Enriching The Environment Of Our Pets

The Psycology of Play and Behavior Modification

Part One Cats

 

Veterinary Forum December 2002

The human-animal bond is a fragile relationship that can be quickly altered if a pet develops a behavioral problem that erodes that bond. Five veterinary behavior specialists met during the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention held in July 2002 in Nashville to discuss ways in which oitmers can enrich their pet's environment and introduce play activities that encourage healthy behavior and social well-being. Part 1 of this two-part roundtable addresses how directing normal behavior through appropriate environmental
outlets can strengthen the bond between cats and their owners. Part 2 will discuss the same issue in dogs.

Determining a Cat's Innate Needs

Gary Landsbere, BSc, DVM (Moderator): In general, cats should be provided with a home that offers outlets for all of their innate "drives," and the manner in which environmental enrichment is
achieved can help prevent behavioral problems from developing. How can veterinarians help owners enrich their cat's environment?

Jacqui Neilson, BS, DVM: Owners need to understand what a cat's innate needs are. Unfortunately, good data on house cats are lacking, but research on the daily activities of feral cats can be extrapolated to some degree. Sleeping and resting account for a majority of their day—over 60%. The next two most frequent activities are grooming and hunting—15% and 14% of the day— with roaming around and feeding accounting for 2% to
3% of their daily activities.

 

Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB,
is affiliated with Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Bridgeton, Missouri

Gary Landsberg, BSc, DVM, DACVB, Moderator,
is affiliated with Doncaster Animal Clinic in Thomhill, Ontario, Canada.

Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, DACVB,
director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Jacqui NeiLson, BS, DVM, DACVB,
is affiliated with the Anirrud Behavior Clinic in Portland, Oregon.

Barbara Simpson, DVM, DACVB,
is affiliated with The Veterinarv Behavior Clinic in Southern Pines, Ninth Carolina.

 

Debra Horwitz, DVM: Many pet owners think that cats sleep all
day when sometimes they are merely resting and observing their environment. Feral cats spend some of that resting time observing and smelling their constantly changing environment, which differs from the resting activity ot house cats because their environment typically changes little. Thus, owners need to concentrate on creating an environment that is rich in sights, sounds, and activities— even smells—throughout the day.

Barbara Simpson, MS, PhD, DVM: We don't have sufficient information to know how the published ethograms of free-ranging feral cats apply to house cats. I think it is clear that house cats exhibit a wide range of individual variability in their social behavior and activity patterns. Individual factors such as age, weight, and breed can be important. When cats become obese, they invariably become very sedentary. Environmental enrichment, such as toys, must be customized based on the behavioral traits of each individual. Thus, environmental enrichment for a young, active cat differs from that of an older, sedentary cat. One cat may use toys for solo play; the other may need interactive toys that encourage more physical activity and play.
To meet the biological needs of indoor cats for exercise and play, it is instructive to compare the behavioral repertoires of cats that live outdoors with those that live indoors. In particular, compared with indoor cats, out-
door cats exhibit more predatory behavior and may even stalk
and capture small mammals, birds, or insects. Toys that encourage cats to stalk, chase, and pounce allow indoor cats to express these behaviors. To prevent behavioral problems, these activities should capitalize on the predatory play patterns innate in all cats but should not involve
the hands or teet of the owner.
These toys are beneficial for the cat and, because they can be interactive and entertaining, can promote the bond between owner and cat. However, cats should also have access to toys that do not involve owner interaction but instead foster solitary play, including behaviors that might be considered predatory. Thus, cats should be provided with a few different types of toys.

Creating an Environment of Plenty

Landsberg: In the context of environmental enrichment, how can a cat's surroundings help prevent behavioral problems?

Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD: We need to consider normal feline behavior, such as resting and scratching, and provide appropriate places and devices that encourage healthy behavior. Thus, not only are appropriate play toys important but bedding, elevated platforms, and hiding places are also key. In a multi-cat household, the owner needs to create a "station" for each cat—one that is designed according to the individuality of each cat.
It is important to have social interaction among cats in a given household, but each cat should also have its own lying area, litterbox, food bowl, water, toys, scratching post, and exercise area to minimize social stress and allow disentangled lives. Most owners know where their cats preferentially hang out and can design separate stations accordingly.
Landsberg: Our focus today is on play activities and how they can prevent development of behavioral problems. However, I would like to also discuss how the environment can be modified to promote acceptable behavior. What else should be considered when enriching a cat's environment?

Luescher: Location and availability of food and water are important. Cats prefer eating intermittently, so dry food should likely be free-choice and other foods can
be given on a more scheduled basis.

Horwitz: Unfortunately, with the high palatability of cat foods today, free-choice feeding can sometimes lead to obesity, so the pet owner may need additional suggestions for keeping feeding diverse and acceptable. One alternative way to allow intermittent feeding is to encourage foraging by offering food-dispensing toys or relocating food dishes in different places each day. In multi-cat households, each cat may have its individual eating pattern that could lead to behavioral problems if meal times are scheduled. Some cats may become
frustrated when they do not have access to food, even if provided in toys. Thus, different arrangements may be needed to meet the needs of each cat.

Neilson: Invariably, owners in multi-cat households do "meal feedings" in a central location, which can add social pressure. I agree with establishing individual stations, or what I term an environment of plenty: plenty ot everything that is important to the cat—resting perches, food, water, and litterboxes—and that these stations be spread around the environment. This approach seems to help prevent social problems from developing.

Some Toys to Consider for Cats

When selecting feline toys, owners need to
consider what type of toy captures their cat's interest and stimulates predatory play. Rolling toys must be lightweight and easy to grasp and bat along (e.g., a sponge ball). They can be symmetric, such as a ping-pong ball, or asymmetric, such as a walnut or weighted toy. The objective is to select one that the cat finds most interesting and fun to play with. Similarly, toys composed of fur, feathers, or other prey-type material are designed to stimulate predatory instincts. An example is Gone Fishing™, a feather toy that hangs from a wand and simulates a flying bird. Feeder toys, which dispense food when batted around, are also well liked by many cats, as these toys simulate foraging behavior. Owners should try various types of toys and offer their cat a variety of items that foster activity and exercise.

Reinforcing Good Behavior Through Diversity of Choices

Landsberg: I would like to reiterate two points that have been made. First, we have mentioned the individual differences among cats, including the amount of social play or involvement they enjoy, the type of surfaces they prefer lying on, their individual preferences for certain types of toys, and their comfort zone for resting and being solitary. Second, we have mentioned social interactive play but also need to consider the benefit of cat training—of using toys and food rewards to train a cat to repeat a desired behavior.

Luescher: Clicker training is a unique approach to training cats because it is hands-off and involves rewards only. Basically, the clicker produces a sound that marks an exact behavior to be reinforced with a food reward. For example, if an owner is watching his or her cat and it behaves in an amusing manner that would he ideal to reinforce, the owner uses the clicker and then offers a rood treat that will likely encourage repeated hehavior.

Landsberg: How can we ensure that owners are interacting positively with their cat?

Horwitz: When discussing play interactions between cats and their owners, it is probably important to determine what the owner feels are play-related activities. Practitioners need to ask owners "Does your pet like to play?" If the answer is yes, then the practitioner should ask for specifics, such as what type of games are played and what type ot toys are offered. Often what owners describe are not really play activities but interactions, such as simply sitting on an owner's lap and being petted. Owners may not realize that they can and probably should solicit active aerobic play that the cat enjoys. So when we talk with owners about play, we need to help them understand the concept of an enriched environment—not simply putting out more food bowls but creating diverse choices that are stimulating to the senses— smell, sight, touch. Some cats like to lie on a newspaper or hide inside paper bags or boxes because they can create certain noises by doing so and thus can entertain themselves. We need to help owners understand and appreciate the need to create environmental diversity suited to the individuality of their cat.

Luescher: One of the most stressful environmental situations is if the cat cannot predict what is happening or control its environment. Many of the enrichment devices and toys are geared toward allowing the cat to maintain control of its environment.

Landsberg: At the same time, owners must understand that play activity and affectionate exchanges between cats and owners should not be forced (Figure I). Doing so can cause more anxiety, stress, or conflict that leads to behavioral problems. Thus, owners need to assess the cat's response when initiating a play activity or introducing a play device.

Neilson: Owners may consider tossing a toy a few times as sufficient play activity. Especially young, energetic cats without a companion cat in the household may develop play-related aggression when the owners
fail to interact with it sufficiently. One trick is to set a timer to learn how much attention is truly being paid. I am amazed that what may seem like 10 minutes is a mere 2 minutes of interactive activity. In contrast, in multi-cat households, often one cat is a bully that tries to control or monopolize shared play time. So, owners need to sometimes segregate their cats during interactive play so that they have equal opportunity.

Modifying Behavior Through Play

Landsberg: We have been concentrating on multi-cat households. What are some behavioral problems that develop in single-cat households, and what is the role of play in improving an existing problem or preventing one from developing?

Simpson: Without satisfactory outlets for predatory behavior and play, young singleton cats that spend most of their time alone indoors may express predatory behaviors in a negative way. This is sometimes called predatory-play aggression because it involves behavioral components of both play and predatory behavior. Cats can learn an owner's pattern of behavior, and unconsciously the owner becomes part of the cat's "environmental enrichment" game. For example, a cat is aware of the outside sounds associated with the owner returning home from work. By the time the door is opened, the cat is in a stalking mode. The owner walks in, and the cat pounces and bites the owner's ankles, then runs off. In response, the owner yells at the cat and reaches for a spray bottle of water in an unsuccessful attempt to deter the predatory-play attack.
As part of the treatment for this type of problem, this owner needs to spend appropriate play time with this
cat to establish acceptable outlets for this normal but misdirected activity. We need to direct owners to the appropriate toys that can divert this energy to a different set of conditions at an appropriate time of day.

Horwitz: Toys that can redirect this behavior include lightweight and movable items—things that can bounce and move around, such as toys that hang from a doorknob or top of a door. However, we need to remind owners that to continually enrich the environment, they may need to rotate the location of toys as well as change the type of toy tor variety. After the cat has played with the bouncing toy tor a while, owners can hide a toy in a laundry basket, making sure that the toy is light enough for the cat to retrieve and then play with using its feet, or they can stimulate the cat's sense of smell by hiding treats under a chair. The cat will soon learn that its environment is going to be novel and exciting and, because the cat has been engaged in stalking, preying, and bouncing activities during the day (Figure 2), it typically becomes less inclined to pounce on an owner who is returning home.
We need to advise owners, however, that to encourage stalking behavior, the toy ideally will resemble prey (that is, be lightweight and movable). Owners must exercise caution to be sure that toys are too large to be ingested and are indestructible, especially with young, active kittens that are inclined to chew and rip apart any soft, pliable item. Finally, owners should never use parts of their body, such as hands and feet, when playing with their
cat. This encourages interactions that could lead to inadvertent injury to a person and should be discouraged.

Neilson: Owners also need to be cautioned about toys containing catnip. Some cats lack the neurochemical ability to respond to catnip. Cats that do respond have various reactions—from being very mellow, relaxed, and seemingly happy to aggression. Thus, owners need to observe their cat's individual reaction to a toy containing catnip and use it with caution or not at all if the cat gets highly aroused.

Simpson: Returning to the scenario presented, this owner could modify the cat's behavior by using a special play-toy as a reward during training. The owner can retrain the cat by repeatedly entering and exiting the door, training the cat to sit on arrival by giving it a treat, and then rewarding the cat with a favorite play toy while the owner gets organized, takes off a coat, or the like. Then when the owner has some free time, more interactive owner-pet activities can become part of an enriched routine that the cat enjoys. Solving behavioral problems involves working with the lifestyle of the owner so that you can help the pet and pet owner become compatible.

Neilson: Another trick to suggest to owners is having them carry a package of fluffy balls in the car and, before entering the home, open the door, and toss a ball inside. The cat's behavior may then be redirected from attacking the owner's ankle to chasing the ball.

Luescher: A twist on that is to purchase balls that are irregularly shaped or not centrically weighted so that they do not go in a straight line when the cat swats them.

Landsberg: Selecting balls with different textures or visual cues that flash different colors as they turn or make unique sounds can also be stimulating and can divert the cat's attention away from an owner's ankles. What are some other examples of how play can modify feline behavioral problems?

Luescher: Compulsive disorders are another group of behavioral problems that can be modified by rotating toys or using training methods that use reward toys. A compulsive disorder involves behavior that is conducted out of context or is repetitive, such as a cat developing
self-mutilating habits—biting its tail or over-grooming— or a cat that is circling repeatedly. In these cases, we suggest that owners occupy the cat's time with other activities as much as possible and practice mental stimulation. As part of the treatment regimen, we ask that owners set aside time on a regular basis several times a day. We tell owners it is important to make the toys interesting and give instructions on how to make some toys (see Tips on Creating Toys from Household items), along with recommendations for rotating them.

Strengthening the Social Bond

Landsberg: Perhaps we need to consider daily time budgeting and providing some routine during the day to ensure that a cat's needs are entirely "satisfied." This would include playing with toys as an outlet for the pre-
dation and energy release, maintaining an appropriate feeding schedule, and ensuring sufficient elimination at resting stations. Thus, the remainder of the cat's day can be spent resting and sleeping rather than engaging in compulsive or stereotypic behavior. A healthy social relationship, or bond, between the cat and owner or cat and other pets is also a key element in reducing problem behavior (Figure 3).

Tips on Creating Toys from Household Items

• Suspend balls or other homemade toys from door handles.
• Place empty paper bags in individual stations or throughout the house.
• Place a table tennis ball inside a shoebox. Then, in one side, make holes that are slightly smaller than the ball and tape the shoebox shut.Cats enjoy tossing the shoebox around as well as batting the ball around through the holes or attempting to free the ball.
• Take a tall box and, in the sides and bottom, make holes large enough for a cat's paw to fit through. Then suspend several toys or different-sized balls from the top of the box.

Horwitz: Likewise, if there is a change in the social bonding environment, behavioral problems can surface. The change could be that a new cat was introduced to the household or a preferred associate has passed away. Possibly the human household bonding has changed, with a single person introducing a spouse or a newborn being brought home from the hospital. The cat may feel at a loss or become anxious when the social situation changes. Elimination problems or other unwanted behaviors may arise as a result. By incorporating play and enrichment activities into the daily schedule, the owner can refocus the social bonding energy and help the cat regain a sense of equilibrium.
Although we have emphasized diversification when selecting toys, owners need to understand that animals feel more comfortable with scheduled routines. They like to know what is going to happen and when and can become frustrated or anxious if profound changes are introduced. Often owners interpret the unwanted behavioral problem as the cat being spiteful or mean when likely it is frustrated and scared. Play and environmental enrichment can help change these problems. If the owner is able to set aside time on a regular basis for interaction and play, the cat will ->
learn to expect the interaction and often becomes more relaxed and less anxious.

Neilson: Play is also routinely used to manage problems with aggression toward another cat in the household. When such issues arise, we tell owners to separate the cats and begin what we call desensitizatian and countercondition-ing: The cats are gradually reintroduced (desensitization), and toys are used to condition them to feel something other than aggression—happiness, satisfaction, or contentment (counterconditioning). When cats are gradually reintroduced, initially it should be a visual contact only, with no actual physical contact for short periods, making each visual meeting gradually longer. During this time, each cat should have access to a favorite toy.

Landsberg: Another technique involving toys is correcting attention-seeking behaviors. An example is a cat awakening its owners in the middle of the night or over-vocalizing to gain the owners' attention. Cats should be more active at dusk and dawn, and perhaps a behavioral problem is linked to the cat failing to engage in sufficient activity at these times ot day. To modify this behavior, the owners need to keep the cat awake—don't let it nap—during these hours by playing with it. If a cat continues to wake up in the middle of the night or engage in overvo-calization, the owners should not reinforce the behavior by playing with the cat.

Luescher: In some instances, owners may be awakened early in the morning because the cat needs to be fed. They may be reluctant to have food available free-choice in dishes because of concerns that doing so will lead to obesity. Thus, food-dispensing toys are an ideal way to resolve any feeding issues that may be introducing vocalization or activity in the early-morning hours.

Horwitz: Food dispensers on timers are also available to help with requests for food at inconvenient times. In addition to offering food-dispensing toys, owners can create feeding stations that are designed to handle the needs of either a cat that is too thin or an obese cat—both in the same household. The feeding station may have a door that is secured so that only the thin cat can fit through, or the owner could place a gate across a doorway that has an opening high enough off the floor for the thin cat to wiggle underneath but too high for the obese cat to jump over.

Landsberg: In addition, electronic doors activated by a cat collar are available. Only the cat wearing the collar can enter or exit the door. Thus, each cat can have its own feeding station or food-dispensing and other toys designed to meet the individual needs of that cat.

Simpson: In multi-cat households, such use of differential space is important, as one or more cats may otherwise monopolize a vast majority of living space, relegating other cats to restricted space. An extreme situation is the cat that, because of antagonism from feline housemates, spends most of its time under the bed or on top of the refrigerator. Such cats, sometimes called pariah cats, are effectively ostracized from all social interactions. They need special attention from the owner in the absence of the more controlling cats. Owners need to encourage these cats to join in positive and active interactions. Prey-like toys that lure the cat from its retreat may be effective.

Enhancing Mental and Social Well-Being

Landsberg: How can toys and enrichment activity-enhance the mental well-being of a cat'

Simpson: A prime example is what we call petting aggression (Figure 4)- For instance, a cat accepts the owner petting it for 5 seconds but objects to the owner petting it for 10 seconds. If the cat wants to remain in the owner's lap but does not want to be petted, it may nip or bite the owner rather than jumping off the owner's
lap. On the other hand, the owner wants to pet the cat in an effort to strengthen the pet-owner bond. To resolve the conflict, we need to encourage such owners to look for more constructive ways to interact with the cat. Attempting to force the petting heyond the 5 seconds creates an unpleasant environment, and eventually the cat could develop a more destructive behavior or reaction to being petted. The object is both to please the pet and find satisfactory ways in which the owner can successfully interact with the cat. This can be accomplished through toys that both the cat and owner enjoy.

Horwitz: The indoor environment definitely affects a cat's mental health and welfare. As previously mentioned, if a cat lives outdoors, its daily routine and time budget would reflect certain activities. Owners often assume that it is normal for a cat to sleep 18 hours a day and that it chooses to do so. In reality, the cat may not be living in an enriched environment that provides a
variety of stimuli and encourages activity and exercise and thus fosters mental and behavioral health. Reemphasizing with owners the importance of having access to an environment filled with toys, platforms, and marking/scratching posts can improve the mental and physical wellness of the animal.

Simpson: In veterinary school, the motto was "motion is lotion." Cats that become somewhat sedentary may eventually become increasingly more sedentary—a "use it or lose it" scenario in which a certain pattern intensifies. However, we also need to encourage owners to enrich the household of indoor cats because they do tend to live longer and healthier lives. These cats do not run the risk of traumatic events, such as being hit by a car or catching diseases from other feral cats.

Neilson: Unfortunately, if an indoor cat develops a behavioral problem that cannot be resolved by the owners, they may choose to isolate the cat and/or put it outside. Often the problem may arise because of a poorly enriched environment. Furthermore, if this cat becomes chronically stressed as a result, the stress could negatively compromise the immune system and lead to illnesses.

Landsberg: Chronic stress and anxiety can also cause or contribute to the development of behavioral problems, including compulsive disorders and house-soiling. Stress and anxiety might be greatly minimized by providing a more enriched and stimulating environment. By encouraging appropriate play, climbing, perching, and elimination, the cat may be prevented from engaging in undesirable behavior. The environment affects a cat's health and well-being in other ways too. For example, obesity, which we mentioned earlier, occurs when there are more calories in than calories out. Often, an indoor cat fails to burn sufficient calories because it is provided with high-quality, calorie-dense food without the need to search and hunt. By using toys that require manipulation to deliver food or hiding food in different locations around the house, the cat will expend more time, energy, and calories in obtaining food. Chronic stress—physical or environmental—likewise can lead to obesity as well as to behav-
ioral problems. A lot of problems are related to underlying anxiety and chronic stressors.

Horwitz: As mentioned earlier, an isolated indoor cat could develop unwanted behaviors, such as spraying, scratching, or being destructive. By creating an environment that the cat can control through play time, interactive toys, and feeding toys,
the owner is simultaneously creating a sense of mental well-being. Cats are very social, and
often owners get cats because they are seemingly easy to care for and do not have a lot of needs. But cats do have needs that must be addressed, including social and activity needs, and owners therefore must recognize and deal with them accordingly.

Landsberg: It seems abundantly clear from our discussion today that providing an environment that fully meets all of the cat's social, exploration, climbing, scratching, eating, elimination, and resting needs can lead to a more contented pet and considerably reduce problem behavior. In particular, the use of toys may greatly enhance the pet-owner relationship and provide opportunity for play and predation that might not otherwise be available in an indoor environment.