Pets: Enrichment activities for your cat

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By Victoria Elliott

After days of staying home to help flatten the curve of the spread of coronavirus, you may have found a new appreciation for indoor enrichment. Without it, days can be long, boring and stressful. Like humans, cats also need mental and physical stimulation in their daily lives to stay healthy.

Thankfully, indoor enrichment is cheap and easy to provide for the cats in our lives. By thinking of each of the senses, you can create a wide variety of enriching activities for your cat. Variety is an important component of enrichment. Switch up the activities occasionally to find new ones that entertain your cat and provide new ways of stimulating its senses.

Smell

Take one look at a cat after it’s inhaled a whiff of catnip and you’ll see a picture of happiness. Catnip comes in a variety of forms: plants for eating, dried catnip for rolling around in and smelling and even bubbles to pop. Catnip is an herb that provides a “high” similar to that of marijuana or LSD. When eaten, it is sedating. When smelled, it is stimulating. Catnip is safe for cats, and it’s entertaining for both cats and their humans.

Pheromone sprays are another way to introduce smell enrichment to your cat’s environment. Pheromone sprays provide a synthetic version of cats’ own natural pheromones. Sprays like this provide a calming sensation for cats. This can be especially beneficial in situations of high stress like moves or when introducing a new animal or family member to your cat.

Taste

Many cats are food-motivated, which presents a number of ways in which to provide mental and physical enrichment. Puzzle toys and clicker training with treats are simple ways to provide your cat with physical and mental stimulation.

You can either purchase or make puzzle toys. To easily make a puzzle toy, cut holes in a pizza box big enough for a paw to reach into and place treats or food inside. Water bottles, as well, can be used for puzzle toys. As the cat swats the bottle across the floor, treats inside fall out. Another simple way to entertain your cats with food is to scatter food or treats on the floor and have your cat “hunt” them down.

Treats can also be used for training, which provides great mental stimulation. Cats can learn to high five, sit, beg, turn and other behaviors through training with treats. When the desired behavior is done, use a clicker, word, or motion paired with a treat, or other reward, to reinforce the behavior. With practice, your cat will associate the clicker, word, or motion with the desired behavior.

Sound

Squeaking mice toys that scurry across the floor, balls shooting up and down a track as they are batted back and forth, crumbled paper to swat and dart at: Sound is an important part of enrichment. A paper bag can be a crinkly cave to explore. A recording of bird sounds can provide a stimulating background soundtrack.

What about music? A study in “Applied Animal Behavioral Science” researched frequencies and tempos of feline communication to hypothesize what music that a cat likes might sound like. The cats involved in the study showed a preference for the music developed with cats’ vocalizations in mind over the human music played for them. You can find samples of feline-oriented music online and test out how your own cat reacts.

Sight

One of the easiest ways to provide your cat with sight enrichment is to provide easy access to a windowsill for sitting and watching natural sights. Squirrels, mailmen, birds, bees – there are boundless sights to see right outside your window. Adding a window bed for your cat can enhance the coziness of the viewing area. Outside, adding plants and bird feeders can attract additional action for your cat to watch.

If your window doesn’t provide the most interesting views, there are other options. A mouse darting across the screen of a tablet will encourage your cat to swat. Birds flying in a nature documentary will capture the attention of half-snoozing cats. There are countless online and TV options to catch the eyes of your cat.

Touch

Touch is by far the easiest enrichment to provide. The options are countless, and the benefits are great for both you and your cat.

Do you have a brush? Give your cat a weekly brushing, giving them a nice coat and a pleasant touch. If you don’t have a brush, you can easily sit and pet your cat, running your fingers through their coat, giving their head soft, little scratches. Don’t be surprised if this is enriching for both your cat and you, helping to ease anxiety.

Toys provide the most variety of options for entertainment. But that doesn’t mean you have to purchase anything. Toilet paper rolls, bottle caps and balls of paper all provide the physical enrichment and use of the sense of touch to cats, without an extra expense tied to them.

With any toys, keep an eye on your cats while playing to ensure that they do not ingest anything that they shouldn’t.

Enriching others

With the current global pandemic, animal shelters and rescue organizations are in more need than ever of support.

What can you do to help? If you have the ability to do so, many rescues and shelters are in need of people to foster animals. This can be an enriching experience for both the animal in your care and you. Additionally, shelters always need funds and supplies. Check with your local shelter or rescue to see how you can help.

Whether in person or afar, the animals in your lives can provide comfort through mutual enrichment in these uncertain times.

The writer is a volunteer with King Street Cats. For more information, go to www.kingstreetcats.org.

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