Environmental Enrichment For Domestic Cats

I have just read an interesting article in the Feline Conservation Federation magazine from March/April 2012. Yes, I was rather slow in getting around to it. It is about behavioral enrichment for captive wild felines. Although it is about wild cats in cages the principles discussed are very close to those that are applicable to domestic cats in houses, particularly full-time indoor cats. They do live in a sort of cage, don’t they? I would like to quote the people who know wild cats better than anyone probably, Mel and Fiona Sunquist. At page 1 of their marvellous book, Wild Cats of the World they write:

When you have a cat in your home, you live with the essence of tiger. Indeed, the appeal of domestic cats may be that they are just a whisker away from their wild relatives.

One of the most significant stressor for a cat, wild or domestic is an environment that is unresponsive. An environment over which the cat has no control. I would like to quote Professor Chris Tromberg if I may:

When animals perceive that they have some control over their surroundings (when their behavior “means something”), symptoms of stress, including stereotypical behaviors, frequently decline. Reduced stress responses are associated with more normal behavior and improved long-term health.

Putting that into simple language I believe this means a cat that is unable to express normal behavior in stimulating surroundings may develop abnormal behavior and possible health problems. I think this is a very important point because a lot of unhappy relationships between cat and human comes down to the human not ensuring that the environment is sufficiently stimulating (of the right kind). The reason may be because the person does not know enough about cat behavior. Often stimulation could be as simple as interacting with their human companion or another cat with whom they are friends. I think it is important that if another cat is brought into the house that the existing cat has some say in choosing the cat.

Cat Stalking

Environmental Enrichment For Domestic Cats. Cat Stalking. One of the natural behaviors for a feline.

Cats are basically high powered “fuel guzzling athletes”. They sleep a lot and then burn up energy a lot after they wake up. When wild cats are active they are finding, stalking and chasing prey. This is a challenging task. If a cat is to be able to express natural drives they should be linked in some way to these activities. Domestic cats (and lions in a pride) also get some stimulation from interacting with other friendly cats and of course us.

Chasing prey is stressful for a short time. That is healthy for a cat as it helps keep the cat sharp and stimulated. A cat needs to use its brain and skills just like people. But if the stress is chronic (long term) and due to an unresponsive environment it can lead to anxiety and cause health problems such as a compromised immune system.

I am reminded by Professor Tromberg that cats have good memories in relation to storing information about…

“extremely averse experiences. Felines do not forget. Never spank a cat…..They respond well to reinforcement but do not respond well to punishment”.

If you do punish a cat like a child he might become wary of you. You’ll lose a friend if you ever were a friend. This echos what I wrote years ago about not punishing your cat. If you do punish your cat and he becomes wary of you but at the same time is forced to live with you he is living in an unsuitable environment. A stressful environment rather than an enriched one. I feel certain that a lot of relationships break down this way.

A cat might become “sensitized” to what the professor calls a “provocative stimulus” in their environment. “Sensitised” means the cat will become jumpy to a stimulus that resembles the original one. The cat will generalize. A “provocative stimulus” would be something that frightened or startled the cat. I recall my dear late lady cat. She was always jumpy when she heard the sound of a lorry outside and noisy footsteps. This indicated to me (possibly incorrectly) that she had had a bad experience with a man with heavy shoes or boots, perhaps a builder. This is just one rather simple example. Charlie my current cat companion is nervous with blonde women! What happened? He is generalizing.

I guess the moral is to avoid a stimulus that creates a marker in the mind of a domestic cat because he won’t forget. The damage will be done. Correct stimuli in a reliably predictable environment is the aim. I wonder sometimes if the human race is totally missing the point on how to keep a domestic cat happy and healthy.

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Environmental Enrichment For Domestic Cats — 5 Comments

  1. You are so right Michael, a lot of caretaker/cat relationships are unhappy because the person hasn’t bothered to learn much about how to make cats happy and content and as you said, they lose a friend if they ever were a friend, if they don’t make sure the cat has compensation for his having to conform to our way of life.
    Some people think cats just need to eat and sleep, they have no thought the poor creatures could be bored and frustrated. Worse off are the declawed cats who can’t even amuse themselves on a scratching post or grab a toy to play with.
    I really don’t know why people who don’t have time to spend with their cat have one, cats are not possessions or accessories, they are living feeling beings with the right to a fulfilled and happy life.
    We should never forget their deepest wild instincts and that we took their freedom away from them and need to make it up to them for doing that.

