Cats often exude an independent nature, making it easy to leave them home alone without the guilt. But, just like humans, cats crave and require interaction and mental and physical stimulation.
Bored cats can get frustrated and begin to exhibit unwanted behaviors. You leave a cat alone long enough, and they can take out their frustrations in other destructive ways like scratching, potty accidents, or even aggression.
Providing enriching experiences for your cat doesn’t have to require a lot of time, effort, or money. There are many simple and easy ways to stimulate your cat’s mind and body, from toys to food games and DIY projects with items you probably already have in your home.
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What is Cat Enrichment?
What Are Different Types of Enrichment?
DIY Cat Enrichment Toys
Top Enrichment Cat Toy Picks
I asked Dr. Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions why enrichment is so important for cats. "Enrichment provides cats (and other animals) the opportunity to express natural behaviors, which can help reduce stress under stressful circumstances."
How Enrichment Helped My Own Cats
Recently, I experienced this first hand, having a serious issue between my two cats Rajah and Zsa Zsa. The three-year-old siblings started fighting suddenly and rather aggressively. The situation became so dire that my family was considering finding a new home for one of the two. It would’ve been heartbreaking to do, but it was greatly impacting our life.
It’s not uncommon for this type of behavior to occur if cats are bored. All of our cats' toys had (somehow) disappeared and beyond the occasional affection we gave them, the two of them would sit at home with no real mental or physical outlets. So, I asked Dr. Koski to share some of her favorite enrichment ideas and listed some of our favorite DIY enrichment projects, toys, and games to help you provide an enriching experience for your cat.
What Is Enrichment?
Enrichment is providing animals with needed environmental stimuli that satisfy their natural instincts, which promotes physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. It's not just for our pets either!
Environmental enrichment is used extensively with zoo animals to give them ways to practice instinctual behaviors and have some fun! Zookeepers have to get really creative with enrichment and it's a lot of fun to see what they come up with. Watch this video showing one example of how the Oregon Zoo works enrichment into the daily lives of the big cats in their care:
Different Types of Enrichment
Taking your cat for walks can be a way of providing them with mental and physical exercise while under your watchful eye! Before you just put a leash on your cat, check out our article "How to Walk your Cat on a Leash Safely."
Consider all your cat's senses when you're trying to enrich your cats' environment. As humans, we often don't pay much attention to the smells or how something feels quite as closely as our animal counterparts do.
Imagine what senses are tapped into when your cat sits on a perch and watches nature outside! This window cat cot perch is not only great for your feline's visual enrichment but perfect for senior cats who may lack mobility and can't climb a cat tree. Just place it lower on a window so elderly cats can enjoy the outside view.
Although you would never attach a perch to an open window, it's always a good reminder that cats and open windows can be a dangerous combination. High Rise Syndrome doesn't just happen to cats living in tall apartment buildings.
Another idea to enrich your cat's environment is by providing elevated spaces or a cat tree! Check out this link for the cat tree I have in my house. It's a great price and incredibly durable after taking on our cats (and kids) for the past three years!
Don't have space for a perch? Delight your cat with the sights and sounds of nature and wildlife from the comfort of your couch. We put together this video of squirrels, Stellar's Jays, and a variety of other backyard birds for our cats to enjoy:
Here are some additional environmental enrichment options you may want to consider:
Buy at Tuft & Paw
We are big fans of Tuft & Paw. Their products are designed to blend into your home, not stick out against your decor. This cave-like cat bed is a peaceful retreat that creates a secure and safe place to retire. Hand-crafted with 100% wool, a hand-stitched small entrance window is the perfect size for your cat to get in and out with a sense of total seclusion.
Many people don't have enough scratching posts and pads around their home. We have a great article on Why Cats Scratch and how you can redirect them to appropriate places. And now you don't have to sacrifice style, while outfitting your cat with plenty of places to scratch.
Cats have preferences even when it comes to their scratching posts, so finding out which one works best for you, will help save your furniture in the long run.
Mazel loves scratching his Ultimate Cat Scratcher Lounge and also uses it as a step-stool while he's watching the squirrels and birds in the wildlife video above.
A circulating filtration system is great to occupy your cat and keep your water fresh. Their curiosity alone will keep them constantly hydrated. Food puzzles can also be great enrichment tools too!
If you have space, a popular idea with cat lovers is a catio! It's a wonderful way to open up your cat's senses while keeping them safe in an enclosed space. Check out this video below of Serena the tabby exploring four different catios:
Beyond environmental enrichment, cats also need social enrichment, such as play and interaction. As much as we like to believe cats are highly independent, they are also very social animals.
