The Revision Guide for Student Nurses (Part I)

Environmental Enrichment For Cats


Key points about cats:

  • Studies have shown that cats reduce their hunting behaviour when they have the opportunity to play instead.
  • Cats are drawn to change and novelty. They get bored of new objects within about 20 minutes.
  • Social interaction between cats is very much affected by the availability of resources (food, latrines, sleeping sites).
  • Many cats do form very strong bonds with each other, but many share a dwelling only because there is a surplus of resources.
  • Cats make much greater use of three-dimensional space than dogs do.
  • Inhibition of normal activity can be a sign of 'stress' in cats; which may not always be obvious.
  • Cats choose to urinate and defecate in separate latrines.
  • They will choose latrines that are not near their food source.
  • Play is focussed on rehearsing fighting and prey-catching skills.
  • The sensitive period for cats ends at 9 weeks.


Specific needs of cats:

  • Variety of hidey-holes and high vantage points.
  • Small, lightweight toys that move easily when touched.
  • Larger and longer toys that can be gripped and clawed.
  • Exposure to new things each day; they lose interest if they just see the same toys all the time.
  • Scratching places (not hidden away, and appropriately designed).
  • Multiple latrines or access outdoors.
  • Multiple feeding sites away from latrines.
  • Wide ranging experience of sounds, smells, people and other animals at a very young age (less than 9 weeks) if problems are to be avoided later.


Key points for owners:

  • If one cat is inhibited from playing when the other is present then the owner should make opportunities to engage the cats in play separately. The same is true for other forms of attention.
  • Some cats will not engage in play-fighting or social play with other cats, but they benefit from the owner enticing them with toys and games.
  • Cats can be obedience trained the same as dogs. This is often very rewarding for the cat and owner!
  • Environmental enrichment is much more important for cats kept solely indoors. These cats need more of everything, and need stimulation.
  • Cats that have outdoor access need less maintenance, but it is easy to create an environment that is rather barren for them (shelves covered in ornaments, no places to hide, only one place to eat and eliminate).
  • For this reason it is also easy to overpopulate a house with cats, and end up with problems.
  • If you are considering having more than one cat beware that it has been shown experimentally that the number of latrines needed is one per cat plus one extra. The same is probably true of feeding sites and places to sleep. Eight cats may need nine latrines if stress, spraying and fighting are to be avoided, especially if kept purely indoors!
  • Furniture scratching can be prevented or reduced by giving the cats a place to scratch. The only problem is that scratching is a kind of social display; 'Look at me I'm scratching'. If you put the scratch post out of sight then the cat is not likely to use it.
  • It is much better to put the post in front of the place where the cats have scratched before; once they are using it regularly you can then gradually move it to a less conspicuous place.
  • Cats are also very attracted to scratch objects (or wallpaper) with vertical stripes. Striped wallpaper is a particular problem because the cats will claw at it until the pattern is gone and then move onto a new patch. When the owner puts up a new lot of wallpaper it starts all over again!
  • The old adage 'curiosity killed the cat' is based on a couple of important properties of the cat's brain and visual system. The cat sees the world in a completely different way to us. Their eyes are designed to detect movement in a way that ours see colour and texture. Their brains are designed to record the details of an environment and then compare it with what they see the next time they are there.



The answer relates to the fact that cats are hunters. When they leave a place, they take a snapshot of what is there and store it in memory. They patrol a large area and remember these snapshots for each place. When they come back you will see them do a quick scan of the place and then go to examine anything that is new or out of place. In the wild this is used to detect prey (and also communications from other cats); anything new or that has moved might have something to do with a prey animal that has been in that place. The cat will sniff around and examine the new things, and if satisfied that prey has been in the area it will try to trace where it came from. The cat will often then go and sit quietly somewhere and wait. Anything that moves will draw the cats attention in the same way as a bright colour or vivid pattern would for us.


What does this tell us about how we should provide enriched environments for cats?

When we provide cats with things to do we should make sure we provide novelty and change. Get a big box full of toys such as bits of silver paper, rubber bands, ping pong balls with things drawn on them etc. Make up some boxes with different textures and materials that rustle and move when the cat gets in. Leave a few extra tasty treats inside the box. Keep these out of the cat's reach. At dawn and dusk, the times when cats are often looking for prey, litter the rooms with a variety of these things so that the cat will investigate them. The novelty will interest them, and they will have something to look at that is different from before. The simple act of providing them with variety will give them the opportunity to use some of the mental and visual talents that they have.

A final piece of environmental enrichment that can prove very enjoyable for cats is a laser pointer, again used at dawn and dusk. This must never be shone into the cat's eye, but is generally safe for play. Hide a few small pieces of extra tasty food around the room. Use the laser pointer to get the cat to chase and pounce in the way that it would when catching prey. The dot can be flicked behind furniture and made to wait out of reach until the cat becomes very excited and then flashed across the floor. Every so often let the dot end up in a place where the food treat is and switch it off so the cat can eat the food in peace. This recreates a perfect hunting sequence which resolves in catching the prey. Most cats can do without the food, but it adds to the reward. 20 minutes of play like this every day starting at kittenhood is likely to reduce hunting behaviour considerably, and perhaps totally. The cat becomes obsessed with clearing the infestation in its own home and learns to direct predatory behaviour to this lure rather than real animals.

© Jon Bowen 2000