For thousands of years, cats roamed the great outdoors, where their daily survival depended upon interpreting a multitude of sights, sounds and smells. With domestication, many of these now half-wild and half-tame kitties reside indoors where life is much safer but seemingly not as exciting. “The lovely, safe homes we provide for them, free of threats, with plenty of food and minimal territorial invasions can be boring,” says veterinarian Margie Scherk, whose private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia, specializes in feline medicine.
Household kitties need not feel like they are serving jail time, though. You can provide the best of both worlds by keeping your kitty safely inside and bringing the stimulation of outdoor living indoors to improve your cat’s quality of life.
Here’s how you can engage all five of your feline’s senses in the cozy comfort of your own home:
Keep your cat visually stimulated and interested in playing with toys by rotating them daily, says Lisa Radosta, a board certified veterinary behaviorist in Royal Palm Beach, Fla. She likes the interactive, motorized toys made by Panic Mouse because they encourage natural predatory behaviors. You can also fulfill your cat’s hunting desire, she says, through daily play sessions with a feather wand, or other toys that allow your kitty to stalk and catch imaginary prey.
Another option is to play a DVD created just for cats, like “Kitty Cat Daycare” or “Video Catnip,” which were produced to capture feline interest with images of birds and other small mammals. In a study slated for release later this year in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, researchers concluded that televised moving images of prey animals hold “some merit as a method of environmental enrichment for domestic cats,” so time in front of the tube may not be unproductive, at least for feline viewers.
The outdoors features a smorgasbord of sounds, such as singing birds, rustling leaves and chirping crickets. Indoors, you can replicate this by playing a CD of nature sounds at low volume, says Dr. Radosta. Not only will your kitty enjoy it, but you might, too. Also, consider purchasing a drinking fountain. Found at most pet retailers, these motorized bowls look like mini-waterfalls. Best of all, the soothing sound of moving water is a gentle reminder for kitties to stay hydrated.
Scratching is a natural behavior but not all cats enjoy the same material, according to Dr. Radosta. Experiment with several different textures to figure out your cat’s preference. If your feline loves sinking its nails into your leather sofa, for example, try adhering pleather (a less expensive option to leather) to a wooden post. You can find this material at your local fabric store. Better yet, create the ultimate natural scratcher by mounting a tree stump to a solid wooden base. You can do this with wood screws, wood glue, an electric screwdriver and brackets. Just make sure that there are no sharp surfaces, which could scratch your kitty instead of the other way around.
Open screened windows to allow your cat a whiff of fresh air. Dr. Scherk also suggests giving your pet outdoor access through modules that attach to your home via a pet door. Several companies sell these premade enclosures, or you can learn online how to build your own at The Stanford Cat Network, a group in California that cares for homeless felines on Stanford University’s campus. The network’s Web site features the instructions in an article entitled “Allowing your cat outdoors.”
In the wild, cats like to graze on grass. Give your kitty a taste of the outdoors by placing pots filled with easily digestible oat grass around your home. Another favorite feline herb is catnip. Just keep in mind that not all greenery is safe for kitties to eat. “Chives are not a good idea,” warns Dr. Scherk. “Neither is all of the onion and garlic family. They can cause anemia by damaging red blood cells.”
By bringing outdoor pleasures into your home, not only are you creating a better living environment for your cat, but you are preventing potential medical and behavioral issues from developing. “Stimulating the cat’s every sense is what we go for in environmental enrichment,” explains Dr. Radosta. “And to do that, you need to bring the outside in because the outside provides inspiration for the ultimate environmental enrichment.”