"Hey, Mom, I'm bored!"
Environmental Enrichment for Bored or Lonely Cats
An emerging area of study is environmental enrichment for our pets. Research is beginning to show that some of the behavioral problems seen in pets are associated with lack of environmental stimulation. Stress related activities such as overgrooming and sometimes other obsessive compulsive behavior including urine marking occur in part due to lack of other things to occupy attention. Boredom related stress can aggravate cystitis and inflammatory bowel disease which then may contribute to litter accidents. Lack of exercise contributes to obesity, which is a factor in constipation, arthritis and other chronic health issues that may make it difficult for the cat to use the litter box.
In busy households, or households that the owners are absent from for large amounts of time, the cat may not receive enough interactive attention. If cats receive attention primarily with destructive behavior such as scratching or eliminating outside the box rather than when they are exhibiting more positive behavior, they will repeat that behavior since they are not getting any attention otherwise (like children). Destructive behavior as well as inappropriate elimination, urine marking or spraying that occurs when the owner is absent or is not observed immediately by the owner will not be associated by the cat with the owner's positive or negative response. In essence, the cat will not associate your current interaction with something it did several hours ago.
Enriching the cat's environment includes human interactions, for example playing, grooming, petting, and talking to the cat. Increasing the sensory stimulation in the household for the cat can be obtained by having access to windows to look outside (a view of a bird feeder is particularly interesting to most cats), viewing other moving prey- type objects such as fish in a fish tank, and hiding treats and dry kibble in toys that release the food when batted and played with. Additional small household pets such as birds, hamsters, lizards (securely confined) can provide many hours of interest to the cat but also come with additional responsibilities and challenges in avoiding the successful hunting outcome that many cats will work toward.
Novel objects such as new toys, cat puzzle boxes, and even mild changes in routine can all stimulate even older cats and help revent boredom. Laser pointer toys or flashlights can encourage stalking behavior and exercise even in obese cats. Playing "hide and seek" can stimulant the natural hunting instindts of cats and kittens.An aquarium can function as "cat TV"- just make sure the at cannot reach the fish or tip the aquarium over. Outdoor views help even sedentary older cats stay more mentally stimulated.Multiple vertical spaces that the cat can reach encourage exercise and variation in the view. These spaces help cats develop the travel routes they have in outdoor environments. Some commercially made bird and fish videos are available for those households without easy window access.Finally, protected outside access can be very helpful in engaging and stimulating high energy or more assertive cats. Enclosed screened porches or outdoor enclosures are very successful in mediating boredom. Outdoor enclosures may be home made, or commercially produced structures and are usually relatively economical. Even dog kennels can be modified by enclosing the top of the structure to avoid the cat climbing out and wiring shelves onto the walls to offer perching locations.