Pets

Boredom can be bad for your cat's health — here's how you can help

Playtime and food puzzles are just some of the ways to keep your cat entertained and engaged.

Playtime and food puzzles are just some of the ways to keep your cat entertained and engaged

A cute white and gray cat hanging on the edge of a desk.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Between the hours of seven and eight in the morning, my cat wakes me up with head bonks, purrs and tummy cuddles. Around nine, I spot him staring out of the large windows of my downtown condo, eyeing pigeons and passersby. By 10 o'clock, he's got a case of the zoomies, darting across the living room, stopping to hide behind the couch, preparing to pounce on me. Finally, he'll speed his way to my bedroom, kicking up the hallway runner in the process.

Sometimes I play with him, but other times, I'm forced to get straight to work — much to his disappointment (even though I often work from home).

Then it's suspiciously silent until about two o'clock in the afternoon, when I hear him meowing at the door and see him pawing at its handle, looking back at me with big, hopeful eyes. Does he want to go for a walk or is he simply seeking to satisfy his hunter instincts?

Or perhaps he's bored. 

We've painted a picture of domestic cats as creatures who sleep for 20 hours of the day, knock things off our tables and counters, and swipe or bite at us when we scratch their tummies. We chalk it up to cats being temperamental, when these could actually be signs that your cat is bored and understimulated. If these actions seem familiar to you and your feline friend, then pay attention. The good news is that there are some easy things you can do to help their mood.

Signs that your cat is bored

I talked to Dr. Claudia Richter, a Vancouver-based veterinarian at Pacific Veterinary Behaviour Consulting, who said one of the biggest signs that your cat may be bored is that they sleep a lot, which to most people may seem like typical cat behaviour, but according to Richter, it's not.

"Sleeping 12 hours or 20 hours a day is not a normal thing for a cat."

A brown and white cat with their front paws stretched out sleeping on top of another sleeping cat in a cat tree hammock by a window.
Two cats rest very close together in their cat tree hammock. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Richter explained that a cat's daily cycle used to include hunting, catching, playing, eating, grooming and sleeping. They'd do this cycle between eight and 12 times a day, she said. But since we've developed a routine of feeding kibble or wet food to our cats out of a metal bowl, the activities of hunting and catching are just being replaced by more sleep.

That still leaves playing, eating and grooming in their routine, right? But if you start to notice that they've stopped engaging in those activities as well, then you should be concerned, Richter said.

The vet advised that another sign to look out for is if your cat is trying to get your attention by any means necessary. This can include meowing incessantly, chewing on things, knocking stuff off tables, peeing outside their litter box or other destructive behaviour. These attention-seeking tactics may be signs of anxiety that your furry friend is trying to communicate to you, which could lead to more serious problems down the road.

A brown and grey tabby cat caught playing with rolls of toilet paper, on a wooden background.
Cute cat caught playing with rolls of toilet paper. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Risks of unchecked boredom

Depression is "really difficult" to diagnose in cats, Richter explained, because they're unable to verbally express their thoughts. However, anxiety can be seen in their behaviour and actions — or inactions, in some cases. 

Calgary animal behaviourist Rory O'Neill claimed that "[your cat's] mental health is not as good if they're not stimulated," listing incessant meowing, pacing a lot and uncontrollable urination and marking in your home as some signs to keep an eye out for. Both experts agreed that if you notice any of these cues, it may be time to visit your vet in case your cat is at risk of something more severe.

"If [boredom] goes unchecked," Richter added, "[your cat] can develop medical disorders such as obesity, which is a huge problem in household cats" that can eventually lead to feline diabetes.

So, what can you do about it?

Curbing a cat's boredom before it becomes critical is not a difficult thing to do. One of the easiest — and most fun — things an owner can do is dedicate some time to playing. 

"You should plan into your day that you play with your cat at least five or 10 minutes, once or twice a day," Richter suggested.

A long-haired, stripped Siberian cat playing with a feathered ball cat toy on a string with a smiling woman on a couch.
Playful Siberian cat enjoying playing on the sofa with their owner. (Getty Images)

Playtime allows your cat to expend the energy that would go into hunting and catching, without unleashing them out in the wild, endangering birds and other small animals.

There are also a number of cat products and activities out there that are designed to amuse, entertain and keep your furry pals engaged. But which ones are best equipped to rescue your kitty from the brink of boredom?

Leash-walking your cat

Richter said this depends on your cat's comfort level, and O'Neill agreed. Going for a walk outside is a great way to allow your cat to explore and be stimulated, but the activity certainly isn't every cat's cup of tea. Be aware of the risks and do your research. Alternatively, cat backpack carriers are another option, which may be more up your cat's alley.

Catios

If you have the means to build a safe and functional "catio" — that's "cat" plus "patio," by the way — you should consider it. "A catio, if it's safely built, is going to be good for almost any cat," Richter said, "because it just expands their world a little bit … especially when we're talking about apartment cats that may not have access to a backyard." Your cat will have the benefit of enjoying the outdoors from the safety of your home.

"Catios are terrific!" O'Neill added. "If anybody can build one, they should."

Food puzzles

This is a fun and easy way to challenge your cat when they cannot hunt for their own food. According to Richter, you might have to try out a few different food puzzles before you find the right one for your cat — but the effort will pay off.

A brown and cream-coloured cat plays with a cat food puzzle on a table.
Clever and persistent cat playing with pet puzzle and trying to earn the treats. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Multi-cat homes

Believe it or not, O'Neill said, "[cats] are social creatures." Having multiple cats interacting with one another in your home can create a wonderful environment for everyone.

"I really encourage people to have more than one cat," the behaviourist said. But make sure you have the space and the resources to support all your animals.

Music playlists

This might not cure their boredom, but soothing and peaceful music could help cats with their anxiety, according to Richter. She shared that a lot of research has been done on the calming effects of music in humans, so she has recommended music to aid cats suffering from anxiety as well.

Videos and apps for cats

Do cats know that the giant bird on the screen is fake? Or that the little animated fish that swims across the tablet is not real? Richter suggested trying it out with your cats. But she also pointed out that they may become frustrating for your furry friend, who cannot physically grab the onscreen object they're watching. The same can be said about laser pointers, which can provide a burst of exercise for your cat, until they get irritated and disengage.

A white and black spotted cat with its mouth wide open, sitting in front of an iPad on a sofa.
(Photo by Kanashi on Unsplash)

Through energetic playtime, challenging food puzzles and other activities that mimic their natural behaviours, you can easily engage and stimulate your cat a little more. I know the next time I see my little guy really itching to play, I'll indulge him. Work can wait a few more minutes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Villagracia is a writer and producer for CBC Life and CBC Arts who loves to bake and uses movie quotes to express real human emotions. Follow her on Instagram @mivi3k.

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