By Arden Moore
Does your cat have a case of the kitty blahs? A day spent eating, sleeping and grooming may sound welcoming at first. But imagine if you had to stay inside your home every day without television, your laptop or even the chance to converse with a friend on the phone. You might become bored and find ways to act out.
Far too many indoor cats feel that way. Without enriched environments, some act out from sheer boredom. They may bypass the litter box and pee on your new living room rug. Or want to play pillow tag with you in the middle of the night. They may overeat and transform into hairy ottomans.
Let’s be clear. Unlike dogs, cats are not big on sharing their feelings. That’s because cats are uniquely prey and predators, which means they are always on the hunt while staying alert not to be hunted. Yes, that’s the mindset even if they only prowl inside our homes.
Pinning down what’s causing them to act out can be challenging — but it can be accomplished and addressed.
“First, let’s put ourselves in our cats’ paws,” says Dr. Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who runs the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service with locations in West Palm Beach and Coral Springs. “Environmental enrichment is extremely important for indoor cats. It helps to maintain their mental and physical health. Proper enrichment helps relieve stress and can positively affect many behavior problems, such as aggression and inappropriate elimination.”
The United States has only 90 board-certified veterinary behaviorists, and Radosta is the only one in South Florida. She and her staff strive to ensure cats stay in homes and are not surrendered to humane shelters. They also create plans to improve the bonds between cats and their people.
Take the case of Deborah Fertig and her cat, Arya. Fertig, a flight attendant from Palm Beach Gardens, adopted Arya and her sister, Dany, as 10-week-old kittens. Arya began to urinate on everything and continued to act out as a young adult during the pandemic when few visitors came to Fertig’s home.
“The last straw was when she jumped up on my lap and peed on me,” says Fertig. “That’s when I knew she needed professional help.”
After ruling out any medical issues with Arya, Radosta’s team, led by Dr. Alison Gerken, mapped out a plan that included switching types of litter and adding a spacious catio, an enclosure that gave Arya and Fertig’s other cats the opportunity to see, smell and hear the great outdoors in a safe manner.
“Arya is not 100% yet, but she has made great progress,” says Fertig. “It was helpful to talk to veterinarians who understand cat behavior versus friends or family members who would say, ‘Why put up with this? Just get rid of the cat.’
“My biggest takeaway is that the clinic taught me how Arya might sense her world through smell and routine. I’ve learned how to look at Arya and her body language for clues so I could act instead of react. Arya is a lovable cat and I did not want to give up on her.”
Treating your cat to an enriched life does not have to take a big bite out of your wallet or consume a lot of your time.
Radosta offers a sampling of ways you can enrich your cat’s indoor life:
• Release his inner tiger. Treat your cat to toys that move and spark his predatory drive. Examples include Da Bird, FroliCat laser toy and Kong Kickeroo.
• Make old toys seem new. Rotate your cat’s toys so your feline friend has something that seems new to sniff, explore and play with. Consider rotating three new toys to your cat each day while stashing the rest.
• Turn on the TV. It may surprise you, but some cats are tech-savvy in a feline way. Some cats do like pawing a video game on your tablet or watching animals on your television set.
• Give your cat a job. Instead of simply putting down a bowl of food at meal time, consider having your cat work for a meal by putting the food in a cat food puzzle or on a snuffle mat for her to sniff out the pieces of kibble. These strategies help work your cat’s brain.
• Select the right toys. Like us, cats have preferences. Step one: Buy five or six types of cat toys. Factor in the sound, smell, type of movement and feel of each toy. Watch how your cat plays or ignores each toy for a month. By observing, you are learning whether your cat prefers toys with feathers, say, or those that are battery operated. Donate the ones your cat ignores to your local cat rescue group or animal shelter.
• Look at your home from your cat’s perspective. There should be at least one resting space for each cat per room that your cats frequent. Make sure there are plenty of hiding spaces for your cat to dash to when she is feeling anxious or scared.
• Do be led by your nose. Cats possess a much more powerful sense of smell than we have. Try sprinkling silver vine or catnip on toys, a favorite hiding spot or napping area for your cat.
• School your cat to banish boredom. Some cats love to learn new tricks. Just keep the sessions short. In no time, your cat may be shaking paws, jumping on a chair on cue and even walking on a leash.
• Finally, if your budget and space allow, consider adding a catio to give your cat safe access to the outdoors. Or, place your cat in a lightweight nylon pet popup enclosure so she can join you safely on your deck or in the backyard. But do not leave your cat in this zippered enclosure for a long time or without your supervision.
“Safe outdoor access gives cats access to new smells, the chance to feel the grass and sun, to hear the birds and to watch lizards and bugs,” says Radosta.
Arden Moore, founder of FourLeggedLife.com, is an animal behavior consultant, author, professional speaker and master certified pet first-aid instructor. She hosts Oh Behave! weekly on PetLifeRadio.com. Learn more by visiting www.ardenmoore.com.
Dr. Lisa Radosta and her team at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service offer one-on-one services as well as online courses and informative blog posts. Learn more by visiting https://flvetbehavior.com.