    • Thanks Ruth. I have a horrible feeling that 2/3rds (3/4?) of the people who keep cats don’t really know what a cat desires.

  2. I know what Monty desires. He wants to catch that chipmunk that lives under the wood pile out back and rip him apart with tooth and claw. He wants to jump up and snatch birds from low hanging tree branches or in flight as they swoop down within his reach. He wants to catch that squirrel who pesters him all the time, but at the same time he’s a little afraid of him. He wants to sniff out a mouse or chase after a bunny. He wants to catch little animals and crush them in his jaws. These are his thoughts all the time, these are the things that drive his very existence. The chance to kill live prey is the true reason he wants outside. Sure, he climbs trees, munches on grass and rolls in the dirt, but that’s all secondary to his prey drive, which is always there, whether he’s hungry or not. My sister calls him “Killer” but if she’s honest, her kitty is no different. When we had mice in the basement, before Monty came, her cat was constantly bringing half dead mice upstairs to her. she was less than thrilled to receive these gifts. We blocked the hole where they were coming in, so no more mice in the basement, but I’ll bet Monty wishes there were. Of course mice are what he’s looking for in the dusty, cob webbed corners down there. It’s all about catching prey for him. I dread the carnage, but killing something is his hope every day.

    • You are so right Ruth and a lot of people don’t understand that cats have deep rooted instincts from the days when they had to hunt prey to survive.
      I hate it when people say cats are murderers, they are not, it’s people killing other people who are murderers, not cats who merely follow their instincts.
      Anyone who truly love cats accepts and understands that part of them and loves and accepts cats as they are, as cats and knows that cats are not little people with human reasoning.
      I think you are right too Michael that 2/3 or even 3/4 people who keep cats don’t know what a cat desires, they don’t even bother to try to educate themselves either.
      There must be countless cats living with less than full quality of life, some actually living in misery, because of who fate decreed would have them in their power.
      That makes me very sad.

  3. I think Michael is right sadly. I have learnt so much from when I had my first cat. I regret that I was not there for my first cat in ways I should have been but I loved her very much and did everything I could for her. I even built her a tunnel to go in and out in the dead of winter so she could be totally independant. But there were things I did nopt know about toys and playing that might have helped us bond more. She was very happy all in all, and I was around most every day so she never was lonely. And since then I have learnt a lot more. She is still alive in Canada living with her sister (my ex gf) and I know now she is older and I have imposed myself on my ex (her current caretaker) with requests for good food to be given to her and a proper yearly check up to look out for kidney problems and so on. So in a sense I am still watching over her. I could not put her through coming to Europe with me. Leaving her behind, albeit in very good hands with her littermate, was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. But it would have been selfish of me to drag her here not knowing what would become of my own life or where I would live. I had to leave Canada in part due to visa problems. She had a great life. But I think Michael is right about people. Most of them just don’t know what a cat wants. They see a cat complain and give it food and then they complain that the cats isnt hungry and ‘what does she want’. I’ve seen cats at people’s houses who I feel terribly sorry for. I used to visit my neighbour but actually just to spend time with his poor cat who loved me so much because I loved him and understood hime alot more. Yet I feel now that I knew nothing then, which makes my neighbour a complete idiot in the grand scheme of things. I think most indoor only cats are probably neglected and/or suffering because of a lack of good environment and connection with caretakers. What is infuriating is said caretakers wont let them out because they fear the risks. At least let the cat take it’s owqn life into it’s hands and be happy for a time. Don’t sucumb to your own fears of it dying and lock it in but without catering to it’s needs. It’s sad and not fair. Yes Michael, I would say 2/3 or 3/4 is probably about right. The only thingI would point out is it is in the context of indoor only cats that this is crucial.

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