Environmental Enrichment

By Aimee Castor, DVM
City Cat Mobile Vet Service

Environmental Enrichment for Cats

Indoor cats live longer and healthier lives due to the fact that they are not exposed to the dangers that outdoor cats are, such as cars, predatory animals, and certain illnesses.  Environmental enrichment, however, is very important for the indoor cat because being indoors can deprive a cat of hunting, exploring, and social contact with other cats.  The psychological stress of limited environmental stimulation can negatively impact your cat in many ways, potentially leading to problems such as inappropriate elimination, eating disorders, anxiety problems, aggressive behaviors, and urinary tract illnesses.

Feeding and Diet

In the wild, cats eat 10 to 20 meals over a 24 hour period.  A mouse only provides 8% of the daily energy requirement that an adult cat needs, requiring cats to hunt repeatedly throughout the day and night.  Feeding multiple small meals throughout the day, therefore, is more consistent with their natural eating habits.  There are also many ways to encourage cats to hunt for their food as they would prey in their natural environment, such as hiding dry kibble around the house for your cat to search for, using food puzzles or food balls which require effort on your cat’s part to obtain a meal, and tossing kibble so your cat must chase after the food. 

It is best to provide at least 1 food bowl per cat to avoid hierarchical interactions and place them in quiet areas or elevated areas where cats enjoy being.

Litter Boxes

Litter boxes should be at least 1 1/2 times longer than the length of your cat.  Commercial boxes are too small.  Large uncovered plastic storage containers with a small door cut out to allow for easy access is the best.  It is recommended that for every cat you have, you provide 1 litter box, plus a litter box.  So if you have 2 cats, you need 3 litter boxes, and for 3 cats, you need 4 litter boxes and so on.  This is especially important if there is inappropriate urination problems in your household.  Litter boxes should be placed at different locations throughout the house.  Clean the litter box at least once daily and wash it with soap and water at least once a week.  If the box contains an odor that does not wash out, replace the box.  Most cats prefer fine grained litter but you may want to let your cat choose by providing an assortment of litters and ultimately selecting the one he or she likes best. 

Last but not least, if your cat is urinating inappropriately, it can be a medical problem, so it is a good idea to have your cat checked by a veterinarian.

Scratching and Scratching Posts

Provide your cat with something to sharpen his or her claws on instead of your furniture.  It is the nature of a cat to sharpen his or her claws and mark areas via scratching.  Cat scratchers should be placed in your cat’s favorite areas of the house.  Many cats prefer vertical to horizontal scratchers but try both and entice your cat by rubbing catnip on the cat scratcher or placing toys or treats on it.  Never yell or punish your cat when scratching but instead use double sided tape on the area the cat scratches or spray the area with Feliway, a feline pheromone.  When your cat uses the cat scratcher, praise your cat profusely.

Perches or Climbing Towers

High places such as perches, catwalks, or trees are very important because cats like to climb and prefer high places.  It also allows them to watch action from above and gives them a sense of security.  One perch per cat is ideal, placed in you cat’s favorite area such as in front of a window.  There are many cat scratchers that also serve as perches.

Toys and Mental Stimulation

The following is a list of other changes that can be made to provide mental stimulation:

  • Window seats with a view of an outside bird feeder or squirrel feeder.
  • There are all kinds of toys for cats.  Make sure to put them away after you are done playing with your cat and rotate them to prevent loss of interest.  A Fishing pole with your cat’s favorite toy as bait and laser lights work very well for cat entertainment.
  • Video tapes for cats.
  • Safe outside cat enclosures.

Social Interaction with Humans

Spending time every day brushing or playing with your cat is one of the most important aspects of enriching your his or her social environment.  At least 15 minutes twice daily is encouraged.

Coping with Other Cats and Stressors

In the wild, cats have the capability of hiding from predators and stressful situations.  Each cat needs his or her own private quiet area, called a refuge, to get away from stressors in the household, whether it be a toddler, another cat, construction in the household, or a new person.  A refuge should be in an out of the way area and the cat should have access to all necessities including food, water, a litter box, a perch, a scratching post, toys, and a small hiding place such as a box or kennel with a bed or towel in it.

Recommended Food Puzzles: 


Kitty Kong

Recommended Books that Your Cat Would Like You to Read:

"The Cats’ House" or "Cats into Everything" by Bob Walker inspires creativity for environmental enrichment.

"Cat Massage: A Whisker to Tail Guide to Your Cat’s Ultimate Petting Experience" by Maryjean Ballner

"How to Massage Your Cat" by Alice May Brock

"Showbiz Tricks for Cats" by Anne Gordon (this book is out of print but can usually be obtained at the library)

Internet Resources:


http://www.cattoys.com (toys, cat videos, beds)


http://www.kittyshow.com/video.htm (videos)