Cat Enrichment: Everything you need to know

cat enrichment

Many people decide to own a cat thinking that cats are self-sufficient animals and don’t need much looking after. For the most part, this is true; cats can be pretty independent. However, it is up to you as their owner to create an enriching environment that will allow your cat to thrive.

Providing enrichment for a cat that mimics their natural habitat and allows them to express their natural behaviours is essential for a cat’s well-being. Providing a cat with a variety of enrichment will lead them to have a long, fulfilling life.

Making a few changes to your home and your own behaviours will give you the opportunity to have the best relationship with your cat and ensure a happy life together. Enrichment requirements will evolve throughout your cat’s lives as their needs change from kitten to senior. 

This in-depth guide will teach you how to provide the best enrichment to your feline friends for their whole life, no matter what stage they are at or if they suffer from any medical issues or disabilities.

Why Do Cats Need Enrichment?

Felines, like all animals, have basic instincts that they need to hone in on. Cats love to eat, play, hunt, scratch and most of all, sleep. Most cat owners think about making their homes cat friendly; however, there is much more to providing an enriching home life for a cat. 

Anxious Dog? 5 Easy Enrichment Acti...
Anxious Dog? 5 Easy Enrichment Activities To Calm Your Dog

From cats as small as a munchkin house cat to as large as a tiger in captivity, enrichment is essential for their happiness and well-being. Providing enrichment for your cat or any animal allows them to grow and act as if they weren’t in captivity.

Many zoos provide enrichment for their big cats, and it shouldn’t be too different from what a cat owner would provide for their own. Okay, maybe you don’t have as much space, and you’ll definitely need smaller toys, but the idea is the same. It is vital that what owners provide for their pets is related to and beneficial for their species.

Providing enriching environments and activities for cats also encourage good behaviours and make cats less likely to displace poor or negative behaviours. Cats also are happier and are less likely to develop stress-related diseases.

Food Puzzles and Enrichment Benefits for your Cat

Auditory Enrichment Engages your Cat’s Sense of Hearing

Cats have extremely sensitive hearing. They will make it known to their owners if they don’t like a sound (or anything for that matter). Cats need auditory enrichment because it can help keep them calm in stressful situations, such as thunderstorms. A study showed that providing auditory enrichment for a cat reduces their overall anxiety. 

Auditory enrichment also helps cats with their natural ability to hear rodents. It also allows them to tune in and be able to hear potential oncoming danger.

You can provide auditory enrichment for your cat by:

  • Playing videos of small rodents
  • Playing calm, classical music.

IMPORTANT: Do not to play loud music. A cat’s hearing is really sensitive, and you could be causing your kitty pain.

What to do if Your Cat is Deaf

As cats age, there is a chance that they will lose their hearing or go completely deaf. Many deaf cats will yowl and be scared of the smallest things. Deaf cats will sense the world primarily through sight and smell.

If you have multiple cats in the house, your deaf cat is more likely to go by cues from the cats that can hear.

Provide plenty of visual, olfactory, and social enrichment for deaf cats. They will get through life as well as a cat who can hear if you provide a caring and enriching home for them.

Visual Enrichment Stimulates Your Cat’s Mind and Body 

Cats love to hunt, and most of their play is focused on their hunting skills. Visual enrichment is essential for cats because it allows the cat to feel like they are in their natural environment. A study showed that cats would be interested in a TV if there are changing and moving images, but they quickly become habituated to it.

Some things cat owners can do to provide visual enrichment for their cats are:

  • Have plenty of window space and a perch near a window for your cat to gaze out and look at birds and squirrels.
  • Place a bird feeder outside to attract the small animals.
  • Play videos on television that your cat can reach (and is mounted and stable!) of birds at a birdfeeder or small animals in a park.
Here is a great video that your cat will love!

One thing to consider when providing visual stimulation to your cat is if you’re giving your cat window space to make sure your window does not have net curtains or screens. Cats can get their claws stuck in the netting or the screen and may cause themselves injury. 

What to do if Your Cat is Blind

Blindness can occur in a cat for many reasons, including age, injury, or even being blind from birth. While you can’t provide visual enrichment for a blind cat, you can be patient with them and focus on auditory, olfactory, and human-interaction enrichment. 

If you have a blind cat never manipulate the environment that they are used to or clean spaces they regularly mark with their scent. This can cause them to become confused and anxious.