"Enrichment is often about presenting novel opportunities for exploration and interaction," says Koski. "Even a favorite toy or activity can get boring, so be sure to change things up occasionally."
Depending on your particular cat, they may need their socialization centered on play. Others may enjoy food games, and others just like the affection of their humans. That affection can also be shared by brushing your cats. It's a wonderful social enrichment for your cat while strengthening the bond you two share. Check out our article on Tips for Brushing Your Cat and the best brushes for the job!
From puzzles to training sessions, problem-solving is also considered an enrichment activity because it exhausts both physical and mental energy. You'll be surprised to see how ready your cat will be for a long nap or cuddle session after a short five minutes of training, or after eating their meal from an interactive toy or puzzle bowl.
Dr. Koski recommends trying your hand at clicker training with your cat: "You can easily train cats how to do tricks and execute commands, and training can really help with cooperative care such as nail trims, grooming, medicating, and even help make vet visits less stressful." Check out Dr. Koski's article on how to Train Your Cat for Enrichment and Fun here.
What to Avoid in Cat Enrichment Activities
When asked if there is any kind of enrichment activity or toy to avoid with a cat, Koski reminds us about safety: "Be careful about items that cats can consume unless you know that they are non-toxic and safe to be eaten (e.g., plant materials).
Additionally, some cats can get scared of certain toys or objects, and some items (like those with strings) may accidentally be ingested, causing medical issues. It's always a wise choice to supervise your cats when they are given a new enrichment object or activity!"
DIY Cat Enrichment Toys (and beyond!)
It’s amazing what you can find in your home that can either be used as a toy or be made into something interactive. Cats are curious by nature, so it’s not uncommon to see them playing with something small that has fallen to the floor. In most cases, it doesn’t even need to be on the floor to be enticing.
"My cats LOVE packing paper! Just toss a crumpled length of paper on the ground and cats will dive into and under it, rip it up, and roll around in it (even without catnip, sometimes!)," says Koski.
Here are some of our favorite DIY cat enrichment toys:
Tube Toys and Brain Games
All you need for these toys and puzzles are some extra toilet paper rolls, or paper towel rolls cut to size and treats (optional, but recommended!). Check out this video for several ideas to create cardboard kitty fun from toilet paper rolls.
Muffin Tin Cat Puzzle
This enrichment puzzle is fantastic because it's so simple, but really works a cat's brain. It literally takes you less than five minutes to put together and is a great way to feed your cat their regular kibble.
Grab a muffin tin, some small fluffy balls (or small toys, and a few cat treats or kibble). You can put these in every tin and cover it with one of their mice or small ball. Or as your cat gets better with practice, only put the food in a few tins but cover them all with their toys. You can even play this game with egg cartons or ice cube trays to make the difficulty a little harder!
It's a great way to work their sense of smell and practice problem-solving. I had Zsa Zsa try it out while I was writing this article. Both of our cats loved it! What's also great about this enrichment puzzle is it can replace their food bowl when you put kibble inside.
Zsa Zsa exploring the muffin pan
Soda Box Cat-n-Mouse
Some call this a cat's version of "whack-a-mole." Putting this together is super simple, and you can really use any kind of box around the same size. You can put anything on the end of the wand that your cat prefers, such as a feather, fluffy ball, or a stuffed mouse! Another option if you don't want to mess with sticks and glue — use a large wooden spoon and put the prize on the end and eventually let them capture their prey!
Dr. Koski recommends even cutting holes on the side of the box and placing treats or toys inside for your cat to fish out. You can up the difficulty level by throwing in tissue paper or packing paper as an obstacle for them as they try to extract their "prey."
Safety Warning: Although the risk is low, your cat can irritate or injure their paws on the cut edges of the cardboard. It's an easy preventive measure to put tape around any cut cardboard edges. Painter's tape works just fine and usually helps your DIY toy stronger and last longer!
Cat Condo out of Cardboard Boxes
This is a particular project I had wanted to do for a while, and thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing couldn't have been better. My family is all home together and having a project for the kids to get involved in was fun. While I was trying to figure out how to get the cats to like each other again, I thought what better way in establishing a positive association incorporating play between the two. Check out the video below of my crew making the cat condo:
DIY Cat Toy Safety Note: Whenever you're making your own puzzles and toys, make sure that they are safe and always supervise their use. You also don't want your cat chewing up and swallowing any piece of your DIY puzzle that's not meant to be eaten!
Our Top Cat Enrichment Toy Picks
GoCat Da Bird Pull 2 Piece Pull Apart Rod & Bird
"When it comes to toys, my all-time favorite toy is the Da Bird wand toy!" says Dr. Koski. "Lures are easy to change so that you can keep things from getting boring, or find what type of prey your cat responds to best."
