Making Life a Cabaret for Your Kitten
Most of the published information that is available about the importance of env- ironmental enrichment for captive animals applies to zoo species kept in zoolog- ical parks or research species housed in institutional facilities. While these groups of animals clearly deserve this attention to their special habitat needs, “captive” house cats also need such attention from owners. The stereotype of the indoor cat is generally that of a Garfield kind of pet, an overweight, sluggish couch potato with little interest in activities other than sleeping and eating. To the extent that this stereotype is accurate, it is unnecessarily so. No cat need grow up overweight, inactive, and uninvolved in its home environment. I deal elsewhere with the issue of diet-related obesity in cats. While an active lifestyle is unquestionably important to keeping your cat svelte throughout its life, proper diet is, in fact, the single most important factor in this aspect of health. See chapter 20 for more on this problem. More than just burning off calories, enrichment of your kitten’s environment is all about keeping it interested and engaged in the life of the family. Providing that crucial stimulation is neither difficult nor excessively time-consuming. If you watch kittens in a group as they interact with one another, you will observe a number of different kinds of hardwired action behaviors. Without being taught to
do so, kittens romp around their allowed space, usually at high speed. They explore their territory, often repetitively, seeking anything new in their world since they last looked around. They play with their peers (other kittens at or near their own age), often in mock fights with fangs bared and partially sheathed claws, grasping any part of their adversary that is available. They take turns winning and losing these mock battles. When they are not battling with one another, they chase each other back and forth across the territory, again taking turns chasing and being chased. Kittens love to play hide-and-seek with one another. Any large object can serve as the fort behind or within which they will hide from one another, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting adversary or pretend prey. Between sessions of chas- ing and fighting with each other, kittens will find objects that roll when swatted that can be chased. Often, the entire group will join in the chase after the rolling “prey.” They attack inanimate objects with hilarious ferocity, building their own sense of self-sufficiency and safety. Even kittens that grow up alone will attempt to develop these same skills, using humans or dogs as playmate surrogates. These behaviors mimic exactly the play activities seen in youngsters of wild species; they help to prepare both groups for active adulthood in which such behaviors will equip them to survive on their own. The indoor cat has little ultimate use for the skills and experience it acquires in youthful play. It will never have to evade an attacker, and it will never have to hunt and capture its own breakfast or dinner. Inside that young captive cat, however, the spirit and drive to remain alert, watchful, and athletic within its environment will struggle to find an outlet. Building an environment that draws out those naturally active tendencies is one of the key responsibilities of the conscientious cat owner. Providing a varied assortment of toys is central to this environmental enrich- ment. Happily, the world is full of every imaginable type of cat entertainment, in- cluding large exercise wheels (yes, some cats will use these and seem to love run- ning in place); videotapes that allow cats to watch and listen to birds, squirrels, and other “animals of interest” on television; and small flashlight pointers that can keep a kitten chasing the mysterious red light dot across the floor and up the wall for hours. My own cats adore very simple items such as colored paper strips on the tip of a stick making a kind of safe “sparkler,” as well as more complicated pieces, such as small motorized toys that move much as a small prey animal would. Catnip-filled plush toys are a favorite with some cats. If you put the search terms “cat toys” into your Internet browser, you will pull up dozens of sites offer- ing an astonishing selection of delightful playthings for your cat. One type of toy that I especially like is the small hollow plastic ball that can be twisted open and filled with pieces of food treats. When this ball is rolled across the floor, pieces of treats fall out on the floor. This allows the cat to learn how to control the availability of treats while playing with the ball. It is amazing how
quickly a kitten will figure out how the ball works and successfully feed itself! I have one caveat about treats. While kibbled cat food fits neatly into the ball, dry cereal- based cat kibble or kibbled cat treats should not be used in this treat-dispensing toy. These foods are poor quality for cats under all circumstances. Instead, I use small pieces of freeze-dried meats like chicken, fish, or beef (see page 95). Properly sized, these pieces of pure meat will fall out of the ball as it rolls, just as high-carb kibble does, without filling the kitten with junk food. One note of caution: kittens can ingest very small balls, marbles, and the like. Avoid providing toys that are so small that they can be swallowed during play. Also avoid providing string or yarn as toys, as these can be swallowed and cause a sur- gical emergency or even death. Although cats are much less likely than puppies to eat their toys.I have on a few occasions had to surgically remove small toys or string from a kitten’s stomach or intestinal tract. Your veterinarian is an excellent source of advice about safe cat playthings. In addition to having toys, it is important that a kitten’s living and play areas have high and low places for resting, “lying in wait,” and just plain adding variety and interest to its everyday activities. Like the multitiered children’s play areas at to- day’s fast-food chains, the ideal kitten play and living areas have nooks and cran- nies galore for the youngster to master on its way to self-confident adulthood. If possible, provide a variety of cat trees of differing heights in the kitten’s home territory. This will have the added benefit of drawing the kitten away from the furni- ture. In my experience, the time a kitten or cat will spend on sofas, chairs, and ta- bles will decrease in direct proportion to the availability of other, more intriguing, cat-attractive places to play and sleep. For the most realistic environmental enrichment, consider purchasing or build- ing an indoor/outdoor habitat situation for your kitten or cat. By this, I mean set- ting up an area where the kitten can enjoy true unsupervised outdoor privileges within an enclosure that closely adjoins the home building. This play and relaxation area can be reached by the cat at will (weather permitting, of course) through a small door leading from the interior of the home. I have seen some very ingenious custom-built arrangements for accomplishing this, and there are some excellent modular units available through the classified section at the back of most cat magazines, as well as the Internet. This concept of free, safe, access to the outdoor world for the indoor cat is adaptable to homes of all sizes, and even apartments with balconies or patios. Be sure to spend time with your kitten. Although toys and cat trees are important features of the enriched environment, nothing can take the place of gentle human contact during the kitten’s playtime. Cats are creatures of habit. If a kitten is accus- tomed to prolonged pleasurable interactions with a variety of humans, especially associated with play, it will enjoy these same interactions as an adult. A kitten that
is left to its own devices during playtime will mature into an adult cat that also prefers its own company to that of the family. It is unreasonable to expect that a kit- ten deprived of the family’s time and attention during its youth will be anything but reclusive and shy as an adult cat. Finally, I believe that almost all kittens are happiest when they can grow up with another kitten or young adult cat. Growing into adulthood with a feline buddy develops the kitten’s personality to its fullest, and prevents the inevitable lone- liness a cat feels when left alone during the day. If the newly adopted kitten joins another, older cat already in the family, this can also result in a wonderful friend- ship between the two. The new kitten will likely be shunned by the resident cat for a short period, but who can resist the wiles of a kitten? Most youngsters can win over even the most skeptical older cat, to the benefit of both. Be patient and intro- duce the two (or more) cats to each other gradually, and never allow them to be to- gether unsupervised until their friendship is established as evidenced by such behaviors as grooming each other, playing together, and sleeping together. We hu- mans enjoy, even crave, the companionship of others of our species, and cats are no different.