If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that our lives are exponentially better with pets in them. Our pets have had more prominent roles in our lives as they’ve become work-from-home office mates and constant companions. For many pet owners, the bond has never been stronger.
In some ways, we’ve all become cats, haven’t we? Staying at home most of the time, and occasionally popping outside just long enough to bask in a sun ray before darting back into safety. Just like cats, we’ve had to find new ways to enrich our own lives, to connect with others, maintain physical and mental health and find happiness in a simpler existence.
In reflecting on the past year through the eyes of my own cat, Toots Banjo, I have to believe she’d mark it as one of the best years of her life, and also one of the most exhausting.
It’s given me a newfound respect for cats, who often lead somewhat solitary and predictable lives, and renewed my professional interest in doing more to help cat owners connect with their feline friends on a deeper level. While I can turn on Netflix, call a friend or play with my daughter to stay connected, our cats rely on us for enrichment to keep them engaged, entertained and emotionally fulfilled.
By putting ourselves in the shoes – or paws – of our pets, we can open up a whole new world of ways we can make their world better. Here are a few ways to approach pet enrichment through empathy:
Appeal to your cat’s instincts: Cats are natural hunters, so give them something to hunt. Instead of pouring their food into a bowl, which is predictable, divide it up and hide it throughout a room for your cat to ‘hunt.’
Keep the claws in: If you’ve ever discovered the unmistakable destruction of a favorite piece of furniture at the claws of your cat, you’ve already learned this lesson. You can never have too many scratching posts. Scratching and clawing are natural behaviors, and by offering your cat a variety of surfaces just for him/her, you’ll reduce the chances of future destruction.
Design spaces with cats in mind: It’s no secret that cats prefer a bird’s eye view. Whether you opt for a cat tree or put up cat friendly shelves for your cat to sit, play and lay on, vertical space will help make your cat feel like the king of the jungle, or at least the living room.
Talk to your pets: Our pets want to be acknowledged. Build verbal connections with your pets by reading emails out loud or verbally praising your pet throughout the day. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve made it a habit to read to my pets, and over time I’ve noticed them being more engaged with me.
Let him catch the laser: None of us want to play a game we can’t win, and our cats are no different. When playing with feather wands or even laser pointers, make sure you let your cat ‘catch’ their prey and offer rewards like treats and praise.
Make old spaces new again: Cats are natural explorers, whether they are exploring a box or an entire room. For many pets, boredom can lead to increased vocalization, negative behaviors or ongoing interruptions like strolls along your keyboard while you’re on a deadline. To keep your pets distracted and minimize work interruptions, hide treats in a box or basket with packaging paper to incentivize cats to stay in the box/basket. If you want to go bigger, shut the door to the room you work in for 3-5 days and then reopen it to your pet with treats and new toys for them to explore.
Spend uninterrupted time together: One of my colleagues, Dr. Ragen McGowan, did a study a few years ago to understand the emotional impact that 15-minutes of focused and uninterrupted volunteer attention has on shelter dogs. The result was that after just a short time, the dogs were happier. What about cats? I’m currently doing some qualitative research with a group of pet owners to understand the impact that uninterrupted one-on-one attention and petting has on their dogs and cats, and so far, the feedback is promising.
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as well as our pets over the last year. The bond we share with our pets is truly special, and our pets deserve dedicated time and attention to make sure they are living their best lives. While our pets might be directly involved in a small part of our lives, to them we are their whole life. It’s our job to love and care for them. After all, home is where your cat (or dog) is.
Alex Johnson is a senior designer and pet enrichment specialist at Purina who has dedicated her career to improving animal welfare by engineering for animal safety and coordinating and designing enrichment products and activities for captive exotic and companion animals. She has worked both here in the USA and internationally with zoos, animal rescues and companion animal organizations in designing, consulting and coordinating enrichment. She has also engineered award-winning pet safety devices and the first crash-test dog, now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Alex lives in St. Louis with her husband, daughter and their Blue Heeler rescue named Namatjira, cat named Toots Banjo and four chickens Lemon, Biggie, Dolly and Nugget.