Beyond the Cat Tree: Feline Enrichment for the New Behavior Consultant

Written by Amanda Caron

Peer reviewed

Animal care professionals, behavior consultants, and pet owners continue to learn about the benefits of enrichment and the different methods of incorporating enrichment into the lives of the animals they care for. This essential part of an animal’s life is sometimes overlooked because pet owners may often focus on the quality of time they spend interacting with their pet, rather than what the pet’s needs are and if those needs are fulfilled.So, what is enrichment? Enrichment is something that creates an ideal opportunity for an animal to engage in instinctual behaviors such as observing, learning, hiding, hunting, sleeping, exercising, and eating. Another benefit of enrichment is that it presents the ability to boost confidence, release stress, and improve relationships. 

According to the AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines1, “The terms environmental enrichment and environmental modifications have been used extensively in the literature to refer to environmental changes for the benefit of the cat… Environmental needs include those relating not only to the cat’s physical surroundings (indoors or outdoors) but also those affecting social interaction, including responses to human contact.”

Without adequate enrichment opportunities and regular routine play, a cat can easily become stressed or agitated, and may even engage in behaviors such as chasing ankles or climbing legs. These behaviors not only contribute to a discontented life for the animal, they can put strain on the relationships that animal has. In certain cases, boredom and lack of enrichment may cause an animal to engage in self-damaging behavior. This behavior, often seen as excessive grooming, can lead to bald areas, open wounds, and infection. Pamela Perry, DVM, animal behavior resident of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, states “If all medical problems have been ruled out, then we normally treat overgrooming as the result of some form of stress in a cat’s life.”2 If possible, she recommends making changes or introductions gradually; bringing familiar items (such as bedding) to a new home; adding cat-friendly vertical space — high places where cats can retreat and feel safe; and keeping their environment stimulating by finding a few minutes (10 to 15 minutes will do) to play with them each day. The great news is that as research continues about the benefits of enrichment, many animal care professionals are sharing these ideas with those they work with, and the families who rely on their advice.

Giant claws or tiny paws — size matters!

Each species’ enrichment needs are different, but regardless of species, enrichment helps to provide an overall healthier and more fulfilling life for animals who are no longer capable of seeking out these resources as they would in the wild. In large-cat sanctuaries, you may see a tiger enjoying playing with a barrel, ball, or pumpkin as these provide opportunity for them to roll, chase, and hunt. In the wild, these cats would have regular prey like birds and small animals to hunt, catch, and kill, so it is important that they still engage in these behaviors. 

Our house cats share the same instinctual needs as cats in the wild, so it is equally important that we supply enrichment fit to their size and environment to help them live the life that runs in their DNA. When talking with pet owners I try to make sure to explain what enrichment is, why it is important, and how it can be beneficial to their relationship and life together. For cats I often only see a litter box, bowls, food, treats, and stuffed catnip toys in their space. Although, for many cats this sets the foundation for a good environment, they still lack opportunities for behaviors such as  hiding, observing, scratching, and hunting

Some cat owners are unaware that when their cat’s natural predatory behaviors are not exercised, that it may result in undesirable behaviors such as swatting at feet when passing by, or 3 AM zoomies through the house. One way owners may look to resolve zoomie behavior is by playing with a laser, or setting out stuffed mice in order to dissipate their energy, but for many, these attempts will have little to no effect. Although laser pointers can ignite a cat’s prey drive, it falls short because the cat never gets the satisfaction of catching it or killing it.  Without this feeling of satisfaction, the cat may become irritable or seek something else to fulfill that drive. For this reason, we must explain why these methods are less than fitting for a cat, and suggest better opportunities, such as interactive play sessions that allow them to hunt, chase, catch and kill.3

Exploring the territory

Understanding the environment a cat lives in is the first step in determining what kinds of enrichment might be beneficial in addressing the behavior problems your client has noticed in their cat. Herron and Buffington describe a set of “systems” for diagnosing behavioral problems that might respond to enrichment[4]; you might have your own that works for you.