Da Bird Feather Teaser simulates the motion of a bird. Set on a swivel, its feathers look, sound, and feel like real bird wings and will drive your cat nuts. This toy encourages instinctual behaviors and exercise to keep your cat healthy and alert.
Pro Tip: Play bird sounds on your phone (or TV) while using this toy, or other similar ones. It's great for cats to engage their sense of hearing while playing with toys that simulate birds.
Turboscratcher Cat Toy
The Bergan Turboscratcher 2-in-1 cat toy is great to put in different places around the house. Whether you have a cat that loves to play, just needs to scratch or both! Depending on your cat's preferences, these can replace regular scratchpads (unless they like a different shape or design).
Out of all of the toys, the Turboscratcher might not occupy your cat's attention all day, but I feel it's a great addition to enrich your cat's home. It's also a great enrichment option for senior kitties and cats with arthritis or other mobility issues.
Providing your cat with an appropriate scratching place can help prevent unwanted scratching on furniture around your home. Read more about how to stop unwanted scratching. Check out PV cat Rajah give a couple swipes on the Turboscratcher below:
Rajah loves catnip sprinkled on top
Pro Tip: Sprinkling or spraying a little catnip on the pad of this toy (or any scratchpad) will help increase engagement and rolling around on it. It's a common trick with many cat toys. We recommend either Cat Crack Catnip (in dry form) or Catnip Spray from Kong.
This awesome interactive toy is great for allowing your kitty to use their natural hunting instincts and provide mental and physical stimulation.
This interactive cat toy has proven to be so entertaining for my cat, Mazel, that if I can't find him, I turn it on and he suddenly appears. It's a great hands-free option for keeping him busy — I can even turn it on with my foot, which is sometimes necessary when I have a sleeping pug in my lap.
There are a few different speeds to choose from to make the little feather teaser randomly pop out of different holes, which keeps him so focused the rest of the world seems to melt around him.
As a fantastic added bonus, this was the toy we used to keep our cat out of the Christmas tree this year. When he would start walking towards the tree, one push of the button and he was out and ready to pounce. — Preventive Vet Team Member, Mia
Interactive Laser Cat Toy
Imagine all the times you aren't home to initiate that physical activity — this automatic laser toy can keep your cat busy and burn some energy.
It's important to keep in mind that with other toys, your cat can usually capture their prey, which is not the case with a laser pointer. Dr. Koski recommends switching to a feather wand after some time spent with the laser pointer, so your cat will experience some success. Another option (I have used) is to give them a treat periodically when they successfully pounce on the spot.
Instead of letting your cats graze throughout the day, make dinner time a little more interactive! Your cat will burn energy, practice problem-solving, and eat slower. Cats, by nature, love to prowl for prey, and what better way to give your indoor furball the experience than an indoor hunting cat feeder. Developed by a veterinarian, we love this product.
Preventive Vet staff review: There was a period in which Rajah and his sister Zsa Zsa weren't getting along. What we found was that they had very few mentally stimulating activities, which led to boredom and aggression towards each other.
My first purchase was the Trixie Mad Scientist Activity Toy for its simplicity. It has become a favorite of Rajah (who's food motivated). He's constantly found pawing away at the activity several times a day, hoping to find some kibble. And although Zsa Zsa isn't as food motivated, she enjoys watching her brother figure out how to get the treats!
Pro Tip: Make sure you choose the appropriate dispensing top that will either allow larger kibble or treats to fall out without too much effort or to keep smaller kibble from pouring out too quickly.
The Trixie 5-in-1 Activity Center below is perfect for any feline (beginner or pro). It's big enough for more than one cat to engage, and depending on their skills, you can place the kibble or treats in harder-to-find places. You can also put wet food in the small square-welled section of this puzzle for your cat to lick out!
If you're looking for an alternative to a regular ol' cat bowl, an IQ Treat Mat is a great option! Simply spread your cat's wet food or spreadable treats over it and watch your cat lick away. You can also freeze their wet food on the mat and leave it out as an afternoon snack/dinner for cats. That way when you leave home in the morning for work, it will stay fresh as it thaws out and comes to room temperature throughout the day. This is also a perfect choice for those with cats that eat too fast.
Stuffed Cat Catnip Toys
Not all cats respond to catnip, but if they do, you need to have several of these fishes floundering around the house. This cat toy set from Youngever comes with five fish and two mice. There's a zipper pouch on the underbelly of the fish, making it super easy to refill with catnip, and they're made with non-toxic materials.
Let us know your favorite enrichment toy or activity to do with your cat in the comments below!