Food-Based Enrichment Triggers a Cat’s Hunting Instinct

As with all animals, including humans, cats have a strong response to food. Food creates the basis of the relationship between you and your cat. As an owners we want to make sure we give our cats quality food and treats based on what our veterinarian suggests.

Some scientists suggest that simply placing food out for cats might make them lose their instinct for hunting. Instead if you place your cat’s food into a toy or a puzzle, where they have to work for their food, it will mimic them having to forage and hunt.

Food can also be used as an incentive to train your cats to do tricks and to reinforce good behaviours. Food-based enrichment also makes a cat’s feeding times last longer, and they get to play while eating their food. Many cats in captivity and in homes tend to eat their food too fast and gain weight from a lack of activity.

Research has shown that using food-based enrichment can promote healthy eating habits and weight for indoor cats. It’s also been shown to help overweight and obese cats lose weight. 

You shouldn’t use additional treats for food-based enrichment with your cat if they are overweight. Rather, you should try to give them their food in toys or puzzles to encourage activity. Once they are at their goal weight, you can reintroduce treats.

Ideas for Food-Based Enrichment for your Cat

One great thing cat owners can do to enrich their cats with food is to provide their treats in a toy or a puzzle that makes your cat have to work to get their treat. This also provides other forms of enrichment, such as cognitive and manipulative. Bigger cats may enjoy getting their food from a box.

If you have a catio, you can hide food in different spaces of the catio. You can also put food in easily breakable boxes and hang them from the roof for your cat to engage with. Make sure you clean out the catio daily to prevent any unfound food from spoiling and attracting pests or making your cat sick. 

If you are placing food outdoors, make sure that the food is inaccessible to wild animals, even if you are putting food in a catio. If you leave food outdoors, it will attract other wild animals, who may carry diseases that will make your cat sick.

For your cat’s drinking water, a glass or ceramic bowl of fresh water that is changed out daily will suffice. If you want to go the extra mile, you can purchase a drinking fountain to keep the water moving. It will feel like drinking fresh water from a stream for your furry friend.

When providing food-based enrichment for a cat, be mindful of introducing new foods and treats. Cats can develop allergies to any ingredient in their food. The most commonly diagnosed involve corn, soy, rice, beef, milk products such as whey and cheese, egg, fish, lamb, and chicken. Check with your veterinarian before using new foods for food-based enrichment. Stop using the food immediately if you notice your cat is having a reaction.

If you live in a multi-cat household, you shouldn’t have only one space for feeding. Some cats tend to be food aggressive and will attack the other cats or try to eat as much food as possible. Keep multiple feeding spaces around so cats can safely and confidently enjoy their food.

Environmental Enrichment Encourages Natural Cat Behaviours 

cat climbing tree outdoor enrichment
Cats love to climb trees.

Having a welcoming and comfortable environment for your cat is essential for your cat’s mental and physical well-being. Cats love to jump, play, and explore. Many cats like to go outside, too; however, many owners choose not to allow their cats to go out for their safety. If a cat stays indoors, it can easily become bored and destructive without adequate enrichment.

A major aspect of environmental enrichment is that it allows animals to safely explore, hide and retreat from potential stressors, such as by climbing and jumping. Cats love having high perches to look down at everyone. Some modifications cat owners can make to their homes or interactions with their cats are:

Outdoor Cat EnrichmentIndoor Cat Enrichment
Train your cat to use a harness and a leash.Invest in cat furniture that promotes active play and jumping, such as a cat tree or wall-mounted jungle gym.
Invest in building a catio for your cat to have a safe, enclosed space outside. If you are building a catio, make sure there are enough options for your cat to move vertically.Leave several, but not too many, toys around for your cat to play with.
Give your cat plenty of safe places for them to hide if they come across a predator.Plant cat-safe plants around your house to simulate being outside.
Plant cat-friendly herbs and grass.Plant a litter box full of cat grass.
Provide an outdoor litter area of loose dirt to encourage your cat to go poop in one place.Place boxes around your house at different heights that your cat can hide in.
Ideas for Environmental Enrichment for Indoor and Outdoor Cats

Cats should also have a comfortable and private space to go to the bathroom indoors and outdoors. You should have one litter box per cat and an additional one in the house. Outdoors, you can provide a litter box or make sure there is an area of dirt that they can rake and is safe for them to go to the bathroom without worrying about predators.