Explaining the importance of territory and vertical space through the eyes of a cat is also important when discussing enrichment. As we know, cats see the world much differently than we do, so explaining how things are viewed through a cat’s eyes helps bring understanding to how their environment may contribute to their behavior concerns. One example I have used with my clients is explaining how a cat tree serves more purpose than being a place for the kitty to hang out. I talk about how a cat may see this as the best seat in the house for viewing the busy world below them or as a safe space to hide when other pets are around or when new people are visiting. This information has proved itself valuable when talking to clients who share that their cat is spending more time hiding than out with the family.

Cat trees are just one of the ways to increase a cat’s territory. Other options to increase territory are window perches, wall shelves, and any dedicated elevated space that is safe for kitty to rest.

 For cat behavior consultants just starting out, maps can be a valuable tool for case referencing. A great way to engage a client when discussing territory is by having them create a map of the home that highlights resources and important areas. Walking a client through this visual allows us to explain the territory as the cat may see it and may bring understanding about behaviors. It can also help your client to share more details that they may have thought were unimportant — for example, a glass door where outdoor cats visit, in a case of marking behavior. Another added benefit is that it allows you to point out why adding to the environment in a specific room is important to the cat.

Diagrame of a top-down layout of a home

A map of my house

When I experiment with a new enrichment idea, I take videos and photos for learning later on. I review these visuals and the approach I used and make note of any changes I would have made. I also use these to create slideshows and handouts to share with clients. 

These visuals can give clients the motivation to work with enrichment as part of a behavior modification plan, and may open the door for them to speak openly about concerns or questions they have.

“How to” photos and videos of enrichment can be a very valuable tool in behavior modification plans. A wand toy to be used to encourage use of the scratching post is shown in the picture below. A photo like this may help encourage an owner who contacted you about a cat who won’t touch their new enrichment add-on, a scratching post. 

A black and white cat with one paw on a vertical scratching post, following a blue wand toy held by aa human off-camera

Wand toys can be useful in familiarizing a cat to a new enrichment item like a scratching post

Photos, along with a detailed step-by-step description can be used to create handouts, which are great for referencing, and can be shared with clients, animal care facilities, and on your website. If you find yourself very successful with a particular enrichment idea, use that to write an informational guide that will ignite excitement in your clients and cat owners considering it.

Exploring enrichment ideas

Enrichment stimulates the senses! From scents to sounds and everything in between, the possibilities are endless. Exploring all the senses is a great way to find what that cat really enjoys. Here are a few simple enrichment ideas that can stimulate sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch:

  • Placing treats or kibble in an ice tray or muffin tin as a food puzzle and allowing kitty to work for a snack
  • Creating your own food dispensing toy with an empty toilet paper roll
  • Growing cat grass and letting kitty enjoy the smells and textures
  • Creating a cardboard box with some holes cut out for hide and seek play
  • Moving a cat tower/perch near a safe window for “Cat TV” bird watching

 

A home-made food dispensing toy

Two cats lying together and looking out of a window onto a garden

“Cat TV”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enrichment items below can also be purchased online and at some pet supplies retailers:

  • Interactive toys 
  • Tunnels/enclosed beds
  • Window perches/cat shelves
  • Puzzle feeders
  • Lick mats
  • Play mats
A black and white cat reaching down with left paw into a box of growing grass

Grass boxes can be a fun place to hide treats

See the References and Additional Resources section below for more enrichment ideas.

The world of feline enrichment also can extend outside of the home in the form of walking on leash or enjoying a “catio.”  In some cases, people have transformed rooms and even their homes to have a combination of activities and spaces for their cats to enjoy, such as the example seen in this article from Adventure Cats5. It is so exciting to have a variety of enrichment ideas to help cats not only who have behavior concerns, but all cats in all situations.

Finding the right enrichment 

While most cats can take pleasure in scouting the outdoors from a high perch, health limitations and age can alter what enrichment ideas suit them best. Vision issues, hearing impairment, and arthritis are just a few things to consider when discussing enrichment ideas with owners. In certain cases, cats in optimal physical health that may struggle with fear, anxiety and/or aggression can become overstimulated, so it is equally important to consider this in an enrichment plan. Some questions you might ask about this include:

  • Does your cat have any physical limitations, previous injuries, or medical conditions?
  • Is your cat currently on any medication or supplements?
  • For senior cats, have you seen your cat’s physical or sensory abilities decline with age, and if so what have you observed?
  • Is your cat afraid of anything? If so, what? How does your cat act when they are scared?
  • Has your cat experienced any traumatizing events in the past — what were they?
  • Has your cat ever been aggressive, and if so what caused the aggression? What did it look like? How frequent are these behaviors?
  • Where is your cat most relaxed? How do you know they are relaxed?
  • What senses engage your cat most?  The least? 

