Cats are genetically similar to their wild ancestors, and retain many natural behaviors, including hunting, stalking, and scratching to communicate, which enable free-living and feral cats to survive on their own. Without an appropriate outlet, your pet can create household problems. Enrichment is a concept used across the animal world, and involves finding innovative ways to keep captive animals mentally engaged and physically healthy. Cats need daily enrichment, and the Just Cats Clinic team wants to help you find easy, inexpensive ways to meet your cat’s needs.

The five pillars of a healthy cat home

Cats have basic needs that help them feel safe and secure in their homes, which is the foundation for emotional as well as physical health. These needs can be broken down into five pillars:

  • A safe place — Cats need a place to retreat, hide, and rest that ideally is raised off the ground, partially enclosed, and has two entry and exit points.
  • Access to resources — Every cat needs the basic resources—food, water, bedding, litter boxes, play areas, and resting areas. If you have a multi-cat home, ensure you supply enough of these resources, placed in different home areas, to reduce or avoid competition and social conflict. 
  • Play and predatory behavior — Cats are natural hunters and predators, but pet cats don’t have much opportunity or need to hunt actual prey. Play provides an outlet for natural hunting, stalking, and pouncing behaviors.
  • Predictable human-cat interactions — Cats need human interaction, but some prefer more than others. Never force your cat to participate, but offer regular grooming, play, petting, and quiet time with your cat on a consistent, scheduled basis.
  • Scent communication — Cats use scent to communicate and mark their environment as familiar and safe, which they often accomplish by scratching or rubbing their face on objects (i.e., bunting) to deposit feel-good pheromones. Ensure cats have ample scratching opportunities on multiple surfaces, and avoid cleaning their main areas too deeply or with harsh cleaners, so that some of their scent remains. 

How play helps meet your cat’s needs

Play provides an outlet for your cat’s natural desire to hunt, stalk, and eat their prey—literally or figuratively. Cats play differently than dogs, and you should adapt your play style to accommodate their needs. Some tips for cat-friendly play include:

  • Don’t force it — Offer regular play times, but allow your cat to walk away when they are done.
  • Rotate toys — Toys lose their novelty and get boring after a few sessions, but regular rotation can help hold your cat’s interest longer without constantly buying or making new toys. 
  • Mimic prey movement — Use toys to mimic erratic movements that prey might make, and encourage your cat to chase and pounce. Roll balls, wave or drag wand toys, and use food puzzles that reward your cat for catching their meal.
  • Let your cat win — Laser toys are great, but cats become frustrated if they never catch the dot that represents their prey. If you use laser toys, end the session by shining the laser on a treat your cat can “catch.” Allow them to catch and chew other toys as well to prevent frustration and stress.

DIY cat toy ideas

A huge variety of interactive, fancy cat toys are available on the market. Many have moving pieces that keep your cat’s attention, and others are complex food puzzles that will engage them for long periods. Still, like a child, sometimes your cat likes the box better than the toy. Simple, homemade toys using items you already have around the house can keep your cat entertained. Harness your creative side to make the following DIY toys, and give items a second life before they are recycled or thrown away:

  • Cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, and toilet paper rolls — These items can be used to create inexpensive food puzzles. Cut arm-sizes holes in shallow boxes for cats to go fishing for treats, or cut a treat-sized hole in a cardboard roll, and seal the ends for a batting toy that dispenses food. You can also use boxes as fun hideouts or jungle gyms, but ensure stacked boxes are secure.
  • Empty water bottles — Water bottles can also dispense food items and they have a fun crinkle and crunch texture—but beware of any sharp edges. Bottle caps also make a fun batting toy all on their own. 
  • Shower curtain rings — Clip a ring around another object for cats to bat, or hang cloth or carpet squares to provide a novel scratching area.
  • Bubbles — Blow bubbles! Enough said.
  • Old socks — Stuff old socks with catnip and tie the ends closed—bonus if the socks are fuzzy and resemble a prey item! Your cat will roll, chew, and toss these toys with glee.

With a little creativity, you can create an enriched, cat-friendly environment in your home. Contact the Just Cats Clinic team if you have questions about your cat’s basic needs, creating enrichment opportunities, or other ways to keep your cat physically and emotionally healthy.