Behavioural Problems in Pet Cats and the Need for Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is a phrase many people are familiar with, but usually think of it as something only relevant to captive animals, such as those in zoos, not our pets. The actual meaning of the phrase is to provide an environment that the animal can interact with to indulge and satisfy its natural behaviours.

So, do our pet cats need environmental enrichment? Are our moggies basic instincts left unchallenged? Do we need to change the way we see our cat’s role in our homes? The answer would seem to be yes. More and more owners, particularly of indoor cats (1), complain of problems, such as excessive spraying, aggression and destructive behaviour, so it would appear that although our cats seem to adapt to our lifestyles, modern living doesn’t provide them with enough opportunity to indulge their natural instincts. Most cat’s in the UK have access to the outdoors which does allow them greater choice and the ability to indulge natural behaviours and wants, such as hunting, playing, climbing, and scratching. However, it depends on the quality of the outdoors environment as to whether a cat will be able to fulfil all his natural needs. Many modern gardens provides little stimulation and sometimes other dominant cats in the area can mean your cat chooses not to go out, so improving your cat’s life in your home to compensate can minimise many of the owner’s commonly concerns.

Top Ten List for Preventing Behavioural Problems In Cats

Make Food A Challenge – The job is far easier achieved with dry kibble but with a bit of ingenuity any food can be used. Treat balls that dispense dry food in small quantities when batted and rolled can be used indoors, or for outdoor use the bottoms of cardboard egg cartons can be overturned and used to hide tasty morsels of chicken around the garden. Small boxes – the size that earrings, etc. come in – can be bought cheaply from craft shops and can be used to hide part of your cat’s daily food ration around the house and help to engage his grey matter by working out how to remove the box lid. Toilet roll inners with one end pressed flat and taped closed with a couple of pieces of food dropped in make an interesting challenge for cat’s who love to retrieve a reward and helps to improve dexterity.

Keep particular foods as treats, such as fresh fish and only give them once a week to maintain their rarity value and increase your cat’s enjoyment of them. (2)

Don’t provide water next to food – it’s more natural for a cat to find food and water in separate locations, so place the water bowl in a different room. Use filtered water for those sensitive to the taste of chlorine or a pet fountain or a small indoor water feature in another room are great favourites with many cats.

Have more than one and spend time with them – If you have a single cat consider another to keep him company. Adult cats can sometimes be hard to integrate but even the grouchiest of single cats will generally tolerate kittens and younger cats under the age of six months very well. cats can sometimes be difficult to integrate consider a kitten as even the grouchiest of cats will generally tolerate a kitten or young cat under six months of age.

Grass – Grass can be bought and grown indoors and helps prevent cats chewing houseplants which can be toxic. Chewing long soft grass acts as a natural cleanser to help rid themselves of hair balls and internal parasites.

High Vantage Place – provide a cat climber with high platforms. Cats spend much of their time just sitting and watching, looking for opportunities to hunt and to keep a watch on their territory. Cats feel secure the higher up they are as it gives them a better view of a much larger area. They can also provide indoor cats with something interesting to watch.

Hidden Sleeping Areas – Some cats like to curl up together and sometimes they just like to be on their own, so an out-of-the-way place gives your cat time to relax and get some ‘me time’. Cardboard boxes, or igloo beds or just a soft blanket in a corner behind a chair are all possibilities and each cat is individual in their preferences.

Litter Trays – provide one litter tray per cat and clean it regularly, ideally after each use – if this isn’t possible provide a few extra so your cats always have a clean tray to use. It may mean more work but it’s definitely easier than cleaning it off the carpet! Hooded litter trays are usually a preference for most cats just ensure it is more than big enough for your cat to move around in and walk in and out of.

Scratching – Sisal scratch posts and mats are perfect as cats prefer a surface that ‘moves’ or shreds under the claws and doesn’t snag, such as soft wood – explains why door jambs are so attractive! To encourage your cat to use a post use a liberal amount of catnip on the rope part of the scratcher or climber. Catnip is a natural substance that most adult cat’s enjoy, rubbing where it has been sprayed, sniffing and scratching. Climbers also provide an opportunity for indoor cat’s to climb, maintain and improve muscle strength that they do not have access to if the outdoors isn’t an option.

Play – Cats can be great fun to play with and extremely amusing, but any interaction is generally on their terms. Most games preferred are of the hunting, stalking and attacking variety as play and hunting are basically the same thing to a cat. The more hungry a cat becomes, the more playful he becomes (3) This doesn’t mean to say if you’re cat is not very playful, you should starve him! But pick a time before a regular feed time or incorporate finding food as part of the play. It is also a great way to motivate fat cats into expending some energy, rather than trying to encourage them to play when they would rather be sleeping.

Fresh Air – Cats love the great outdoors even when it’s raining – although an indoor vantage point is usually preferred on rainy days! Indoor cats can benefit greatly from an outdoor run attached to the house, or even a window grill so a window can be left open safely but still allow fresh air in along with all the tantalising scents that cats are so sensitive to.

There are few of us that can honestly say our cat has all of these things whenever their need for them arises, so if our cats do develop the odd unsavoury habit or annoying quirk, it is always worth assessing your home and garden from a cats point of view. It needn’t be hard work enriching your home for indoor cats as constant small changes to their environment can provide new challenges and afford sufficient opportunities for exercise and mental stimulation that provide a healthy and fulfilling life. While it can take a bit of brain power from us, the benefits for both can be immense, great fun and build a greater bond and enjoyment from having a cat share your home.


(1) Housing conditions and behavioural problems of indoor cats as assessed by their owners. Eva Heidenberger. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Vol 52 (3-4), 345-364

(2) Differences in food preferences between individuals and populations of domestic cats. J.W.S.Bradshaw et al. Applied Animal behaviour Science Vol 68 (3), 257-268

(3)The influence of hunger on object play by adult domestic cats. Sarah L.Hall and John W.S.Bradshall Applied Animal Behaviour Science Vol 58 (1-2), 143-150

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