Everything You Might Want to Know about Sensory Enrichment

Enrichment provides pets ways to engage in natural behaviors. It improves their physical and mental health, alleviates stress, increases the number of normal behaviors, decreases the number of abnormal behaviors, and improves the ability of animals to cope with challenges. There are several ways to provide enrichment to animals: cognitive, environmental, and social.

In this article, I’ll expand upon a previous article of mine on sensory enrichment, which is one way to modify a cat’s environment. Sensory enrichment involves stimulation of the five senses. I’ll discuss ways to employ sensory enrichment in the home and in the shelter, as well as recommended precautions to take. You can read my shorter version at Enriching Your Cat’s Sensory World.

To research this topic, I talked with pet owners and shelter workers, and read articles and studies. With regards to the latter, the study of environmental enrichment for cats is still in its infancy, and therefore more evidence-based studies are needed to validate current recommended enrichment practices.

VISUAL

According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, several research authors have highlighted the importance of visual stimulation for indoor cats. Their recommendations are supported by studies which have found that laboratory cats housed in free-roaming rooms spent most of their time sitting on a window perch, watching the activities around them. They most often watched prey items such as birds and other forms of small wildlife. The JFMS cautioned that if cats are unable to interact with the source of stimulation, they might become frustrated.

There are several popular types of visual enrichment for cats. Some are more natural than others. Here are some of the more natural ways:

  • Fish tank
  • Elevated bed, window perch or a cat condo near a window (preferably picture or bay)
  • Full-view screen doors
  • Bird feeders near a window and/or old produce on the deck for backyard animals (the food will help the wildlife while also providing visual enrichment)

Cat behavior consultant Tori Peterson notes that cats have amazing eyesight, and are especially good at detecting horizontal movement, and enjoy a variety of different motions. Her cats were entertained by a fish tank in their house, birds and squirrels in their yard, and cat TV.

Cat TV, of course, is one of the less natural way to provide visual enrichment. Other less natural ways include:

  • Battery-operated toys (One pet owner noted that while her cats don’t play with toys, they do like to watch them.)
  • Cat games for phones and tablets that allow cats to ‘hunt’ animated bugs and other simulated prey.

Anna Elizabeth, from the Cat Parents of Omaha Facebook Group, has bought several toys that have visually enriched the lives of her cats. In her words, those include:

  • Sheer Fun for Cats, which Anna says, “has a crinkly edging which is fun, when my cats hide behind it or pop out from behind it. It can be hung from tables or draped over track toys for extra enrichment.”
  • Spinning butterfly toys, which Anna says, she put “on a rack that’s made for your dishes in your cupboards, and my cats love diving under the rack and batting at the butterflies. It runs off batteries and does not have an auto shut off, but the replacements are fairly cheap.”
  • Water-activated fish, which Anna says, “One of my cats goes crazy for water-activated fish and will bite and batt them out of the water. I’ve put them in a mop bucket filled about 3/4 of the way full. I’ve also put them in the tub, but I’d have to fill the tub up high in order for it to be effective for the kitties to fish them out,; that’s why I use my bucket! The cats do lose interest after a bit and I put the fish away, but when I break them out my cats sit there and watch them for a couple hours! Fresh batteries last probably 15 minutes straight through but can last longer if you rotate the fish out and give those batteries a little break.”

In addition to some of these toys, shelters have used the following visual enrichment:

  • Cageless rooms facing the street so the cats can see traffic, people, pigeons
  • Bubble machine
  • Electronic fish tank
  • LED globe that projects multi-colored stars on the ceiling
  • Mobile made from an IV stand hung with ribbons, CDs, feathers, and other lightweight and/or shiny things on that move from the current of fans
  • Natural light
  • Spinning tops and fidget spinners

While it’s important to provide cats with visual enrichment, it’s equally important to give cats the opportunity to shield themselves from unwanted stimuli—especially in shelters, which can be overwhelming for cats because of all of the strange new sights. Some ways to reduce unpleasant stimuli include:

  • Provide hiding boxes; research shows that hiding is a cat’s best coping mechanism.
  • Use inexpensive barriers like a blanket hung on enclosures.
  • Avoid housing animals in separate enclosures in such a way that they have continuous visual contact.
  • Support circadian rhythms by providing day/night cycles with no or minimal lighting during the sleep hours. Natural light helps support normal circadian rhythms, therefore rooms with windows are preferable.
  • Emphasize certain colors. Animal Wellness Magazine quotes experts in color therapy who say the following colors can help cats feel calmer: blue, indigo, violet, and green.

AUDITORY

According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, using auditory stimuli with animals has become relatively commonplace in recent years. Attempts have been made to promote positive behavioral change by playing classical music to domestic dogs, masking sudden noises for guinea pigs with radio, and mimicking the natural environment of captive zoo animals through the use of rainforest recordings. The studies have yielded mixed results.

The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Journal reports the following findings from two studies of auditory stimuli on cats:

  • Sound has a profound effect on health and behavior. In general, long, slow continuous sounds decrease activity levels, while short, rapidly repeated sounds tend to increase them (Kogan et al., 2012). Sounds like slow, rhythmic classical music can be soothing and pleasant, causing a decrease in respiratory and heart rate. Sounds like the approach of a caretaker around dinner time or raised human voices can be stimulating, even aversive, causing increases in heart and respiration rate.
  • Cats respond most positively to music that has been specifically designed to be in the frequency range and with similar tempos to those used in natural communication (Snowdon, Teie, and Savage, 2015).

Popular types of auditory enrichment for cats include:

  • Audiobooks and talk radio help dogs be less vigilant, according to research. The effect on cats isn’t yet known, but it’s suspected soothing voices will have a soothing effect on them as well.
  • Classical/Jazz music: Cat behavior consultants in the  IAABC Cat Division Facebook Group reported that various calming music did indeed help their cats relax. One cat behavior consultant in the IAABC Cat Division Facebook Group noted that while ICalm has some scientific research on effects she’s seen the effects range from calming to stimulating.
  • The sounds of dishes, vacuum cleaners, washer and dyers, air conditioners, and elevators can aid the early socialization of kittens, as can those of nature (especially storms) and cities; you can find recordings of these online.

Cat behavior consultant Tori Peterson notes that cats have acute hearing to enable them to locate prey. She’s used screen windows and recorded sounds with her cats.

In addition to some of the above, shelters have used any of the following auditory enrichment:

  • Bird videos as background noises
  • Reading aloud to cats

With regards to calming music, a cat foster parent from Scaredy Cat Academy, has used an app called Relax My Cat. She plays it 24/7 with fosters, and believes it has a calming effect. It allows her to approach the cats when awake and for them to fall sleep when she’s in the room. She also plays it in the car when she transports them to the shelter and when she does follow-up socialization visits at the shelter. She says that the cats recognize the music when she visits.

A member of Maddie’s Fund notes that she listens to new music before adding it to the playlist at the shelter where she works, because sometimes even stuff that is labeled as relaxing has deep drumbeats, sustained high-pitched notes, or has a tempo that she thinks is too fast to be relaxing. The more exciting, stimulating sounds are played in the Adoption Center, rather than in spaces where stressed new arrivals might be.

When considering enrichment, it’s also important to reduce unpleasant stimuli, especially in a shelter setting. Cats can hear frequencies we can’t and sounds that don’t bother us might be disturbing or even painful to them. Ways to reduce unpleasant stimuli include:

While it’s important to provide cats with auditory enrichment, it’s equally important to give cats the opportunity to shield themselves from sounds that may not bother us but could be painful to them. Some ways to reduce unpleasant stimuli include:

  • Conscious effort to keep noise down
  • Quiet voice
  • Oil squeaky kennel doors
  • Replacement of loud devices such as fans, cleaning tools, door buzzers with quieter ones
  • White noise machine to surrounding shelter noise.
  • Sound-absorbing and proofing materials to reduce the overall volume level

OLFACTORY

According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, the olfactory environment (scents) is known to exert a significant impact on the welfare of several species of animals. JFMS referred to a study which showed that catnip engaged cats more than other scents. Laboratory cats spent more time in positive interaction (sniffing, pawing, and playing) with catnip-impregnated cloths in comparison with all other cloths.

