It was mid-August 2022 in Alepochori, Greece and I was sitting relaxed on a bench by the seacoast watching the beautiful sunset. It was then, from the corner of my eye, I saw a cat passing over my bench; she was heading towards another cat who was eating food provided by a local, stray animal volunteer organisation. She was most possibly a pet cat as she was wearing a very shiny, green, neck collar. The other cat was a stray, as I have seen her many times in this area before. I don’t know why but watching the two cats sharing their food peacefully made me think about the important role of pet cat environmental enrichment. I am sure that the pet cat was offered adequate food by her owners. However, what made this pet cat leave her safe home environment and have dinner with another cat companion? This question has suddenly monopolised my thought and attention.
So, instead of taking some photos of the lovely sunset colours in the sky, I used my mobile to write down some thoughts and rhetorical questions I would like to share with you. Please bear in mind that I am very much aware of my bias to interpret animal behaviour with anthropomorphism as we, human animals, cannot fully understand all aspects of other animals’ behaviours.
These are the notes I wrote:
If I were a cat I would ‘consciously’ or ‘unconsciously’ like to …:
- Interact with other cats. Do all pet cats have this opportunity?
- Explore places which are located around my den/home. Are our pet cats given this opportunity/freedom?
- Utilise my physical and mental abilities to find my food. Do we offer adequate body and mental stimulation to our pet cats?
I think that these questions are quite difficult, controversial and cannot be easily answered as there are many factors involved. The two major factors are first the cats’ Health & Safety considerations, and second, the owner’s subject knowledge and time availability to think, design and apply an environmental enrichment plan. Regardless of the owner’s considerations and limitations, the cat’s need for mental and body stimulation will always be there and waiting to be fulfilled.
The provision of environmental enrichment to a pet cat can be a continuous and ongoing process. Equipment, materials, routines, procedures, environment, set up, human interaction, etc., should change in ways that will offer cats the opportunity to better utilise their physical and mental skills. Moreover, these changes should not over-stress the cat; the levels of stress should be reasonably managed by the cat, based on her physical ability and mental state. The list of changes we can introduce are many, if not endless, as the combination of factors involved are limitless. As an example, I could ask you to think about the numerous combinations of some factors involved when we feed our cat: e.g. area and exact location of the food bowl, food bowl material and shape, area lighting, environmental noises (both physical and artificial), time of feeding, level of difficulty to approach/find the food, food type and quantity offered. If you slightly change one of these factors, then you have a different combination. The combinations can be endless and may provide different settings of environmental enrichment.
However, I think that if we want to think about the big picture, in relation to environmental enrichment opportunities, we can offer to our cats, we should first work on the basics. In the following bullet points, I would like to give you some very basic directions and suggestions that can help you to gradually improve your cat’s welfare standards through environmental enrichment:
- Familiarise your cat with their carrier box. Make your cat feel relaxed and at ease when they are inside the carrier and when they are transferred within. Try to train your cat as much as you can with this process. You can start by putting food into the carrier and according to your cat’s progress, close the door and transfer them from one room to another. Gradually increase the time and the distance the cat is moved in the carrier. The carrier is an extremely important piece of equipment and a tool that will help you to visit other safe places, areas and locations; for example, the veterinary practice or the houses of friends and family.
- Introduce your cat to other cats from a very early age. Bear in mind that ‘friendships’ between cats can be a real challenge. In the same way that we humans do not become friends with everybody we meet, the same applies to cats too. Do not force your cat to become ‘friends’ with a cat that they do not feel good and relaxed around when they meet or interact. Very young age greatly helps a lot of cats to familiarise and become ‘friends’ with other young cats.
- Feed your cat in a way that will imitate the process of hunting or foraging. When your cat cannot see you, you can hide food in different places and locations to make the whole process of eating more interesting. You can also put portions of her daily food quantity into feeder balls or similar safe items/toys that will necessitate more action during eating; similar to what happens in nature.
As stated above the environmental enrichment offered to a pet cat can be a continuous and ongoing process. Use your imagination to introduce some interesting changes into your cat’s life but always prioritise your cat’s health & safety and welfare.
SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk