What is Feline Environmental Enrichment?

Feline Environmental Enrichment (FEE) is a growing focus for many cat veterinarians and cat behavior experts. We recognize that the cat is a natural hunter and, because we recommend that you keep your cat indoors, we also understand that we need to take care of the environment we provide for our cat.

Your cat may have adjusted to living inside with you, but that doesn’t mean his or her needs are being met. Your cat is not fine.

In an environment where a cat’s instinctual needs are not met, he or she will become bored and anxious. Every cat is different right--some cats hide boredom and anxiety well. Which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t really appreciate a more interesting life.  

Other cats may tolerate not being able to express their instincts, and they begin to have behavioral and medical problems—many of which may be familiar to you.

Really? Yes, really. Behavioral and medical problems can indeed be caused by a sub-par living environment. And there are veterinarians and researchers who have devoted their careers to studying this. By looking at their work, I have become more interested in cat behavior and how to alter it by providing for their natural needs. I have become a “Catvocate.”

If your cat views his or her environment as boring or stressful, your cat can become depressed or anxious, leading to self-destructive behaviors such as compulsive overeating or over-grooming. Your cats may become destructive by chewing or clawing on things that they shouldn't. They will often start to “scarf and barf” their food. Sometimes the depressed or anxious cat can lash out by attacking other cats in the household or, worse, people. And sadly, some cats just retreat into isolation.

New research has found that, for some cats, stress and anxiety can cause them urinary issues, ranging from painful urination and urinating outside of the litter box to complete urinary obstruction, which becomes a life-threatening emergency. As a veterinarian, I have found that more cats are euthanized for inappropriate urination issues than for any other reason.

We owe it to the cats that we love to understand what they instinctually need and provide that for them in a safe, indoor environment. We can do this through environmental enrichment. Many changes are easy to make once we understand what cats want and need. Join me on this journey to understand our cat companions and make them happier and healthier.

For more information, check out the American Association of Feline Practitioners owner’s handout on Environmental Enrichment.  

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