Cat Behavior and Training - Enrichment for Indoor Cats

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why should I keep my cat indoors?

There are many reasons to keep a cat indoors. One major benefit is that your cat will be safe from outdoor hazards. Free-roaming cats risk life-threatening encounters with vehicles and predators. They may also bring home parasites such as fleas and ticks.

While outdoors, a cat may be exposed to other cats, putting them at risk of being injured or contracting a chronic infectious disease such as feline leukemia, feline infectious peritonitis, or feline immunodeficiency virus.

There are also concerns about the impact that cats have on wildlife, affecting songbird populations and other species that are important to the ecosystem.

How can I safely provide my cat with fresh air and outdoor experiences?

One way to provide a safe outdoor experience is to take your cat outdoors on a leash. With training and patience, most cats can learn to walk on a cat-safe harness and leash. Do not take your cat outdoors with the harness until they are completely comfortable walking indoors on leash. Harness training should be done gradually, with plenty of treats and play to distract your cat. They will soon begin to associate wearing the harness with wonderful things. When you walk outdoors, choose quiet areas such as your own yard; avoid locations where your cat might encounter noisy cars or scary animals.

With training and patience, most cats can learn to walk on a cat-safe harness and leash.

Another great way to provide safe access to the outdoors is to build an enclosure - a “catio”. Pre-designed catio kits are commercially available; some companies even come to your home to design and build a custom enclosure. You can build a catio as an extension to almost any window or door in your home.

How can I make my indoor cat happy?

Indoor cats benefit from physical exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction. An enriched environment is one that offers a cat the opportunity to express as many of its natural behaviors as possible. Cats have individual preferences; there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to enrichment.

Find ways to satisfy your cat’s need to hunt, play, and explore by hiding toys or part of your cat’s daily food ration in various areas of your home.

For additional mental stimulation, use puzzle toys to deliver part of their meal. Ensure all the food is consumed, as cats can become seriously ill if they do not ingest enough calories daily. For social enrichment, be sure to play with your cat every day.

Enrich the indoor environment by providing a wide variety of safe resting places with interesting views. Some cats are easily entertained by television, while others prefer perching near a window with a view.

Cat trees or “aerobic centers” offer climbing, hiding, and playing opportunities and can be ideal for indoor cats. Activity trees should be placed in areas where the family spends time, rather than hidden away in a back room or garage. Secure the tree away from a wall, if possible, so your cat can hop on from different angles.

Many cats seek high resting places, favoring locations where they can relax while still keeping an eye out for possible threats. Having access to an elevated resting spot is especially important for cats who occasionally need a break from other pets or young children tempted to chase after them. Some cats appear quite relaxed when resting on the top of the refrigerator, or on a bookcase. Be sure to put a soft, non-skid bed in your cat’s favored location.

Note: It is important to ensure your cat can walk around the house safely without being chased. It is okay for cats to choose elevated spots for a comfortable bit of shut-eye; however, it is not okay if they are up high because they are too frightened to join the rest of the family.

Scratching posts are also important for cats. When cats scratch surfaces with their paws, they deposit pheromones, chemicals that help make them feel secure in their home. The scratching areas should be made of material the cat likes and be large enough for the cat to stretch out completely. See the handout “Cat Behavior Problems - Scratching Behavior” for more details.

Incorporating enrichment into your daily routine requires both creative thinking and attention to your cat’s preferences. Your cat will be happier and healthier because of your efforts.

Does my cat need to hunt if I provide excellent food?

A cat’s desire to hunt is not connected to the sensation of hunger. Even well-fed cats will stalk when they see or hear potential prey. Almost anything that moves rapidly or squeaks in a high pitch can trigger this instinctive behavioral response. An outdoor cat might hunt and capture as many as 10 small animals a day. Indoor cats benefit from having an outlet that satisfies their need to seek, stalk, and catch “prey”.

How do I provide an outlet for hunting behavior?

To provide indoor cats with the experience of hunting, choose toys that mimic real prey in terms of size, texture, and color. Play chase the “bird”, chase the “mouse”, or chase the “bug” with your cat. Be sure the toys you select are not so small they could be accidentally swallowed and cause an intestinal blockage.

You can provide your cat with needed social play by using a toy on a wand to create a hunting game. Do not leave any wand toys unattended – it is very dangerous for cats to ingest ropes or strings. Try to incorporate at least three short play sessions into your cat’s day.

Technology can provide a fun outlet for some cats as well. Gaming apps designed specifically for cats are available where cats bat at the “prey” by tapping a touch screen on a tablet.

When and how should I play with my cat?

Ideally, try to initiate play just prior to the times your cat would normally be active or seek attention. Provide a variety of toys, rotating them often to keep them novel and interesting. Do not allow your cat to chase or pounce on any part of you – cats have sharp teeth and claws. Even a superficial injury caused by an accidental cat bite or scratch can become infected.

Should I feed my cat at specific times or should I leave food in the bowl all the time?

Unlimited food available all of the time (free feeding or ad lib feeding) can contribute to obesity, especially in sedentary cats. Free-roaming cats are active and burn calories while hunting. Indoor cats burn some calories when engaging with toys or with their food puzzles. One way to provide extra exercise is to divide your cat’s daily meal serving into several dishes and distribute the dishes around the house.

For more information about feline enrichment and preventing behavior problems, see these websites:

  • Indoor Pet Initiative - The Ohio State University: https://indoorpet.osu.edu
  • American Association of Feline Practitioners: https://catvets.com
  • International Cat Care: https://icatcare.org
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