Other popular types of olfactory enrichment include:

  • Scratching posts, as scratching allows cats to deposit scent from their glands on their paws and to mark their territory
  • Silvervine, as an alternative to catnip
  • Pheromones
  • Opened windows to allow indoor cats experience outdoor smells
  • Feathers, leaves, rocks, and sticks brought indoors for your cats to investigate
  • Herbs in the corners of your house to encourage your cat to explore
  • Cat-safe people-food such as certain fruits and vegetables; Several members of the Cat Parents of Omaha Facebook Group shared that they allow their cats to smell people foods. Cats were reported to come running at the smell of popcorn; loves the smell of carrots and of green olives, smell and eat blueberry muffins; and then there’s the cat who acts as if she’s high on certain kinds of cereals.
  • Soaps, sprays, fresh laundry, shoes, diapers, and any other ordinary household smells should be introduced to kittens to help socialize them.

Anna Elizabeth discovered one stimulating smell for her cats by accident. She shared, “I’ve invested in a lot of different things to make my apartment not smell like feet. After I started hanging activated charcoal bags on door handles and in his hamper and in his shoes, I realized my Darla loved the activated charcoal fabric bags. She’ll yank them out of the shoes and use them like little kickers. So now, I hide the bags around in nooks and crannies in the house and I find them pulled out and with claw marks.”

In addition to some of the above, shelters have used the following olfactory enrichment:

  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Pet Remedy Calming Spray with vetiver and valerian
  • Fabric ropes with diluted scents
  • Scent pots: The Winnipeg Humane Society purchases small plastic pots at the Dollar Store, pokes holes in the top, and fills with things that entice cats.
  • Scent sticks made out of PVC pipe, scented with lavender or chamomile

Some of the shelters I talked to had enrichment schedules and/or boards, which included offering a different scent each day to the cats in their care. Staff in the shelters make a note of how each cat responds to enrichment, so that an individualized plan can be created, and so that staff know if the enrichment is safely used.

While it’s important to provide cats with olfactory enrichment, it’s equally important to shield cats from unwanted stimuli—especially in shelters, which can be overwhelming for cats because of all of the strange new smells. The IAABC Journal offers the following tips:

  • Choose cleaning products with little or no scent or odor
  • Have staff and volunteers wash their uniforms at the shelter, so you can be sure they are all using unscented laundry detergent and their clothing smells the same  
  • Discourage staff and volunteers from wearing perfume or scented personal products, as well as avoiding residual cigarette smoke
  • When making decisions about housing, keep different species separate from each other; exposure to a predator’s scent can be a chronic source of distress for a prey animal
  • Keep intact males and females within a species separate to decrease frustration resulting from being unable to respond to hormonal signals

GUSTORY

When it comes to gustatory enrichment (tastes), the recommendations I found focused mostly on how to replicate a cat’s natural hunting habits. For example, International Cat Care offers these tips:

  • Provide a highly palatable cat food with a high meat content
  • Introduce some variety to the foods offered to your cat where possible.
  • Feed your cat small, frequent meals throughout the day and night to mimic a cats natural feeding pattern.
  • Timed feeders or puzzle feeders can be used to help owners who are out during the day
  • Increase the frequency of play with your cat. Frequent yet short play sessions most closely resemble a cat’s natural predatory pattern.
  • Choose toys that closely resemble a cat’s natural prey to increase engagement. This uses up energy reserved for hunting in an acceptable way.