If you’re putting plants in and around your home to stimulate your cat, do not place any plants that are toxic to cats. Poisonous plants could not only make your cat sick but kill them as well.

If your cat is starting to get older (older than nine years), you shouldn’t encourage too many spaces where they will be jumping to and from higher heights due to arthritis. Place ramps and steps anywhere for them to get to around the house and yard for them to enjoy.

Don’t force your cat to wear a harness and leash if they aren’t comfortable in them. Have your cat trial wearing a harness in the house for several minutes and gradually increasing it to thirty minutes before taking your cat outside in a harness and leash. Make sure the harness fits comfortably to prevent your cat from injuring themself. 

Providing Cat Enrichment in Small Spaces

Sometimes people can’t provide cats with a lot of space. Cats may be confined to a small apartment or may be staying in a cattery while you’re away.

If you have a small apartment, make sure to have some toys, catnip, non-toxic plants, and vertical spaces for your cat to climb.

If you work at a rescue centre or are considering boarding your cat while you’re on holiday, your cat may spend a lot of time in a lodge or chalet. Studies have shown that even with a hanging ball in the chalet, would stimulate a cat. You still want to make sure your cat has plenty of time outside in a run to stretch and exercise.

cat shelf indoor enrichment
Cats love to sit on shelves and survey the world below them.

Olfactory (Scent) Enrichment for Cats

Like their sense of hearing, cats have an incredible sense of smell. Their behaviours can quickly change based on what their environments smell like. If there’s an unpleasant or new odour, a cat will normally have a funny look on its face and have its mouth open slightly or the tip of its tongue sticking out.

Olfactory challenges are a great way to enrich your cat and also can lead to food-based enrichment. Buy a toy that can be filled with catnip and let your cat have fun playing with it! It also is engaging with cognitive, tactile, and manipulative enrichment

cat sensory enrichment
Cat Grass provides great olfactory enrichment for your cat.

Cats love catnip and cat grass. You can sprinkle some catnip on the floor or onto a cardboard scratcher, and the catnip will instantly engage your cat. It’s a great way to get them moving around and stretching as well. Plant or buy some potted cat grass for your cat to sniff and nibble on. 

Cats also rely on marking their scent through rubbing their face or scratching surfaces. This helps the cat feel secure in its environment. Some of the most popular places are walls, table corners and our cat’s favourite, the stairs!

Avoid cleaning spots cats like to mark with harsh chemicals. This could not only confuse your cat but make them sick as well. 

TOP TIP: Avoid wearing your shoes indoors as this can introduce unwelcome scents into your home and upset your cat.

If you’re using food or herbs as the stimulating device in an olfactory challenge for a cat, make sure the herbs and food are fresh. Providing spoiled food and herbs can not only irritate your cat’s nose, but they can also make them sick if they eat it.

Cognitive, Tactile, and Manipulative Enrichment Ideas for Cats

cat enrichment carboard
Cats love to climb into boxes and bag, even if they don’t fit!

Cats are extremely intelligent animals. Through evolution, they have learned to manipulate and warm the hearts of humans. Cats love to solve puzzles and be engaged in different tasks. Studies have shown that cognitive and sensory enrichment are vital to a cat’s wellbeing and will change throughout their lifetime.

Tactile and manipulative enrichment are also equally important for cats. Cats need to touch and play with things. No matter the size, any cat will love a cardboard box and do what it pleases with it.

Cats also love to play with objects. Studies have shown that cats respond better when you change the toys they play with routinely to keep them interested. According to another study, cats are also more likely to play with a toy if it looks like their prey in the wild.

TOP PICK: Our cat can’t resist Mylar Balls ( view on Amazon). They are shiny, crinkly balls that your cat can bop about and chase.

How to Provide your Cat with Cognitive, Tactile, and Manipulative Enrichment

There are many things cat owners can do to provide environment for their cats. Some things they can do are:

  • Leave a cardboard box out. You can cut holes into it or leave it as is. Just make sure your cat can’t get stuck inside.
  • Some cats love water, especially Manx and Bobtails. You can give them a small tub filled with water and some floating toys to play with. Make sure you dry them off when they’re done!
  • Place a variety of toys around the house for your cat to play with. This can overlap with olfactory and food-based enrichment if you can put catnip or treats inside the toy.

