Hello everybody! I hope you're having a wonderful weekend. In this week's post I'm going to share some great research which looks at simple things you can do to make your cat more happy, stimulated and able to pursue its natural behaviours in your home... without destroying the furniture or driving you mad.
What I love about these suggestions is that they're really simple fixes. They don't take much time or money, but can make a HUGE difference to how your cat is feeling. I first caught wind of this research about six months ago when Lyra and Lola weren't getting on... at all. I telephoned our vet in distress, and she suggested a few of these techniques to me. I remember thinking 'I don't think you understand! Things are really bad here. I need proper fixes, not just a bit of kitty feng shui!'
How wrong I was. Those tiny changes made a world of difference and brought Lyra and Lola together in the most beautiful way. It taught me that things that may seem insignificant to me might be all important for my cat - and that just like us they are products of their environment. If their home isn't quite right, then nothing else will be either.
1. Rotate toys
We all know the score - you buy your cat a million and one toys but all it wants to play with are the headphones you left out, or the box from your latest delivery!
What's the deal? Well, it turns out that our cats' intelligence gives them a rather short attention span, which means that they get used to their regular toys rapidly. Instead, it's the thrill of the new that gets them going, which is why a brand new box is always going to win over that old mouse toy that has been sitting unloved on the floor for weeks.
Thankfully, though, there is a way to keep them excited by the toys that you've bought for them... and that is, to take them away!
If you rotate their toys so that they don't have access to the same ones all of the time, they'll get that thrill of 'discovering' them again each time you bring them out.
"It is known that cats rapidly habituate to object play, and regular rotation of toys used in play sessions will enhance success"
The other thing you can do is to take advantage of the natural opportunities that present themselves to give your cats exciting new temporary toys. I'm always looking at the stuff I'm about to put in the recycling bin and asking myself whether the cats could get a few days fun out of it first!
2. Make meal times hunting times
If you've been to the zoo recently you might have noticed that at feeding time, the lions and tigers aren't just left to dine on bowls full of chopped up prime steak. Instead, based on the latest research, many zoos now give the big cats carcasses or sides of meat strung up in trees, which they have to claw and gnaw at for hours to get their fill.
To us it might look like a major inconvenience, but to the big cats it's a great opportunity to express their natural predatory behaviours. Studies show that exercising those behaviours is good for their mental wellbeing. But it's also good for the time budget of their day - a big cat is happier after spending several hours in the joyful pursuit of eating, than if they just wolf down a bowl of meat in two seconds and then spend the next few hours at a loose end.
Those big cats might look a world away from our fluffy felines, but they're really not that far removed. Our domestic cats still have a psychological need to hunt, stalk, capture and eat their prey, as it's what they've evolved for millions of years to do.
So what can we do to give our cats a taste of a real hunting experience?
For wet food one of the simplest things you can do is divide your cat's meal up into four or five small bowls and hide them around the house. It's a great game of hide and seek, and hilarious to watch your cat padding around trying to work out where those delicious smells are coming from!
For dry food you can make or buy activity feeders that force your cats to work for their suppers. There are lots of options on the market, but if you'd rather go for the DIY option, just save up around 10 old toilet rolls, and stick them together on their sides to make a toilet roll pyramid. OR if you're feeling a bit more crafty, you can cut them to different lengths and then stick them vertically, end up, onto a piece of card.
Then just pop a couple of bits of dry food in each cardboard roll and watch your cat have hours of fun trying to fish them out!
"Another enrichment technique is to increase the time animals spend in feeding behaviour. For the cat that is food-orientated, small amounts of dry food can be put into containers with holes through which the cat has to extract individual pieces, or hidden in the environment to make it more interesting to explore."
The above is just a suggestion and you can come up with your own design based on what you have to hand. All you need to do is come up with a way to place food so your cat has to work to get it. For instance a shoe box with holes cut in the sides and dry food in the middle could work. Or just a paper bag scrunched up with dry food inside!
