Enriching the Indoor Cat’s Environment

Before I write about this I want to say two things:

I normally don’t really think too much about enriching my indoor environment with respect to my cat’s needs.

I am writing on this subject with reference to an article about enriching the environment of captive wild felines.

bored cat

Clearly what zoo keepers should do to improve the environment for wild cats is different to what we could do to improve the interior of our home so that it is more responsive to our cats. It is a bit extreme to equate wild cats with domestic cats. Or is it? We all know that domestic cats are not far from their wild cat ancestor with regard to behavioural characteristics. Certainly the deeply embedded need to express stalking and handling prey behaviours are the same as for wild cats. When my cat starts to place his paw forcefully on the bed and jump around having slept there for a long time he is catching prey. He is playing. Almost all domestic cat play is a substitute for stalking and hunting. The reason why our cats sleep for such a long time is because they are acting like wild cats, conserving energy for the moment when energy is expended rapidly (fuel guzzling use of reserves) in a high powered and athletic pursuit of prey. The cat is a high energy burning athlete.

My conclusion therefore is that we can equate domestic cats to wild cats and we can look at the interior of our homes and ask the question, “does my cat exercise some control over it and does he interact with the indoor environment?” The answer is invariably no. Unless the cat’s caretaker has:

  • modified the interior of his home so that it favours the needs of his cat and not him;
  • has built a nice catio or patio or cat enclosure that is responsive to the cat’s needs or;
  • lets his cat outside where his cat can revert to the wild temporarily.

The goal in enriching a captive wild cat’s environment is to allow the cat to engage in modified forms of stalking, chasing prey and food consumption behaviours.

I don’t expect anyone to modify their home to make is a mini-jungle, ideal for a cat with a steady supply of mice. But if we did, I have a feeling our cats would love it! Think of an extension to our home where a cat could enter a safe but utopian world of excitement and stimulation. Do you think he would be healthier mentally and physically? I do.

The most stressful sort of jobs that people do are those where the employee has no control over his work. He has no choices and the work is demanding – conveyor belt manufacturing or packaging comes to mind. That sort of thing.

A environment where our cat is faced with an unresponsive (no prey, no unknowns etc.) environment over which he has no control is potentially stressful. Where natural behaviour is unexpressed stress levels go up. Where a cat can behave naturally stress is reduced.

A classic case is probably a cat in an apartment with the owner working long hours. That is potentially stressful for a cat. The cat will show signs of stress (e.g inappropriate elimination, cystitis, anxiety, abnormal behaviour and a possibly a compromised immune system, which can lead to all manner of unresolved and undiagnosed health problems).

I do not expect anyone to do anything based on what I have written here. It just makes me think about my cat’s emotional needs more. Little is written about how to meet our cat’s emotional needs with regard to creating an environment in which he can freely express a full range of natural behaviour, which invariably centres on stalking and catching prey. Writers write about buying a cat condo or other cat furniture but that does not go far enough is we are to set high standards.

One useful and very simple way to enrich our cat’s environment is for us to interact with our cat; to be there a lot. That is why senior citizens are potentially the best cat caretakers. This is not satisfying deep seated drives but it is a form of domestic stimulation which is better than nothing.

In general, I don’t think we do enough to enrich our cat’s life and I include myself in that assessment. Perhaps one caveat is whether we have so domesticated and conditioned our cats that they have lost the desire to express natural behaviour.

Link to photographer’s Flickr pic.

4 thoughts on “Enriching the Indoor Cat’s Environment”

  1. I always feel like I wish I could give Monty more outside time, but if he’s out there too much he eats too much grass and barfs or gets runny poops. This summer all the grass is brown and dead from the drought, so it has been less of an issue. Also, it’s been extremely hot this summer, and I don’t think too much heat is good for him. He doesn’t enjoy himself out there if it is too hot, he just stretches out in the shade. These last two days of cool weather have been great.

    I’ve been blowing off my housework to go to the beach on my days off. Then I got an unexpected day off and decided to devote it to Monty. I blew off my housework so he could have fun. I must have spent almost five hours total outside with him. If I deserve happy, golden days (as I call them to myself) then Monty does too. For me a day swimming in Lake Michigan stands out as a great day in my life, as something that doesn’t happen all the time. For Monty, five hours to play in the back yard is like his day at the beach. He has been catching lots of moths and eating them, so he does have times he can exercise his predatory instincts without upsetting his human mom.

    I often tell Monty about other kitties less fortunate than himself, not that he cares. I watch him sniffing around outside and I think how much the cats at any shelter would love to trade places with him for just one day.

    • Yes, Monty has as good a life as a domestic cat can have. Lovely to see. He has the cake and eat it. If outside, natural living, gets too tough he can come in to the protection of the human environment. This is how the domestic cat should live. It is making the outside safe. That is the key part. You have done that.

  2. Not my cat. He is not domesticated or conditioned to the point that he has lost the desire to express natural behavior. Two dead baby bunnies within two days are proof enough of that, and that’s with me outside with him, ostensibly to prevent that sort of tragedy. But I don’t like the idea of just keeping cats indoors all the time either, especially an ex-feral cat like mine. It would take a lot of time, effort and money to recreate any type of indoor environment that would come close to what the outside offers him. But safety is also a concern. I’m lucky enough to have a fenced yard for him and enough free time to spend time out there with him. We started with Monty on a leash and then got away from using it as we covered all the gaps in the fence and closed the space between the house and garage with a tall, chain link fence. He also doesn’t seem to have much interest in what lies beyond the fences– he has his territory and the back yard is it for him. However, a co-worker today said she has tried to introduce her 14 year old cat to the outside now that they live in a more quiet, safe neighborhood and her cat is terrified of it. She doesn’t think he will ever enjoy the outside and she doesn’t feel right stressing him out. So the best thing she can do is to provide more scratching posts and toys for him and spend time playing with him indoors.

    • I have seen full-time indoor cats treat an open door as a invisible barrier as if a glass sheet was in the way. I don’t feel this is good. It is a cat that has been forced to modify and suppress natural behavior. That’s the way I feel about it. But people in different parts of the world have different ideas.

      Your Monty, is able to express wild cat drives. I think this is correct and I feel that Monty is healthier for it. I feel we owe it to our cats to let them express natural behavior as much as possible. That can take some work from us and some thought. I don’t think in general people give enough thought to this.

      A lot of cats would like to be in Monty’s shoes (I mean paws!).


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