When providing these types of enrichment, it’s essential not to give your cat too much. It can overwhelm them, and they may become disinterested in their toys.

cat playing in paper bag
Cats can’t resist a paper bag.

You should also never force your cat to play with a toy. Some cats will respond better to certain toys. Almost every cat loves a cardboard box. 

You should monitor your cat playing. Some cats can play more roughly than others and break toys. Do not allow broken or small pieces to stay out too long because your cat can choke on them.

A Note About Laser Pointers

Lots of owners and cats can have fun playing with laser pointers. However, some cats can quickly become bored or frustrated with laser pointers. While it is a great way to keep a cat entertained and agile, laser pointers don’t give cats the satisfaction of catching and playing with their prey

Use extra caution with laser pointers and automatic laser pointer machines. If the laser is introduced to your cat’s eye, it could cause permanent damage.

Do Cats Need Social Enrichment?

cat social enrichment
Cats are quite sociable and love to play.

Even though cats sleep most of the day and don’t always get the best rap for being the friendliest animals, they actually thrive on social interaction. Most cats tend to get along with each other once they sort out their pecking order. 

If you notice your cat does not like other animals, do not force your cat to interact with other animals socially. If you want to test your cat’s sociability, you can foster another cat and see how they get along. 

We used to rescue many cats and they all lived together, but there were a couple who were bullies and one who was very shy so they went to live as only cats in their new homes.

From birth, cats learn many social behaviours from their litter mates, such as feeding rules and how to play. Social enrichment allows cats to socialise with other cats and other species (interspecific socialisation) that they normally wouldn’t have many conflicts with.

Some behaviours you can see with cats during social enrichment are grooming, cuddling, and playing.

If you have more than one cat in your home, they will automatically socialise and get the time they need with and without each other.

If one of your cats has to leave the house, such as going to the vet, bring them back into the home in a separate room for a day. The scents from the vet’s office could upset the other cats and provoke them.

Introducing a New Cat

When introducing a new cat or other animals to your household, be sure to do it gradually. The cat in your home may become territorial and aggressive towards the newcomer. Keep the new animal in a separate room with the door closed and start with exposing the old cat and new animal to each other’s scent with blankets, then slowly increasing face to face time each day.

Sometimes it is inevitable, but try not to bring too many cats into your home at one time. If you have multiple cats, make sure that there is enough space for each cat and that they have a place to hide if they need to get away. Some cats may even like to go into their carrier, so you should always leave it out for them to go to when they’re feeling stressed.

Human Interaction Enrichment Builds Bonds for Life

cat human interaction enrichment
Cats and Humans, made for each other.

Cats and humans have had a great relationship since ten thousand years ago when cats would stay near humans to eat the mice that the human food attracted. This formed a bond between the two species that will last for thousands of more years.

Even though cats are independent, they need to interact with their humans daily. It’s also known as “interspecific socialisation.” This helps strengthen their relationship and bond. 

Kittens learn to adapt to human interaction between two and seven weeks old. Human interaction with cats is important because getting to know your cat well can help you understand the signs if your cat is sick or anxious. 

Some things owners can do to interact with their cats are:

  • Play with your cat for fifteen minutes twice a day.
  • Pet and hold your cat if they want. Most cats like being pet on their head and will have an aggressive response to the belly area, with the science to prove it.
  • Create a scheduled feeding time. Cats love predictability and tend to feel more satisfied and safer when they know when they are going to be fed.
  • Maintain consistent responses to your cat’s behaviour to promote healthy communication. 
  • Allow the cat to initiate contact with you.

If you are playing with your cat or giving them tons of love and attention, make sure to read their body language. If they start getting aggressive with biting and swatting at you, do not enforce this behaviour and walk away.

Sometimes the relationship between a cat and owner can become stressed. A stressed relationship due to bad behavior from the cat and the owner improperly responding is the leading cause of abandonment and euthanasia.

If you and your cat have a strained relationship, find a behaviourist to help. Most relationships can be improved. Only when all else fails and you have to give up your cat, make sure you take them to a no-kill shelter. 

Can I Leave My Cat Alone When I Go Away?

If you’re going on holiday for a couple of days, cats tend to be fine on their own. If you leave food, water, and an extra clean litter box out, they should be fine. You could hire someone to come in once a day to check on and play with your cat.

