Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
Off The Leash
I have talked a little bit about indoor-cat play time lately, but two things prompted me to delve into it further. First, I have seen quite a few overweight kitties lately, with owners who are ready for some weight-loss tools. Second, my cat is out of control. My cat is always interactive and vocal, meeting me at the door after work meowing and wanting to be picked up. She loves to play chase. But lately, as my work hours and the daylight hours are longer, she has become possessed with the spirit of her wild ancestors. She is running around the house chirping to herself, she is using every time I move across a room as a challenge to start running a mini-marathon inside, and of course ramped up her furniture scratching.
My cat is a solo diva. She won’t accept another cat in her house, and only grudgingly puts up with the dogs. Cats are actually fairly social animals, so since she shuns other cats I also have to be her entire social group. When we have solo cats or cats that don’t play with each other, it becomes even more important that we provide enrichment play time.
Cats may seem simple since they simply eat and sleep. They don’t even have to be let out to go to the bathroom. They sleep on average 19 hours a day (yes, I’m jealous!) But many cats need playtime, which helps them relax, be on better behavior, lose weight and decrease stress. There are many instinctual behaviors that they haven’t lost, and the more we can encourage these in play the happier our cats will be. Additionally, many of our cats are taking the Garfield approach to life and sleeping a lot in between eating a lot.
When we can get them moving and thinking more, we can often shed some extra pounds while curbing boredom. As any of us who eat a bag of chips without realizing while we watch TV know… boredom leads to eating more. Many negative behaviors that we see in our house cats can be resolved with appropriate enrichment, as they stem from boredom. Behaviors such as scratching furniture and going to the bathroom outside of the litter box (but inside the house) can resolve if we direct their energy elsewhere. We always do a full physical exam and look at urine from cats who have been peeing outside the litter box, as it is often a medical issue. However, sometimes stress is the only contributing factor.
The next question is always: how in the world can my cat be stressed? Cats may look relaxed, but they are also very sensitive. Stress in cats comes from many things (from a housemate they don’t like to a litter they don’t like) and is always more prevalent when cats aren’t getting the stimulation they need.
Cats have a high natural chase and hunt drive. When they are kept indoors in a rodent-free environment (or so we hope!), there aren’t as many chances for them to stalk and hunt. Even when there are mice in your house, not all cats pick up the clue (I won’t mention any names, but she belongs to me.) Hunting is an involved process that takes lots of work. They usually find a trail, sit and wait for as long as it takes, then pounce when the chance comes. All of this integrates their mind and body. I do not recommend bringing rodents into your home just for your cat’s entertainment. You may just get into my situation with a cat who shuns her duties. We have to replace the mice with something more appropriate for our indoor cats to “hunt.”
Every cat has a favorite, but feathers on string, ropes over the tops of doors to hang down, and laser pointers are popular choices. Not only will these engage your cat and get them moving, but carving out time to play with your cat will also strengthen your bond. While many see cats as aloof, and some cats are, many crave attention and love from their owners just like dogs. Get several types — toys that have a bell, rustle, scratch or squeak. Have a toy basket and get a different toy out for each day so that they are new and exciting. Just leave a few down for everyday play and reserve the others for dedicated play time.
Another way to get your cat exercise while using their chase drive is to feed them meals of dry food by tossing kibbles across a floor (or up and down stairs.) This helps cats work off their calories while simultaneously letting them chase, catch and eat their meal.
Cats tend to jump up to high places before sleeping or grooming. While the threat of predators in our houses is pretty low, cats instinctively tend to seek high ground before letting down their guard. Cats that have a place to do this in our houses tend to be less agitated and able to spend more time in their comfort zone. This is especially good for multi-cat households, since it can provide everyone with their own “bedroom” area and decrease stress.
There are many ways to create this environment. You can purchase tall, elaborate kitty condos that have beds and scratching posts. You can make a cat tower, or simply attach a series of shelves that your cat can access (without anything on them). You can add any favorite beds or scratching posts to these. If your house is full, your wallet is empty and your carpentry skills aren’t up to snuff, then consider clearing any tall space. Dressers and tops of entertainment centers can make perfect spots — just make sure to be consistent and clear all tall furniture so that your cat doesn’t get confused about why yesterday it was a great perch and today you’re mad because the new vase was off limits.
Cats scratch things to sharpen their nails, spread their scent and stretch their muscles. The key is giving them something to scratch that is allowed. We certainly don’t want to encourage them to ruin furniture, so instead we must replace it with something acceptable. Find out what your cat likes to scratch (soft cloth, rough cloth, rope, cardboard, sisal) and buy or make them scratch posts. Some cats prefer these to be horizontal, while other prefer them to be vertical. Make a couple of trial posts and pads. This will help them fulfill a natural urge while also encouraging them to leave your furniture alone.
There are even veterinary products that will encourage scratching in one place while discouraging another.
I’m sure everyone has noticed this, but cats love to get into enclosed spaces like boxes and bags. Plastic bags have a much higher risk of suffocation or plastic ingestion, so I encourage boxes or paper bags. Cats can entertain themselves for quite a while just by playing in these homemade toys. Take advantage of this inexpensive play time and set up different types of bags or boxes.