Other things to consider

  • The cat’s needs (mental/social/territorial/physical)
  • Current resources/space
  • Owner’s commitment/time/limitations
  • Overall safety of enrichments ideas — do they need supervision?
  • What behaviors need focus and advising suitable enrichment
    • Some examples include:
      • Undesirable furniture scratching —  scratching posts or pads
      • Waking owner up for meals — food puzzles/treat toys
      • Excessive energy — walks/cat wheel/interactive self-play toys
      • Counter hopping — perches or cat tree 
      • Fearfulness of visitors — creating safe spaces
  • Family composition (other pets/family members)
    • Other pets
      • Will this enrichment be shared amongst multiple cats? If so can it be easily shared or should there be multiple? For example, a cat tree may be shared, but a food puzzle may cause issues amongst cats in a multicat home.
      • Is this enrichment safe to be around all animals in the home? Food allergies/physical limitations/choking hazards? Consider dogs, especially larger breeds when discussing smaller enrichment pieces.
      • Can this enrichment easily be destroyed? If so, can it be secured?
      • Can this enrichment be left out (i.e.,  cat tree) or does it need to be put away (i.e., a treat ball) due to other animals in the home?
      • Does this added enrichment take away from the well-being of other pets? (Does adding the cat tree take away space for the dog’s bed?)
      • If outdoor enrichment, are there outdoor cats that could impact the enjoyment of this enrichment?
  • Family members
    • Does your enrichment plan create difficulty or hazards to anyone who may have physical limitations or impairments? 
    • Are there small children or babies in the environment?
    • Is this enrichment form safe around small children? Can they climb it or take off small parts? What should you advise?
    • Does this form of enrichment require others to take part in it? Are they willing to commit to a routine?

If you find that your client still is unsure about the enrichment plan you discussed, ask questions like:

  • What idea did you like the most? And what idea did you like the least?
  • What do you think your cat will like most? Why?
  • Do you want help finding where to purchase or help creating these items?
  • What concerns or questions do you have?


It’s important to take the time to let the client express their thoughts on the enrichment ideas you have discussed, because you want to ensure they understand why you are recommending it, and what benefits it can have for their cat and for them. Be sure to answer questions and listen to concerns, as this will help the client to come to you if they are overwhelmed, or if the enrichment plan needs adjustments.

As consultants and pet professionals, we continue to learn about the important relationship between enrichment and animals through books, articles, social media, webinars, and most importantly from each other. Together, with the right tools, we can help pet owners to see what we know as “Life Beyond The Cat Tree.”

References

  1. Ellis, S.L.H. et al (2013). AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 15, 219–230.
  2. Cornell Veterinary Health Center. Cats that lick too much. Accessed 5/8/2021. 
  3. Johnson-Bennett, P. (2020). Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat. 2nd edition. New York: Penguin Books.
  4. Herron, M.E. and Buffington, C.A.T. (2010) Environmental enrichment for indoor cats. Compendium of Continuing Veterinary Education 32(12): E4.
  5. Pack, C. (2017) California man builds cat paradise, helps fun FIP research. Adventure Cats. Accessed 5/8/2021

Further reading 


Amanda’s passion for animals sparked at a young age while she helped care for her family’s dogs, cats, horses, chickens, parrots, and reptiles. For the past 6 years, Amanda has been a manager of a canine only facility – but is often referred to as “The Cat Lady” because of her knowledge, experience, and love for cats. In 2017, she began training her cats at home to do simple tricks and sharing her success with friends and family. Her success guided her to dive deeper into learning about cat behavior. After years of self-study and behavior exploration, she decided to pursue her passion by beginning her career in cat behavior consulting. Outside of learning through the IAABC, Amanda enjoys learning from webinars and books about feline behavior. In her free time, she helps locate lost pets, and works to collect supplies for local shelters and rescues. She is currently working to achieve the title of CCBC and looks forward to making a positive impact on those she works with.

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