If you’re going away on vacation for more than a couple of days, you should consider boarding your cat at a cattery. You could also ask someone you trust to either check-in with your cat twice a day or pay a cat sitter to stay in your home for the duration of your trip. 

Regardless of what you do, you still may be greeted with a passive-aggressive cat, but after a few days of you being home, your cat will have forgiven you. They may forgive you faster if you remember to buy them an enriching gift while you’re away!

In summary

Engaging in innate behaviours to cats, such as hunting, playing, sleeping, eating and scratching, are incredibly satisfying for your cat. You can make your cat happier by providing lots of different opportunities for these activities. This is what we mean by feline enrichment.


  • Casey RA,  Bradshaw JWS (2007). The assessment of welfare. In: The Welfare of Cats (Ed. Rochlitz I), Springer.
  • van den Bos R (1998). Post-conflict stress-response in confined group-living cats (Felis silvestris catus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 59(4), 323-330.
  • Leyhausen P (1979). Cat Behavior: The Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats. Taylor and Francis/ Garland STPM Press.
  • McCune S (1995). The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats’ behaviour to people and novel objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45(1-2), 111-126.
  • Karsh EB, Turner DC (1988). The human-cat relationship. In: The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior (Eds. Turner DC, Bateson P), Cambridge University Press.
  • Meier GW (1961). Infantile handling and development in Siamese kittens.Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 54(3), 284.
  • Wilson M, Warren JM, Abbott L (1965). Infantile stimulation, activity, and learning by cats. Child Development, 36, 843-853.
  • Bateson P (2000). Behavioural development in the cat. In: The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour (Eds. Turner DC, Bateson P), Cambridge University Press.
  • Overall KL, Dyer D (2005). Enrichment strategies for laboratory animals from the viewpoint of clinical veterinary behavioral medicine: Emphasis on cats and dogs. ILAR Journal, 46(2), 202-216.
  • American Association of Feline Practitioners [AAFP]. (2004). Feline Behavior Guidelines. Retrieved from: http://www.catvets.com/guidelines/practice-guidelines/behavior-guidelines
  • Lockhart J, Wilson K, Lanman C (2013). The effects of operant training on blood collection for domestic cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 143, 128-134.
  • Mansard P (1989). Some environmental considerations for small cats. Ratel,16, 12-15.
  • Rochlitz I (2000). Feline welfare issues. In: The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour (Eds. Turner DC, Bateson P), Cambridge University Press.
  • Hubrecht RC, Turner DC (1998). Companion animal welfare in private and institutional settings. In: Companion Animals in Human Health (Eds. Wilson C, Turner D), Sage Publications.
  • Loveridge G (1994). Provision of environmentally enriched housing for cats. Animal Technology: Journal of the Institute of Animal Technicians. 45(2), 69-87.
  • Holmes R (1993). Environmental enrichment for confined dogs and cats. Animal Behaviour: The T.G. Hungerford Refresher Course for Veterinarians. Sydney.
  • Hawthorne AJ, Loveridge GG, Horrocks LJ (1995). The behaviour of domestic cats in response to a variety of surface-textures. (pp. 84-94) In: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Environmental Enrichment (Holst B, Ed.), Copenhagen 
  • Hoskins J (1996). Population medicine and infectious disease. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 208(4), 510-512.
  • Ellis SL, Rodan I, Carney HC, Heath S, Rochlitz I, Shearburn LD, Sundahl E, Westropp JL (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230. Retrieved from: http://jfm.sagepub.com/content/15/3/219
  • Ellis S (2009). Environmental enrichment: Practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 901-912.
  • Rochlitz I (2007). Housing and Welfare. In: The Welfare of Cats (Ed. Rochlitz I), Springer.
  • Loveridge G (1998). Comfortable environmentally enriched housing for domestic cats. Retrieved from http://awionline.org/pubs/cq/cats.htm
  • Hall SL, Bradshaw JWS (1998) The influence of hunger on object play by adult domestic cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 58,143-150.
  • Clarke DL, Wrigglesworth D, Holmes K, Hackett R, Michel K (2005). Using environmental and feeding enrichment to facilitate feline weight loss. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 89(11-12), 427.
  • Ellis SL, Wells DL (2008). The influence of visual stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 113(1), 166-174.
  • Ellis SL, Wells DL (2010). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(1), 56-62.
  • Hart B (1977). Olfaction and Feline Behaviour. Feline Practice, 7, 8-10.