Hunting Enrichment for Indoor Cats Part 1: Indoor Activities
When one thinks of “enrichment” for cats, typically food-based activities such as treat balls come to mind, along with cat toys. A few cats are unmotivated by the treat ball, and a lot of adult cats couldn’t be bothered to give chase to that tired old mouse toy. Most widely available cat toys are somewhat lacking in feline-friendly design, and they require a human operator, which limits their ability to entertain. Treat balls and cat toys are just not enough to mentally satisfy some of our higher-energy cats. So, what can we do to encourage more natural behaviors that are beneficial to the cat? We can exploit the cat’s natural hunting drive to observe, chase, stalk, and patrol on their home turf.
Hunting enrichment encourages cats to reward themselves (with our help) to egage in their own natural drive to perform behaviors such as chasing, stalking, and observing. Cats are opportunistic hunters, and need to investigate their environment for opportunities to hunt. Rather than tracking and sniffing out prey, cats simply patrol their environment looking for hunting opportunities to present themselves. Nature has given cats the drive to seek these behaviors out regardless of hunger. With rodents being widespread and prone to popping up in a lot of places, cats must be prepared to hunt at any given time. Cats have an instinct to sit and watch prey as well as stalk, chase, and kill. We know that a full-fed cat will still do these activities; this indicates that they want and need to engage in this set of behaviors. We as guardians can provide safe and humane opportunities for the cat to use their own brain power to fulfill these drives. Encouraging clients to engage in all forms of enrichment will improve not only the cat’s wellbeing, but will also enhance the bond the client has with the cat.
A free-roaming cat will spend anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours per prey animal engaging in hunting behaviors. Considering cats typically require more than one meal a day, that is a lot of time spent moving or using brain power. Our indoor cats are likely not spending as much time on exercise as a free-roaming cat. A cat who is under-stimulated can become overweight, stressed, and angry. A decline in health can not only rack up the client’s vet bills, but can cause a cat to become defensive. A defensive, stressed cat may start engaging in bluffing behaviors such as posturing and urine marking. It can only take one stressed cat to disrupt an entire household and cause other conflicts within a group. A healthy cat is more likely to be confident and happy in their environment, leading to fewer illnesses and behavioral issues. Bored cats left to their own devices may find activities that are annoying, destructive, or dangerous. These are all good reasons for the client to expand on their existing enrichment protocol. Even if the client is not perceiving bad behavior as a result of boredom, many will enjoy the bond they will foster while teaching their cat to engage in hunting enrichment.
Cats can be taught basic clicker training as an introduction to the concept of “working” for a reward. Together with the client, decide on which rewards will work best for the cat (food, play, or affection). Instruct the client how to “load” a clicker and the importance of timing; go over some basic feline body language, and instruct them to work with the cat on an individual basis. Most cats are more focused on working when they are by themselves, perhaps because cats are solitary hunters. Basic training such as coming when called and following a finger are a good foundation for teaching a cat to work with the client for a reward. This initial training is critical for establishing a relationship between the cat and human so that the client can influence the cat’s decision making later on down the road.
Some of the activities we will be discussing for the client may initially cause the cat stress or fear, so go over positive reward conditioning with the client. Short, easy, and repetitive sessions will be the key in shifting the opinion of the cat from fearful to curious. In the event that the cat is too fearful to even accept a reward, the client will have to provide several short desensitizing sessions in order to minimize anxiety and stress.
The cat exercise wheel
The most common and affordable cat exercise wheel on the market is the “One Fast Cat” wheel, which is made from lightweight and sturdy plastic and sits on a base on the floor. Some models of wheel can be loud—in my home, one can hear the muffled sound of a wheel turning from the other side of the house at 3 a.m.! This is not a toy that one expects to set up and have the cat immediately know what to do; some training is needed for cats to get the most out of the wheel. Kittens typically learn to use a wheel faster than adults. Older cats with arthritis and cats with recent surgery incisions should not use the wheel.
Getting started with conditioning to the wheel
The first step in cat wheel training is getting the cat accustomed to the sight and sound of wheel. Ask the client to leave the wheel set up for a day or so without interacting with it. Clients with bolder cats may want to prop objects on the wheel to prevent the wheel being knocked over and scaring the cat who decides to jump on it the wrong way.
Condition the cat to the sound, starting by feeding in a nearby room while the client spins the wheel slowly. If there’s no behavior that indicates stress, move to spinning the wheel with the cat in the same room. I did this until the wheel spinning was just as effective as a can opener at getting the cats pumped for a meal! Again, discuss basic feline body language with the client so they can use their best judgment on how fast to go with conditioning.
When the cat is associating positive things with the sight and sound of the cat wheel, the client may begin encouraging the cat to step closer to the wheel and place a paw on it. At this point in training, the client should be holding the wheel steady. Cats who are not used to the movement of the wheel may be hesitant to step on something that moves. Lure the cat into setting one paw on the wheel, then two. Some cats will quickly hop up on the wheel and have all four feet on it, but some seem to not progress past putting two paws on the wheel. If the cat allows it, the client can pick up the cat and place them gently on the wheel while holding it steady with a foot. If not, keep repeating the two-paw placement—most cats will eventually climb on.
The next thing for the cat to overcome is the feeling of movement underneath their paws. This is no doubt a strange sensation, as the natural reaction to standing on anything wobbly is to correct it to avoid falling. Allow the cat to turn the wheel slightly, but gently stop it from swinging back in the opposite direction and displacing the cat. Praise and reward heavily for the first few steps. For cats who are still only putting two paws on the wheel, have them follow a lure up the side of the wheel and turn it with their front paws only. I have found that once these less confident cats have turned the wheel while sitting securely on the floor, they will be more willing to put all four paws on it after they “get the feel” of how the wheel works.
