Animal Enrichment And Tricks Your Cat Will Love

What is Animal Enrichment

Animal enrichment is the practice of providing your dog or cat (or any captive animal) with appropriate stimuli and aspects to their environment that encourages them to perform their natural behaviors and to express positive emotions. Animal enrichment practices depend on the individual animal and also the species of animal. Cats require different types of enrichment than do dogs or elephants in a zoo, for instance. Animal enrichment is required for all types of captive animals including laboratory and zoo animals as well as companion animals.

outdoor-cats-have-many-forms-of-animal-enrichment

A cat in nature has exposure to many forms of enrichment including sights sounds, smells, and tastes. When a cat is indoors, it’s up to us to provide them with a similar experience through animal enrichment practices.

indoor-pets-need-additional-forms-of-enrichment-for optimal-health

Indoor cats, like this one in the window, can feel fear, frustration, stress, and boredom just like people, which is why it’s important to provide enrichment activities which stimulate their environment.

Animal enrichment is one aspect of animal welfare, which is defined as how well a captive animal copes within its environment. Animal welfare can be broken into five components, otherwise known as the Five Freedom’s which define the rights of captive animals and were created in response to a 1965 report done by the U.K. government on confinement practices of farmed animals.  The Five Freedoms continue to be used as the guidelines for ideal standards of animal welfare in both professional organizations and by veterinarians.

The Five Freedoms – Ideal standards for captive animal welfare:

1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by providing access to fresh water and nutrient-rich, species-specific food

2. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an environment that includes shelter and comfortable resting areas

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by the prevention of disease and speedy diagnosis of disease and treatment when necessary

4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment that avoids physical and mental suffering

The Five Freedoms consider both the animal’s physical and emotional needs. The importance of animal emotions within welfare is explained by acclaimed animal science professor, Temple Grandin in her book, Animals Make Us Human. Grandin states that for developing animal welfare programs, decisions should be based on animal’s core emotions. In her book she cites, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University who terms animal emotions as “blue-ribbon emotions” because each emotion can be separately identified and activated in specific areas of the brain. The core emotions are as follows:

  • SEEKING – Looking for or anticipating something (new)

  • RAGE – feeling frustrated upon being confined or feeling unable to do something

  • FEAR – feeling fearful due to a threat to their survival

  • PANIC – feeling panic from being separated from family and/or experiencing pain

  • LUST – desires for sex and sexual desire

  • CARE – feelings of maternal love and care-taking

  • PLAY – the desire to play and express joy

*Bold = Positive Emotions

Grandin states that an animal’s environment can bring out specific emotions which then drive their behavior, and not the other way around (behavior doesn’t drive emotions). This chart shows how emotions (based on the environment) drive behaviors in both the negative and positive direction.


(-) Behavior <— Emotions <— Environment —> Emotions —> Behavior (+)


The enriched environments we provide to our animals should activate the positive emotions of seeking and play as much as possible and reduce the negative emotions of fear, panic, and rage. Enriched environments also contribute to the forth and fifth freedoms. Animals within enriched environments will have a greater capacity to express their natural behaviors and not experience pain or distress which will contribute to the overall wellbeing and welfare of the animal.

Challenges for Captive Animals

Animal enrichment practices originated in zoos and labs as it was observed that animals with barren cages which lacked toys, beds and other items showed signs of poor health and physiological distress. By providing forms of enrichment such as toys and bedding, it allowed captive animals to display their natural behaviors such as hiding, playing and resting which then improved their welfare.

With indoor pets, it’s especially important to provide enrichment practices as our pets can become bored, restless, frustrated, and stressed while living in a home or apartment with other people and/or pets. They can express their emotions through behaviors such as aggression, over-grooming, pacing, or stereotypies (repetitive behaviors). When we have an indoor pet the responsibility falls on us to make sure the animal has a stimulating environment.

Animal Enrichment Practices For Cats

The University of Edinburgh breaks animal enrichment into six categories of practices which include: physical, occupational, feeding, sensory, cognitive and social enrichment. I’ve laid out each one and provided examples for how they can be applied to cats.

Physical enrichment: Physical enrichment includes places to hide or sleep. Providing beds, boxes and tall places for cats will provide them with places to rest, hide and explore. Cats naturally like to seek the highest place to view their territory so they will appreciate a scratching post or even shelves.

cat-using-a-scratching-post

Cats naturally seek out a variety of heights which is why a cat post is such an important part of providing your cat with an optimal indoor environment

Occupational enrichment: Occupational enrichment is a code word for toys. Cats are insatiably curious and will love a variety of toys including ribbons, cat toys, feather toys and of course, cardboard boxes.

cat-with-a-toy

A simple stripe of fleece fabric on a handle can provide a lot of entertainment for your cats

cat-playing-inside-a-cardboard-box

Cats and their love of cardboard boxes which can be pretty entertaining for both us and them

Feeding enrichment: Feeding enrichment includes activities related to food. In nature, animals spend a great deal of energy and time searching for food. Making them do some work for their food is one form an enrichment that can be done by hiding treats or by using food toys. Providing variety to their diet is another form of enrichment. Cat grass is also a good supplemental food that most cats will enjoy.

Grass provides indoor cats with a taste of the wild and a supplement to their normal food. “Cat grass” seeds can be grown in a small pot of soil.

Sensory enrichment: Sensory enrichment includes activities related to smell, sound, or sight. This can include having plenty of scratching posts for cats to sharpen their claws on, playing classical music when you’re away and even taking them on walks if they are harness trained.

Cat-on-a-scratching-pad

Cardboard scratching pads are a good form of sensory enrichment for cats, especially with a bit of catnip sprinkled on.

cat-walking-on-a-leash

Taking well-trained indoor cats outside on a harness is a good form of enrichment for them

Cognitive enrichment: Cognitive enrichment involves mental challenges. This can be done with toys or even food-related challenges.

Social enrichment: Social enrichment involves the companionship of other animals (that they get along with each other) and human companions. You can spend quality time with your pet during petting time or brushing sessions.

two-cats-lying-together

Animal companionship is one form of social enrichment

When deciding on enrichment needs for your animals, consider your specific animal and also inform yourself on their unique needs as a species. Enrichment practices should aim to enhance their experiences within their environment, bring out their positive emotions of play and seeking and evoke their curiosity and natural behaviors.

Animal enrichment is just one component of good animal welfare as explained by the Five Freedoms. It’s especially important to pet animals as they’re removed from much of the natural stimuli they would find in more wild habitats. The more choices your animal can make about how it spends its time within its environment, the happier they will be and happier we will be for them.


Additional Resources

Using Food Puzzles To Bring Out a Cat’s Natural Desire to Hunt During Meal Time

Darden, H. (2019, March 27). Food puzzles for cats enrich lives, a new study says. The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved from: Full link here

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