Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats

Environmental enrichment is important for indoor cats because it provides the stimulation and mental challenges your cat needs to be happy and healthy.

How can I keep my indoor cat happy?

Indoor cats tend to live longer lives than their outdoor cousins. They’re less likely to suffer from infectious diseases or injuries. However, did you know that indoor cats have a higher risk of developing a variety of behavioral and health problems?

All cats need mental stimulation to keep them happy and healthy but this is especially important for those kept indoors that cannot always express their natural behaviors.

If a cat can’t express normal feline behavior then it is more likely to be stressed and show abnormal and undesirable behaviors such as scratching furniture, aggression, toileting in the wrong place, or even have health problems such as feline urinary tract disease.

In this article, we will look at the importance of mental stimulation and how environmental enrichment can keep your feline friend happy and healthy. We will also look at how to tell if your cat is stressed, what problems stress can cause, and what to do about it.

What medical conditions are indoor cats prone to?

Indoor cats are more likely to become bored or stressed, compared to those that can roam around freely outside.

The American Association of Feline Practioners (AAFP) states that if an indoor cat doesn’t have a suitably stimulating environment then it is at higher risk of many stress-induced conditions including:

• Lower urinary tract disease
• Aggression
• Excessive grooming
• Behavioral problems
• Upper respiratory disease
• Obesity

These unwanted behavioral problems are often a common reason for cats to be abandoned or returned to shelters. This is a pretty sad fact, as their destructive or aggressive behavior could well be a result of stress and be improved through changes in their living environment.

What is environmental enrichment for indoor cats?

Environmental enrichment is the process of making your cat’s environment more mentally and physically stimulating, to encourage normal feline behavior.            

By meeting his physical and mental needs, you can reduce stress and boredom (and the undesirable behaviors that go with them) and improve your cat’s overall health.

How to enrich your cat’s environment?

Basic resources include litter trays, food, water, hiding areas and things to do (mental stimulation). Enriching your cat’s environment depends on his or her age, and temperament, if they are stressed or anxious, or have any underlying medical problems. It may be as simple as buying some cat toys or providing a hiding place, or as big as introducing a multi-tiered climbing perch.

You want to offer your cat the opportunity to do normal feline behaviors that he might do if he was outside, such as scratching, stalking and hunting (using toys!), climbing, and resting in a safe place. Let’s take a look at the different ways you can make your home more “cat friendly”.

  • Encourage natural feeding

Most cats are given food in a bowl once or twice day. Some graze from their bowls throughout the day, others gobble it all down in one go. Naturally they would spend a good part of their day locating, hunting and eating their prey, so it can be a good idea to try to mimic this. Try hiding small amounts of dried food in multiple locations so your cat has to search and move more.

You can purchase a puzzle feeder from your local pet shop or online, or make one yourself.  Puzzle feeders make your cat work mentally and physically. Some puzzle feeders are balls, which your cat has to push and nudge around to get the food out, others are fixed in one place but require your  furbaby to use his tongue or paws to extract dried food. Cats like having to plan and solve problems, so the satisfaction of getting the food is similar to capturing their prey.

  • Provide a hiding place


All cats need a safe place they can retreat to when they feel scared or anxious, or which can be used as a quiet and secure resting place. One study, from the University of Bristol, found that a boxed hiding place helped to reduce stress levels in cats at rescue shelters.  

Most cats like a place which is covered and raised off the ground, and which is cosy, so its only big enough to fit them. Cardboard boxes, pet carriers or an enclosed nest-style bed are common examples although as every cat owner can tell you, something as simple as a paper bag can do the job just as well.

Ideally there should be at least one “safe place” for each cat in the household, located in different parts of the home.

  • Provide vertical space

When considering environmental enrichment, think about feline characteristics. Cats like to be up high, it allows them to watch what’s going on from a safe and secure position. If you live in a small apartment, it’s also the perfect way to utilize your limited space. You can provide shelves or cat perches, climbing trees or ropes.  These will encourage your furbaby to explore and show more active behavior, while also allowing your cat to rest and retreat up high if he wishes.

A window hammock can provide your cat with a perch but with the added bonus of lots of mental stimulation, as your cat can observe outside. It’s a good idea to move perches, beds and hammocks regularly, to encourage your cat to explore and mimic a naturally changing environment.

  • Provide a scratching post

Cats are hard-wired to scratch surfaces. As they do it they flex muscles, stretch out limbs, mark territory and keep claws sharp and clean. If you would rather they did not do it on your sofa, then give them things they can scratch, like a horizontal or vertical scratch post. A piece of carpet or tough cardboard might be enough, or you could splurge on a sturdy scratching post.

  • Provide Toys and playtime

Playtime offers a great opportunity to bond with your cat and a great way to provide mental stimulation. Five minutes twice a day is usually sufficient for most cats, but younger cats may want more. Rotating the toys helps keep your cat’s interest too. Cats often enjoy play which mimics their predatory behaviour, and fulfils their natural behaviour of hunting. Good examples are textured mouse toys that can be pulled across the floor, or feather wands.

  • Your cat’s sense of smell

Cats have a very good sense of smell, and use it to evaluate their surroundings and maximize their sense of security and comfort. They also use chemical signals, called pheromones, to communicate with each other. Have you seen your cat rub its face or body on certain places in your home? It’s using pheromones to mark its territory and make it feel secure and happy in it’s environment.

alA study on hospitalized cats showed that synthetic feline pheromones decreased signs of anxiety and increase food intake. Feliway is a commonly used synthetic feline pheromone, available as a spray, collar or plug-in, which can reduce anxiety and stress-related problems in cats.

Does Feliway Work?

For those wondering how effective Feliway is, I can personally attest to the fact that it helped calm my two agitated toms down after a stressful move.

The Magic of Matatabi

The International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) recognizes that environmental smells are an important means of enrichment for your cat. Certain smells can stimulate or excite cats, such as catnip or matatabi sticks, so toys made from these plants can be an interesting addition to your cat’s toy box.

Find out more about matatabi for cats here.