For more suggestions and ideas I've started a little Pinterest board, which you can take a look at here: Pinterest DIY Cat Projects.
3. Vertical space
"The cat's natural behavioural repertoire includes climbing and jumping, and it seeks comfort and security from being off the ground."
Cats can live in relatively confined conditions - studies estimate that when cats are in the same room together, they need to be able to maintain a distance of about 1-3 metres between each other to prevent anxiety and aggression.
After this point it's the quality rather than quantity of space that matters, and one of the biggest ways of improving the quality of this space is by expanding into the vertical dimension.
Cats love to be able to climb and sit up high. It's where they feel safe and in control, with a nice high vantage point and no chance of being crept up on. Plus, getting up there is great exercise and requires no small amount of brain work.
To make the vertical dimension accessible to your cat, it's worth looking at what you already have and how you could adapt it for them. For instance, in our lounge we have built-in bookshelves that used to be too steep for the cats to climb. But when we bought an armchair to go alongside, suddenly it opened up a way for the cats to climb on to the back of the armchair and from there step onto a shelf. Now they regularly climb up there when they're feeling in need of reassurance and calm - and I've cleared half a shelf for them to perch on.
If you can't find high space that you can adapt, then an inexpensive solution is to purchase a cat tree, or some shelves that you place at a cat-accessible height (e.g. staggered from the ground up).
In the bedroom, there wasn't any vertical space at all and Lola and Lyra often got into spats there. So I bought a super-cheap 'cat tree' online and now they both have room to perch up high if they want to.
4. Hiding places
Studies show that if given the choice, cats will spend about half of their time out of the sight of other people and cats. Hiding is an essential part of cat behaviour, so it's important to make sure that your home provides lots of opportunities for concealment!
Experts recommend that there should be at least two types of hiding place per cat. One on the floor, and another at height (e.g. on a shelf or windowsill), somewhere where your cat can get a good view of what's going on below (this ties into the previous point about vertical space) (Schroll, S. 2002).
To create those hiding places it's worth looking again at what you have to hand. Cardboard boxes are perfect, as are high sided cat beds, baskets, large bowls and even plant pots! It can also be helpful to break up the space within your room with visual barriers:
5. Catnip / olfactory stimulation
A cat's sense of smell is as important and central to its life as vision is for us. So it makes sense that when it comes to enriching their sensory environment, it's smell that's most important. Or to put it another way, if you want to cheer yourself up you might hang some nice art on the wall to give yourself something enjoyable to look at. But for cats it's much more important to give them something enjoyable to smell at!
Enter catnip. Plants in the catnip or catmint family release an odour when the stems or leaves are bruised that drives some cats wild. It has a mildly intoxicating effect, akin to having a beer in humans, so for indoor cats in particular it can be a great way for them to let off steam and have a relaxing and enriching experience.
You can grow the plant yourself or buy dried catnip, but do be aware that only 50-70% of cats will respond to its effects, as it's a genetically inherited trait. Your best bet is to buy a small amount and see! (Ellis, S. 2009)
6. Swap the laser pointer for physical toys
I remember when I discovered the laser pointer - or rather my dad did, and spent a whole evening sending our family cat Tilly literally up the walls trying to chase the sacred green dot!
I have on occasion done the same with Lyra and Lola... after all, the fact you can play with them from the comfort of your armchair is pretty appealing.
But studies have found that the laser pointer is not the great cat toy we'd like it to be.
First, the good news:
But here's the catch...
"However, while the laser pointer provides opportunity for the locomotory part of the hunting sequence, it does not allow the cat to complete the hunting sequence, with appropriate capture and consummatory behaviours. It therefore holds the potential to trigger frustration and related behaviours."
Because a cat can never actually 'catch' the laser dot, playing with a laser pointer can result in a wound-up cat rather than a happy cat. Instead, it's much better for your cat to play with physical toys that they can catch and hold, so that they get the full satisfaction of a successful hunt.
7. Litter tray feng shui
Oh, litter trays. We all know cats are fussy about their bathroom habits, so getting this one right is crucial.
