An Epidemic of Understimulated Cats?

Cat using seeking system

Dr Overall1 says, “I think we’ve got an epidemic of understimulated cats whose intellectual needs aren’t being met”. She believes that not enough people recognise the intelligence in cats. For her, the most important need for a cat is the intellectual one.

Temple Grandin in “Animals Make Us Human” writes that “cats are genetically adapted to living free out of doors. If you live in a safe country area, you should probably think about having an indoor/outdoor cat.”

She refers to the requirement of mental stimulation for indoor cats. “I’ve seen cats do very well indoors….” This depends on providing mental stimulation and, ideally, creating an harmonious group or cats.

She refers to the extreme of indoor cat living: locking a cat in a bedroom all day while the owner goes off to work. That is like keeping a tiger in a cage at a zoo.

Daria an F2 Savannah kitten from A1 Savannahs

F2 Savannah kitten in a play-tunnel. Plenty of mental stimulation

Keeping the need for mental stimulation in mind and a recognition of a cat’s cognitive abilities and emotional needs, Temple Grandin, says:

“The key to animal welfare is to keep the positive emotion system such as play and seeking turned on and to keep the negative emotion systems – rage, fear and panic turned off as much as possible.”

She equates “seeking” with curiosity, looking and searching in preparation for hunting. That is how I understand her concept of “seeking”.

Cats who go out are able to turn on their seeking system through hunting. In America there are complications in doing this because of (a) safety and (b) preying on native wildlife – something that a lot of people dislike.

For indoor cats, toys and games in which something moves stimulates the seeking system she says. A cat’s brain is triggered by movement as the cat is a natural born hunter.

The need to stimulate in this way – iPad games are one example – is reinforced by what Marc says about how he keeps his cats contented while living indoors. Marc places a lot of emphasis on playing with his cats and providing a stimulating environment.

I tend to agree with these ladies. I particularly like what Dr Overall says. Intelligent cat lovers know that their cats need stimulation and to be treated as smart sentient beings who are also individuals. Many people don’t quite get this. They fall a little short of the mark leaving their cats declawed and bored.

Temple Grandin recommends clicker training as a way of stimulating the cat’s seeking system. Training a cat stimulates the cat’s mind, “using clicker training to teach your cat new things stimulates its seeking system.”

A lot of us are not that keen on cat training of any kind. However, I accept her point. We need to focus more on the intellectual element of our cat’s needs.

The video, below, of a cat “hunting” a letter posted through the letter box would seem to be an example of a cat expressing his seeking and then hunting system. He may have been trained to do it. I don’t know, but he apparently enjoys it. It looks like a form of domestic cat hunting to me. A distortion of the real thing but that all important mental stimulation is present.


  1. Dr Overall is quoted in Temple Grandin’s book. Animals Make Us Human. The quotes appear to come from Dr Overall’s: Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals.
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An Epidemic of Understimulated Cats? — 4 Comments

  1. This is a hard one for me. I agree. I mean Red loved the outdoors. I was never for one minute concerned about either his health or his happiness. He was always in a great mood. He enjoyed his life very much. I am sure if he could have made the choice he would have done the same thing again – better to be free and have lived than to live long and not be free.

    It’s pretty simple actually. Yet I have become a hypocrite – one of those people who lives by their fears and projects them onto their cats making that simple choice for them. I am not prooud of it. I try and do what I can to make sure they are happy – or at least satisfied. There are issues but they are also doing much better than I would have guessed. If they were unhappy in any serious way I would have given in and just let them out by now. I may still do it. Hopefully they will be older by then and more careful and have passed the enormous risk taking stage. Still- it shouldn’t really be up to me and I am ashamed of it. I played with them alot yesterday because its my day off and I was home all day. They have fun chasing eachother in the mornings these days – they go nuts and really knock things over and it makes me happy if not worried they will hurt themselves – this is good. They have plants and nature now and sunlight and fresh air – snow in the winter – they can enjoy those things – they even caught a bird.

    However they are stuck and they know it. They don’t choose the edge of their own territory – and even though if they had the choice it might only be 50 meters from here – they don’t have that choice and it effects them entirely – who they are and what they do. ITs not ok. It’s my fears. It doesn’t seem right.

    • Monty has chosen his territory, for although our yard is fenced, it’s not a cat proof fence, yet he never tries to go over it. The bad thing is he can’t be out there whenever he wants. I keep him in in the morning until the possum family that lives in the shed back there goes to sleep, he has to come in when the bees start to wake up. He can go out in the evening, but must be in before it gets too dark for me to see him. I have to watch him against the possibility of a coyote coming over or under the fence (hasn’t happened yet) or a possum being out in daylight acting strangely (could be rabid) against the bees who would sting him and against his own appetite for eating pounds of grass if he’s out there too long. And I watch out for anything else that might be a threat– birds of prey, a fight with a squirrel who might bite him, his eating a beetle that could get stuck in him (I’ve taken several huge beetles away from him) and I watch to be sure that no one threw anything over the fence to deliberately poison him. If neighbors are out, I’m out talking to Monty. If they spot him up in a tree or through the gaps in the fence then they spot me too– watching him and watching them. Everybody here seems ok with cats, but if I don’t know them I don’t trust them.

      Monty just looks out the back door and wants his freedom. He sees a fantastic playground and he is barred from enjoying it as much as he would like. There is also the fact that I work and even if I’m inclined to take him out sometimes I am busy or tired.

      I equate the back yard for him with places I love to explore like the Wisconsin River’s islands and sand bars and the many Wisconsin State Parks and Forests within an hour or two from me or the Audubon Center, or the nature preserve in Williams Bay that I explored with friends this summer. Going to those places means a good day for me. Playing outside means a good day for him. But I can’t enjoy those places as much as I’d like either. We just canoed the river and now I can’t get sand bars and deep flowing water out of my mind. We can’t always have what we want.

      The difference is that Monty’s life is so short compared to mine. It makes me want to give him more good days– more days wherein he played outside until he wanted to come in.

      • Great comment Ruth – thanks for writing all that – you really put it well. I’ll have to work out what a ‘good day’ is for my cats.

        • I think every day is a good day for your cats, Marc. I think you are much too hard on yourself. If they had total freedom, like wild cats, they also would not live very long. The lifespan of a feral is about one to two years.
          Yes, they have lost some freedom for security, but it is a good trade for small cats. Humans must never trade freedom for security, but for cats it is a good trade. How free is a cat who fears predators day in and day out? Who doesn’t have enough to eat or drink? Who if hurt or sick has no recourse but to bear it and still has to hunt and fend for himself?
          Given the choice your cats would choose to be with you. I know because Monty stays with me. He has had ample opportunity to go over that fence, and could I follow? He knows the life of a feral cat and he doesn’t want it. Nor would your cats.

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