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May 20, 2010

Home Makeovers to Meow About

How to enrich your cat's environment

All Animals magazine, May/June 2010

by Katina Antoniades

Climbing, perching, leaping, running, scratching, wildlife-watching—take a look around your house to see if your cat can easily perform these activities. If not, your feline friend may not be as happy as she could be.

Cats who crave excitement may engage in undesirable behaviors, as certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger has discovered with many of her clients’ pets. “People go off for hours and hours and don’t provide enough environmental enrichment and things for the cats to do,” says Krieger, a San Francisco resident and owner of The Cat Coach. “They either get bored or … you end up with couch potatoes who are very overweight.” 

Even if your kitty seems content—with toys to bat and chase, and a scratching post or two—more enhancements to her environment can make her life even better.

Cats are safest when kept indoors, away from roaming dogs and wildlife, speeding cars, and people who may harm them. But if your cat needs outdoor time, you can give her a taste without putting her in harm’s way. Teaching her to walk on a leash or providing playtime in a portable enclosure, such as those sold by companies like Kittywalk or Wild Whiskers, are two strategies.

If you’d rather give your cat a more permanent way to get some fresh air, consider building an enclosure in your yard. Before you begin, ask your vet how to ensure your cat will stay healthy amid outdoor risks like fleas and ticks. Don’t forget to scour the area for poisonous plants, too.

Once you’ve made adjustments for safety, it’s time to plan. A quick Internet search will reveal ideas and inspiration for DIY cat pens, usually made from wood framing and wire mesh. If you’re not the handy type, several online vendors offer kits that simply need to be assembled.

A well-constructed enclosure—complete with some kind of ceiling—ensures kitties can’t get out and other animals can’t get in. Keep an eye out for sharp edges and pieces that cats could chew or ingest.

Even if your kitty seems content—with toys to bat and chase, and a scratching post or two—more enhancements to her environment can make her life even better.

Krieger emphasizes the importance of making an outdoor pen feline-friendly by adding items like cat trees and scratching posts. Include a supply of fresh water, and incorporate shelter from the weather, she says. (Of course, cats shouldn’t be left outside in extreme temperatures or stormy conditions.)

In an ideal situation, says Krieger, cats should have access to the enclosure from the indoors and the ability to go in and out as they wish. “I believe that cats should always have choices,” she says.  

Even if you can’t give your kitty an outdoor habitat, you can adjust his indoor environment to meet his needs. Look for behavior cues: For example, the favored feline spots in your home often turn out to be the highest places, such as the fridge, armoire, or tallest bookcase. Sitting in high spots gives cats a feeling of safety, an opportunity to survey their territory, and a way to test the kitty pecking order, says Krieger. The hierarchy they create isn’t static, she says. Instead, cats take turns being the “top cat”—literally.

You can add to the existing high spots in your home by buying or building tall cat trees. Some companies sell cat furniture made to look like real trees; others use actual stumps and branches. And some websites offer guidelines for constructing your own.

Wall-mounted platforms also provide kitties the opportunity to climb, jump, and play. Window perches (again, store-bought or DIY) give your cat a perfect place to sleep, catch some rays, and watch the world go by. 

People with multiple cats need to provide more than one way up or down a cat tree or wall shelves, Krieger says. That way, one cat won’t be able to corner another in the middle of a conflict.  

When buying or making trees, shelves, or perches, make sure they include something to scratch. Scratching doesn’t just keep your kitty’s nails in shape; it provides an important outlet. “[Cats scratch] when they have a lot of energy,” says Krieger. “They have scent glands on the bottom of their paws, so when they scratch, they’re marking their territory. But when they’re feeling conflicted, they will scratch, and also when they’re feeling very happy and joyful.”

Trees and perches will also attract your cat if they include cozy places to hide. Krieger explains why cats may enjoy such spots. “It could give them a feeling of safety,” she says. “Also, it’s probably warm. And … perhaps they feel they can see what’s going on without other animals seeing them.”

By shelling out a little cash or a lot, by making a quick shopping trip or spending days creating and planning a project, you can turn your home into a kitty paradise.

Read the full article, including more stories of indoor enrichment projects and outdoor enclosures»

Read more from the current issue of All Animals»

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