How to be Happy: A Guide to Indoor Cat Enrichment



The decision to keep a cat solely indoors can be a complicated one. Certain organizations, including the American Association of Feline Practitioners, strongly recommend keeping cats indoor-only. Many shelters and rescues have the same policy. It is undeniable that the outdoor world contains dangers. Outdoor cats are susceptible to trauma, including being hit by cars, injured or killed by larger predators, or getting in fights with other cats. They are at higher risk of certain infectious diseases, and can become lost or injured and unable to make it home. Domestic cats can also have serious and harmful effects on local wildlife, especially songbirds. Staying inside eliminates these hazards, and is a reasonable and valid way to keep our beloved pets safe. However, an indoor-only lifestyle increases the risk of other problems, including obesity, diabetes, lower urinary tract disease, and behavior issues. The reasons for this are multifactorial, but the simplest explanation is that cats did not evolve to spend their days in a sterile, confined environment, with easy access to palatable, high calorie food whenever they want. Certain indoor environments prevent cats from expressing natural behaviors, which can lead to chronic stress. And just as in human health, stress in cats has negative health consequences. This does not mean that we should throw up our hands, open our doors, and make every cat an outdoor cat. But if you have made the informed choice to keep your cat inside, environmental enrichment is vital for their health and happiness. So what are some practical ways to reduce stress, provide mental stimulation, and promote a healthy weight?

Let’s begin with combating obesity, one of the biggest threats to indoor cats. Being overweight is the outcome of a simple equation: too many calories consumed and too few burned. There is a common misconception among pet owners that most animals will stop eating when they are full. I defy anyone who has ever sat down with a box of Oreos to take this argument seriously. More enrichment can decrease eating from boredom, and additionally, encourage a more natural eating pattern. In the wild, cats eat about ten to twenty small meals a day, typically consisting of small mammals or birds. For example, a mouse contains about thirty calories, or the equivalent of ten pieces of a typical dry cat food. Therefore, cats have a prey drive that is almost consistently “on,” as they have to spend a substantial amount of time hunting to meet their caloric needs. Up to half of cats’ hunting attempts are unsuccessful, which means even more time devoted to catching prey. To simulate this in a home setting, cats should be encouraged to expend more effort for each calorie. There are several ways to accomplish this. An easy way to start would be to move the location of the food bowl every day or two. Even better, divide the total food for each day and hide it in multiple locations. Tossing a few pieces of kibble on a hardwood floor with your cat watching can lead to a dramatic chase, culminating with a few bites of food. Another option is a homemade or commercial puzzle feeder. This can be as simple as cutting a few holes in a small cardboard box, then adding some dry food. Even drinking can be a source of enrichment — try adding additional water sources, including a circulating or fountain bowl.

Playtime can be an additional outlet for hunting behavior, as well as a source of exercise. Prey, and therefore toy, preferences vary from cat to cat, so you should try a variety of toy options to see which kinds your cat prefers. Traditional choices like a laser pointer or a fishing pole style toy are enjoyed by many cats. But don’t stop there! Bags, boxes, or even plastic bottle tops may provide entertainment. Some toys, like mobile-style ones that bounce back when batted, can be used by your cat even when you are not around. Certain cats may appreciate chew toys like rawhides or dental treats. Depending on your cat’s personality and propensity for swallowing items, some kinds of toys may need to be reserved for a supervised play session. If you are comfortable with creepy-crawlies, releasing a feeder cricket or two in a confined room can be wildly exciting for your cat. It is important to recognize that most cats do not play together, unless they are littermates. This means that in a multi-cat household, time should be allocated for a separate playtime with each cat. Finally, some cats may be amenable to harness training, which can allow outdoor exploration in a more controlled manner. Even a leash trained cat is unlikely to allow itself to be led, but should be allowed to lead the walk. If it is feasible, a “catio” or confined outdoor area can also be extremely enriching.

Scratching is another natural behavior that indoor cats must be allowed to practice. Cats with claws need to scratch! A scratching post should be stable, covered in carpet or a rough cardboard-type surface, and long enough to allow the cat to engage in a full body stretch. Both horizontal and vertical options should be provided. Scratching provides tactile stimulation, but other senses should not be ignored. Indoor cats are also in need of visual and olfactory stimulation. Watching birds or other animals from a window is a favorite activity for many indoor cats. This can be encouraged by adding a birdfeeder, or providing a perch for the cat near a window. Playing videos of squirrels or birds can be entertaining for some cats as well. For smell stimulation, owners should realize that cats have a sharper sense of smell than humans. Harsh cleaning agents or even strongly scented litter can be unpleasant for cats. Pleasant scents for cats include catnip, honeysuckle wood, silver vine, and valerian root. All of these substances can induce a mild and non-harmful euphoric state, lasting about fifteen to twenty minutes. Not all cats will be affected, but those that are may display rolling, cheek rubbing, or licking.

When not playing or eating, cats spend most of their time sleeping. In fact, cats spend more time resting and sleeping than doing anything else. Therefore, having access to a pleasant resting location is important for stress management. Just like us, cats need a safe place to decompress! Since they are small enough to be prey animals in the wild, and not just predators, many cats prefer to sleep in places that are not easy for other animals to access. Often, cats prefer elevated resting locations, so they can observe their surroundings but have a degree of separation. Cat towers or condos are one way to provide this. Perches and cat shelves can also be attached to walls or windowsills. Other cats may enjoy boxes or den-like enclosures.

Besides boredom, there is another major source of anxiety for indoor cats—other cats. Even if they do not fight constantly, they may still be stressed by each other. Like humans, most cats prefer to avoid direct confrontation if possible. They would prefer to avoid each other, or posture and vocalize to express displeasure. Cats social hierarchies are very different from dogs. They do not fight things out, decide who is “top cat,” and then live together peacefully. In fact, many cats are not well suited to living with other cats. Cats are often solitary hunters in the wild, although they may live in loosely organized colonies if sufficient resources are present.

Competing for limited resources can cause tension, so resource duplication is the key to managing a multi-cat household. This does not just mean food, but litterboxes, preferred resting areas, toys, and drinking water. Ideally, the cats should be able to access each other these items without being forced to interact. Having choices is important. It allows cats to pick when to engage, and gives them the chance to withdraw. There should be multiple water dishes and feeding areas throughout the home. Having multiple litterboxes is especially important, as having multiple cats increases the risk of at least one cat displaying inappropriate urination. As a general rule, you should have one more litterbox than the number of cats in the household. These need to be located in separate areas. Three litterboxes in a row does not count!

Not every cat owner can carry out all of these suggestions. However, every owner can focus on providing an enriching, stimulating, and low-stress environment for their cat. With some creativity, we can let our cats be cats. In the long run, this will mean a happier cat and a happier human!


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Scherck, M. (2018). Optimizing an Indoor Lifestyle for Cats. Chicagoland Veterinary Conference 2018. Retrieved August 8, 2019, from