Multivet SlimCat, Petsafe Egg Cercizer, Catit Treat maze and Kong treat ball. Do NOT keep the bowl full all the time — this is a recipe for a fat cat! Instead put multiple small bowls of food around the house and change the location daily so your cat will have to go on a daily treasure hunt. Or play “kitty soccer” with the kibble! Or try the NoBowl.

Play with your cat every day. Cats love to chase and catch balls — ping pong balls are a favorite, but crumpled paper balls work, too. Cats like a furry catnip mouse toy, especially one that scurries and vibrates. They like to catch things that dangle or drag from a string — feathers are popular and mimic bird prey. When playing with a laser pointer or any toy, allow your cat to “catch” or “kill” the toy occasionally or he will get frustrated and give up on the chase. Squeaky toys delight some cats. Believe it or not, some cats will use a treadmill or cat wheel. Others are happy with simple toys made from toilet paper tubes, boxes, milk carton rings, and paper bags. Of course, supervise cat play and be sure your cat does not ingest part of a toy.

Cats have a keen sense of smell, 15 times better than humans, so don’t use air fresheners and scents in their areas, especially their litter box area. Most cats prefer an unscented litter too. If there is conflict between cats, try the Feliway pheromone diffuser that emits a natural calming hormone.

Obesity is a serious health problem in our indoor cats. The cause is both overconsumption of calories and an indoor lifestyle. By enriching your cat’s environment, making it hunt for its food, and measuring out the required daily caloric requirement, you can keep your cat happy and fit.

The Indoor Pet Initiative Web site is an excellent resource for cat behavior and environmental enrichment.