The key thing is to make sure you have at least one litter tray per cat. Then you have to work out where to put them, which is a big old game of tetris, particularly if you have more than one cat!
Here's the deal - first you want to think about putting them somewhere quiet, away from noisy appliances like washing machines or busy thoroughfares in the house. Next you want to make sure they're away from your cats' food bowls, because who likes to go to the loo where they eat?! Next you want to try and get them as far as possible from your cats' resting areas. And finally, if you're placing more than one tray, you want to try and get them out of sight of each other so that a dominant cat can't control both trays!
If you can find the mythical place in your house that fulfils ALL of those needs then you must either live in a mansion, or are a better 3D thinker than I am! But do your best and get to know which of these factors is most important to your cat so that you can cater to their particular needs (e.g. if your cat is having 'accidents', maybe switch up the positions of the trays to prioritise a different factor).
8. Scratching posts
"Scratching, which causes scent marks to be deposited from the inter-digital glands, leaves olfactory signals and is frequently observed in cats: this marking behaviour also leaves visual signals and helps to maintain the claws in good shape."
Cats love to scratch - but quite aside from enrichment, it's worth providing them with stuff to scratch just so that they don't end up tearing into your furniture!
There are lots of cardboard and sisal scratch posts available commercially, but if you'd rather go DIY then pieces of carpet and natural bark would work just as well. Experts recommend dotting scratching surfaces around your house - particularly around areas of entry and exit to the home, and also next to your cat's resting or sleeping areas, as these are the places that they will most want to have a good old scratch!
Outdoor cats have a strange habit of chewing on grass. It's not because they're hungry - in fact they lack the proper enzymes to digest grass. Because of this they can end up vomiting, but crucially, when they end up bringing the half chewed grass back up, it can bring with it other bits of indigestible matter from their stomachs like fur or small bones. This has led scientists to speculate that cats engage in this behaviour because it helps them get rid of troublesome fur balls and other bits of food that they haven't been able to digest (big cats in the wild tend to eat grass after consuming prey, for the same reason).
For indoor cats without a ready supply of grass, you can help your cat out by providing some grown in a container. Commercially available cat grasses are usually grown from barley, rye, wheat or oat seeds - and it's usually best to opt for one of these rather than selecting regular outdoor grass, as they will be guaranteed to be safe for cats. (Rochlitz, I. 2007)
10. Human time
So far we've played with the furniture, introduced grass, boxes, exciting new toys and aerial hideaways - your cat is going to be in seventh heaven, right?
Well, when it comes to your cat's happiness, there's one element that's more important than all of the rest put together:
"The caregiver, that is the owner, is the most important determinant of the cat's welfare. While interactions with other cats or other animals are important and rewarding to the cat, they are not a substitute for human attention...Periods of time which are not part of routine care-taking procedures (such as feeding) should be available every day for cats to interact with their owners."
That's right - the most important thing in your cat's home is...YOU! I know how busy life can be but if you can find the time to spend 15 or 20 minutes a day playing with and interacting with your cat, both you and your cat will reap the rewards. Your cat will be more mentally stimulated and happier, more bonded to you and feel more sleepy and ready to go to bed when you are (rather than running round causing chaos after lights out).
Meanwhile, you'll enjoy a great relationship with your cat and all of the amazing stress relief and mental health benefits that science shows come from interacting with an animal.
Best of all, the more you play with your cat, the more it will want to play with you:
"The more an owner responds to their cat the more likely it is to respond to them, and interactions initiated by the cat last longer than those initiated by the owner."
I hope these suggestions have been useful. I'm off to fashion an activity feeder out of some loo rolls for Lola, because she eats like a beast and is always hungry... so much so that we call her the furry shark! Now, after researching this article I suspect she's just bored, and could do with a little more mental stimulation around mealtimes.
I'd love to hear how you get on with the suggestions, or whether you have any of your own. Just send me a message over on Instagram (@supakitstore) or in the comments below!