Environmental enrichment for New Zealand cats

Lately there has been an exciting boom in posts, blogs, popular articles, tweets, and even a journal article [1], illuminating the benefits of environmental enrichment for pet cats. There are entire websites (e.g. food puzzles for cats) dedicated to helping cat owners find ways to positively enrich the lives of their pet(s).

The concept of environmental enrichment is not new; zoological parks and laboratory animal facilities have been using enrichment programmes as a means of alleviating boredom and negative mental states in captive populations for some time [2-4]. The 2015 World Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Animal Welfare Strategy has an entire chapter dedicated to environmental enrichment [5].

Interactive ‘food puzzles’ used for zoo animals are easily translated to our pet felines [1]. The authors of this journal article are based in North America, where the fact that a large proportion of pet cats are kept indoors means their feline populations could also be regarded as ‘captive’ animals. However, even for our largely ‘free-ranging’ New Zealand cats, there are benefits to providing them with more opportunities for positive affective engagement.

‘Positive affective engagement’ happens when animals are able to respond to motivations they have to behave in ways they find rewarding [6]. The animal is engaged and experiencing positive ‘affects’ or mental states (e.g. happiness, playfulness). Therefore, environmental enrichment involves providing these opportunities for animals to respond behaviourally to their environment and/or other animals.

In addition to food puzzles, there is another enrichment activity that cat owners could take from zoos (and dog owners!); reward-based training. Yes, cats can be trained. Drs John Bradshaw (@petsandus) and Sarah Ellis (@sarahlhellis) have written a book (The Trainable Cat) to show us how to do this. I am excited to read (and use) it! There is also an excellent ‘train your cat’ series of videos, which demonstrates how you can train your cat to like its cat carrier, be good at the vet, and even come back to you. Julie Hecht (@DogSpies) would also like you to know cats are open to training and takes us through the steps she took with her cat and a new sofa. Training could be another opportunity to provide cats with opportunities for positive affective engagement. Zazie Todd (@CompAnimalPsych) summarises reward-based training in an excellent blog post ‘Reward-based training is for all our pets’. It’s not just for dogs or animals in captivity.

The life of a domesticated cat is essentially a ‘dumbed down’ version of their wild cousins. In place of long hours spent hunting for food, they are instead provided with energy-dense cat biscuits and meat from a can. They need to expend this unused energy somehow and this can often result in negative behavioural consequences, including (but not limited to); bullying of other cats in the household (a problem in my house) or stalking and torturing wildlife. This last issue is particularly problematic given the conservation status of much of New Zealand’s native birdlife. Environmental enrichment for our cats; using toys, food puzzles, and training, could be the answer.

My Experiences

My husband and I are currently owned by two ‘free-range’ (during the day) cats. Our male ginger can be a bit of a bully towards our female tabby. This is much worse when he is bored. On days when we have not made efforts to entertain him, and/or the rain stops him frolicking outdoors, he is relentless with his attacks on his fluffy sister. However, when one (or both) of us has the energy to play with him his sister is free to roam without fear of sudden ginger attack. With the recent addition of a slow feeder bowl, he now has to expend more energy eating than he had to previously. The ginger attacks have again reduced.

We long ago taught him to ‘sit’ on command – he is very amenable to food-based rewards. This was as far as we went with him. However, with all this excitement surrounding cat training I am keen to try some more tricks! My husband rolls his eyes and calls me crazy when I ask the ginger for his paw in exchange for a treat. I think the cat will have the last laugh though – he is getting more and more compliant…

Version 2
The ginger lies in wait

Environmental enrichment strategies, such as food puzzles and reward-based training, can (and should) be used for outdoor cats too.


  1. Dantas, L.M., et al., Food puzzles for cats: Feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2016. 18(9): p. 723-732.
  2. Mellor, D.J., Affective states and the assessment of laboratory-induced animal welfare impacts, in ALTEX. 2011.
  3. Fraser, D., Understanding animal welfare: the science in its cultural context. UFAW Animal Welfare Series, ed. J.K. Kirkwood and R.C. Hubrecht. 2008, Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. Young, R.J., Environmental enrichment for captive animals. 2003, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science.
  5. WAZA, Chapter 3: Environmental Enrichment, in Caring for Wildlife: The World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, D.J. Mellor, Hunt, S. & Gusset, M., Editor. 2015, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Executive Office: Gland, Switzerland p. 34.
  6. Mellor, D.J., Enhancing animal welfare by creating opportunities for positive affective engagement. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 2015. 63(1): p. 3-8.