I began talking about environmental enrichment at veterinary and animal welfare conferences about 15 years ago, and now those two words are on trend. Environmental enrichment is providing suitable outlets to meet a specific species’ environmental needs. Those needs vary, depending on the species. A meerkat will have different needs than a lowland gorilla, which will have different needs than a polar bear. Good zoos have been doing a wonderful job of enriching the environments of captive animals for decades now.
Arguably, a gorilla or bear at a zoo may enjoy a more enriched environment than our pets at home. However, this is changing, and word spreads. Cats especially have an issue. We live in a nation filled with brain-dead fat cats. This has to change.
I think it’s great news that people increasingly maintain cats as indoor-only pets. Definitely, cats will not be run over by cars or chased by coyotes living inside only. However, living in unenriched, dull environments can also be hazardous to their health, as cats are hard-wired to seek, hunt, and pounce. Indoors only, many cats are brain dead and fat.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 59 percent of cats are overweight or obese. There’s absolutely no doubt that overweight or obese cats are more likely to suffer a variety of medical issues, including diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, dermatologic issues, and even some types of cancers. And, sadly, overweight and obese cats live shorter lives.
There are some behaviors that are intrinsic to being a cat, like grooming. Many obese cats simply can’t reach back and around to groom themselves. And not being able to do what cats are born to do, including seek, hunt, or pounce, obese cats may actually be more likely to be clinically depressed.
In fact, cat caretakers are lucky these tubby tabbies can get off the sofa to use a litter box. If they fail to do so, they may be relinquished to a shelter or even booted outdoors.
While not all our indoor cats are overweight or obese, do even those who weigh what they should ever get the opportunity to be a cat?
Retrieving dogs generally get tossed a tennis ball, and terriers might dig (much to their family’s irritation). Most dogs get to be dogs at least a part of the time. Social dogs may visit dog parks, or at least can sniff the 4-1-1 on what the last dog who peed in a spot had to report. This is all enriching. In fact, simply taking a dog for a walk turns out to be enriching.
Most indoor cats, while loved, are never afforded such opportunities. Our homes are essentially big cages to them. While I’m not suggesting people take their cats to the backyard for games of fetch, and, to my knowledge, there aren’t many cat parks—there are lots of things we can do to enrich feline lives.
This begins with something cats do every day: eat.
How we feed our cats is just as important—perhaps even more important—as what we feed our cats. We should be feeding our cats in a way far more enriching than leaving food out 24/7 or feeding them as we do ourselves, twice-a-day “sit-down meals.” Bowls and buffets are for people. Cats need to hunt. (Arguably, bowls and buffets shouldn’t be for dogs either, but that’s another story).
For an outdoor cat, 60 to 80 percent of its waking hours are spent seeking prey; that means roaming around looking for its next meal. This predatory search is a cat’s natural exercise, providing mental stimulation as well as calorie-burning physical activity.
To survive outside, cats catch somewhere around 8 to 13 small prey in a day. The edible contents of the average mouse or bird is about one to two tbsp, not a heaping one-half cup at a time.
Cats are designed to eat several small meals throughout the day and night. These meals are meant to be more like the size of a pingpong ball not a tennis ball. Many bowl-fed cats overeat and inhale meals only to vomit up this excess food, which is unhealthy for them.
It turns out that the eagerness to work for food and a preference to problem solve has been studied in domestic rats and various captive animal species, who choose to work for their meals over receiving a “free meal.” This phenomenon is called contrafreeloading, which contradicts the basic tenant that animals are hard-wired to expend the least possible energy for meals to enhance odds of survival. While there isn’t (yet) specific data regarding contrafreeloading in dogs and cats, one might extrapolate that this same phenomenon holds true for pets.
The exercise and mental engagement of the hunt are a physical and emotional need for your cat, and should never be considered optional. We are now seeing consequences of denying cats what they were born to do.
So, what’s a viable solution to best mimic natural feeding for indoor cats? The NoBowl Feeding System™ was recently developed by Dr. Liz Bales and is a great option.
NoBowl objects are like little mice, which kibble is deposited into. The objects consists of a soft outer skin to simulate prey and a food-safe, BPA-free plastic inner container, which holds one-fifth of the cat’s daily ration. There are two holes on the back of each NoBowl object or “mouse.” When the cat rolls and plays with the NoBowl “mouse,” food is dispensed.
The idea is to split a meal between the five NoBowls, and hide them (beginning by “hiding” them in easy places for the cats to find and increase the level of difficulty as needed). Cats learn to hunt indoors by finding each NoBowl, pouncing on it, and manipulating the device to dispense the small meal.
Fill and hide the NoBowls once a day! The whole process takes about three minutes daily. In multi-cat homes, generally there’s enough food for all if you purchase one system per cat. At the very least, leave some of the cat’s meals in NoBowls, so cats are busy “hunting,” while you are off running errands or at work.
Offering enrichment opportunities for cats also:
- Alleviates boredom
- Provides brain exercise
- Provides physical exercise/burns calories
- May prevent or help to treat behavior problems
- Is medically beneficial, to prevent or treat Pandora’s syndrome (also called idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease or FLUTD)
- May slow the onset of cognitive changes in aging cats, and may even be used to treat feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome
- Brings fun into a bored cat’s life
When a cat is suffering from FLUTD, it will often have accidents, which could lead to a frustrated owner relinquishing the cat to a shelter. Dr. Tony Buffington, (and others) have demonstrated that attempting to treat FLUTD with medication is rarely helpful. Antibiotics don’t do a thing unless there truly is also an associated bacterial infection, which is rare. FLUTD is likely interstitial cystitis, often caused by stress and anxiety associated with a void of enrichment opportunities.
Buffington discovered the best “drug” for cats with FLUTD is an enriched and predictable lifestyle. Also, feeding cats as described via NoBowl could help or even prevent the problem from happening in the first place.
Since many cats don’t like change, and enrichment can include change, the key is to make the changes that meet the cat’s innate needs and avoid those that disturb its sensibilities. It is different to add another pet to the home or host Aunt Bertha staying in the guest room where the litter box is, those changes go too far. However, adding new toys and places to climb are beneficial changes.
Additional enrichment ideas include offering cats lots of elevated places for climbing, a variety of places to scratch, and rotating toys. These options are beneficial for cats at several levels, as a wealth of resources prevents or reduces anxiety (and related inter-cat aggression issues) in multi-cat households.
Offering enrichment can be as simple as offering a pingpong ball or muse toy in a bathtub (without water) to a wine cork inside a tissue box to create a do-it-yourself trek toy. Increasingly manufacturers of cat toys have begun to understand the need, so pet stores have many options of self-engaging cat toys.
The entire family can get involved. Bring home paper sacks from the grocery store and have the kids cut an opening at the bottom. Tape them together and offer safe surprises inside—from cat treats to catnip, or even a NoBowl with food in it. The next day, just moving this homemade sack tunnel into another room makes it all new and different for feline exploration.
Training cats is very possible. It’s enriching, as cats are intelligent and benefit by learning. Training cats also benefits the human-animal bond.
Some indoor cats take well to the idea of going on short leash walks outdoors. Of course, the cats pretty much decide where the walk is headed. Also, there are cat buggies, which some cats enjoy riding inside.
If cats aren’t candidates for going outside, clients may encourage them to watch movies on TV or to watch bird feeders from a window.
NoBowl just announced a percent of proceeds from each purchase will support the nonprofit funder of cat health studies, the Winn Feline Foundation,
Just use the “discount” code: CATSWINN at the NoBowl online store to support cat health and to help cats everywhere.