The next phase will be the cat learning how to balance themselves. The client can start encouraging the cat to take steps, and even start walking a bit before offering a reward. If the cat appears stressed after this activity, distract them with a rewarding activity. In the event the cat becomes fearful of the sound or sight of the cat wheel, advise the client to revert back to the first steps of creating a positive association with the sound of it. After a few successful walks on the wheel, and probably a few bloopers, most cats learn to enjoy moving the wheel. Others will be willing to put up with it to earn a good reward. Clients can get impatient at this stage, but remind them that every cat is different, a moving wheel is a brand-new concept, and it takes time to build up muscle memory and stamina for this new exercise.
In slow motion, it’s clear how much the wheel is working Khajiit’s muscles as she runs.
Using the wheel
When the cat seems confident with their balance on the wheel—they do not startle at the noise or the movement, they readily climb on or are relaxed when placed there, and don’t show stress or displacement behaviors during your sessions—they are ready to start exercising. Usually this means chasing a toy or a food lure that the owner is holding.
The client will be shaping the behavior of running on the wheel by reinforcing increasing numbers of steps toward the lure (treat or toy). I have found that when trying to teach the cat to run on the wheel, tossing a treat for the cat to chase is more effective at increasing the desired behavior than hand feeding. Some dedicated clients can teach their cats to use the wheel on their own, especially if the cat is highly motivated, by gradually fading the lure. If the cat finds the activity rewarding, they will continue to use the wheel by themselves.
CAPTION: Using different reinforcers to teach Nuggs about the wheel—first a food lure, then affection.
CAPTION: Nuggs after a few weeks, looking much sharper!
One cat of mine in particular, Khajiit, is a master at the wheel, and will run on it over the course of the day. I have noticed the frequency of wheel usage goes up when she is hungry, bored, or annoyed, and this suggests that cats do use physical exercise as stress relief—I believe they get a rush of endorphins, much like we do. It only took a few days to condition her to run after toys or treats, as Khajiit is a very food-motivated cat. It took some good timing and a few months to condition her to seek the wheel on her own. I kept a jar of cat treats next to the couch and would intermittently reinforce her for using the wheel. Eventually Khajiit started using the wheel as a mealtime ritual, turning the wheel while meowing—I think to encourage me to feed her. I would feed her at her normal mealtimes, regardless of her begging. However, in Khajiit’s mind, her daily ritual of meowing and running “earned” her a meal.
Overall, the cat wheel is a more advanced and involved cat toy, and well worth the time spent teaching the cat to enjoy using it. It gives the cat a great opportunity to use muscles they normally wouldn’t, and can provide some cats an outlet for frustration.
A catio is an enclosed safe space that provides outdoor access for a cat, similar to a porch. Catios can be freestanding or window based, and there are many options for different situations. Catios should be sturdy and secure. A popular homemade option is to use wood and hardware cloth. Access can be provided via a door or a catflap, and should be lockable. The catio not only gives a cat fresh air and sunshine, but it conditions the cat to sounds and sights of the outdoors. It provides a good opportunity to watch prey animals as well. I have found that a cat who is accustomed to a catio is much easier to harness train than a cat who has never been in one. Cats may need some coaxing to try out a new catio, and most will need help figuring out a cat flap. Have the client use food, toys, and cat-safe plants as encouragement. Tell the client that in warmer months some items that give shade will increase the likelihood of the cat using the catio.
Catios should be made free of sharp edges and gaps. Screws are a better choice than nails for putting the wood together, and horseshoe-type nails are a good choice for affixing the hardwire cloth. Carpet squares or outdoor rugs can be placed as a means to pad the catio as well as protect paws from heat or metal. Perches and shelves can offer vertical space. Some clients choose to have the catio reach their lawn; remind them to make sure it is secure. Cats should never be left for long periods of time in a catio, and they should never be left alone at night; animals such as dogs, foxes, and racoons can break a surprising number of enclosures and could be a danger to a cat left alone. I have included my plans for making a window box catio to share with clients.
Bird feeders are another way to provide hunting-based enrichment for a cat, and pleasure for humans too. The best birdwatching comes from a carefully planned and well-tended setup. A wobbly or narrow seat is undesirable to an excited, swatting cat, so a sturdy spot is needed for viewing. Homes with more than one cat may need to provide a few viewing spots in order to prevent conflict. In my house, the feeder can be seen from both the living room and the catio. Keep bird watching spots free of blinds or other hazards, as an excited cat will be jumping at those birdies and could damage window treatments or become tangled in cords.
As many zookeepers will tell you, giving animals opportunities to engage in natural behavior improves their welfare. Since some pet cats did not grow up with the opportunity for outdoor exploration, it is up to us to provide the tools for the cat to safely fulfill their hunting needs. Incorporating exercise wheels, catios, bird feeders, and other options into a client’s home can improve the health and wellbeing of the cat, which in turn could reduce negative behaviors. Hunting enrichment is another tool to be used to help our clients provide a more balanced, healthy lifestyle for their cats.
Kat has been caring for and learning from felines all her life. Her experiences as a young adult included farm, kennel, and veterinary work. While she lived in Michigan, Kat founded a cats-only rescue called Tiny Tales. It was rescuing the “death row” cats that inspired her to start educating others on feline behavior. Kat spends her free time showing and training her Oriental Longhairs. She is active in TNR feral cat work and loves to garden.