Cat behavior consultant Tori Peterson suggested these types of gustatory enrichment:

  • Cat-friendly plants for cats to rub against and nibble but do your research; there are many plants that are dangerous to cats.
  • Ice cubes made of low-sodium chicken broth, goat milk, or leftover water from tuna/chicken and offer them to your cat in a bowl; cats will spend time licking it which keeps them busy and cool.

The most common example of gustatory enrichment offered by pet owners and shelter workers was puzzle feeders. Some created their own out of cardboard boxes, toilet paper or paper towel rolls, or paper bags with the handles removed. Others purchased popular puzzle feeder brands such as those made by Catit, Doc & Phoebe, Kong, or Lickimat. One person used the latter for broths and lickable treats to make them last longer. Several respondents noted that they rotated through their puzzle feeders to keep cats interested.

Anna Elizabeth has bought several puzzle feeders that have enriched the taste world of her cats. In her words, those include:

  • Food towers, which Anna Elizabeth says, “require my cats to use their paws to push the kibble down the various levels in order to get their food instead of grazing a bowl. I put the towers in a preferred spot but also will move them every now and then. The two towers reduce tensions in case they both want to eat but don’t want to do it near each other.”
  • A treat activity board for her one cat, which Anna Elizabeth says, she uses kitten food with because it smells delicious, and the pieces are easy for her to paw at and pick up with her paws. She uses just enough kibble to scatter on the board and in the little bowls. Her cat begs for her treat board every morning.

While it’s important to provide cats with gustatory enrichment, it’s equally important to shield cats from unwanted stimuli—especially in shelters, which can be overwhelming for cats because of all of the strange new tastes. The IAABC Journal suggests using cat treats just before, during, and after a stress-inducing experience such as going to the vet. The association with you and the food may help cats be more cooperative during interactions.

TACTILE

Cat behavior consultant Tori Peterson writes that cats love to interact with objects by using their paws and claws. We should provide cats with many types of tactile sensations. Unfortunately, I didn’t find many examples in my interviews or readings. Following are my meager examples:

  • Different types of scratching surfaces: sisal, cardboard, carpet
  • Different types of bedding: blankets, throw rugs, runners
  • Different types of tree bark
  • Ice cubes
  • Play box made by cutting small holes in a cardboard box and then adding toys, treats, and other household items; your cat could then use his paws to “forage” in the box for treasures
  • Shredded paper in which natural objects are buried
  • As part of early socialization, it’s good to expose kittens to a variety of textures such as different container tops and floorings

One pet owner in the Cats with Blogs Facebook Group shared that she’s always lived with cats that have a fondness for wood. “This could be smooth pine boards like the ladder made of 2×4 lumber that led up to the attic in a place I used to live. I set up an old 3′ ladder for them when I moved here. I also have the old pine drafting table from college that my cats started scratching on 40 years ago and generations have done since then. Today, I would probably discourage this, but the cats accept both items as theirs and not mine. Part of the draw is reach and stretch, but they also love to dig their claws into the softer pine wood.

While it’s important to provide cats with tactile enrichment, it’s equally important to shield cats from unwanted stimuli—especially in shelters, which can be overwhelming for cats because of all of the strange new surfaces. The IAABC Journal offers these tips:

  • Pay attention to slippery floors or tables, carpet, or gravel that may frighten an animal that is not accustomed to walking on them
  • Lay down towels on any stainless steel tabletops to provide traction while performing examinations or other procedures
  • Avoid exposing the animal to surfaces that are too hot or too cold

When implementing sensory enrichment, please keep in mind that a stimulus is only considered enrichment when it improves the welfare of the animal. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery states that cats that are socialized will reap the most benefits, and that has been my own experience too. Cats that are anxious and fearful could find sensory enrichment stressful, and emphasis should instead be on helping them feel more safe, secure, and confident. In contrast, cats that are bored or otherwise frustrated will more than likely appreciate the opportunities for mental stimulation and even thrive from them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.