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Couch Potato Cats

Stimulating Inactive, Bored and Overweight Cats Through Environmental Enrichment

Indoor Cats, Enjoying the Life of Riley
Outdoor Behavior
Hunting and Playing
Happy and Healthy

Indoor Cats, Enjoying the Life of Riley

Ah, the life of indoor cats. All of their meals are provided. They needn't worry about predators. They sleep and eat, then eat and sleep. Their biggest decision is where to nap next. What could be better?

Unfortunately, the sedentary lifestyle of many indoor cats creates a life of inactivity and boredom, causing weight gain, even obesity, and sometimes leading them to act out by not using litter boxes or attacking housemates. This is not good for our feline friends. Overweight and obese cats are at a much higher risk for many diseases and health problems, and behaving inappropriately is the No. 1 reason people give up their cats.

How can we help our couch potato kitties get up off their tails? By giving them interesting, entertaining environments. Cats, especially indoor cats, need stimulation and recreation, or "environmental enrichment," as it is called, to maintain good physical and mental health and to minimize behavioral problems.

Understanding cats' instincts and observing how they behave when they're outdoors in their natural environment will help identify ways we can give our indoor cats a more enriched environment.

Outdoor Behavior

What are cats' natural instincts? Watch what they do when they're outdoors. In addition to eating, they hunt, explore, climb and watch. These behaviors are necessary to ensure survival in the wild.

But if the outdoors provides the stimulation and recreation cats need to be healthy and happy, why not just let our cats go outside?

That's something that is frequently debated. At Cat Hospital of Chicago, we highly recommend that all cats be kept indoors with only supervised exposure to the outdoors and with absolutely no contact with cats or other animals when outside because:

  • Indoor cats are healthier and live longer than cats that are allowed outdoors.
  • When outdoors, cats could be attacked by other animals (dogs, coyotes, raccoons) or hit by a car (they don't know to avoid ongoing traffic).
  • Cats allowed outdoors are exposed to numerous health risks and dangers, including internal parasites (roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms), external parasites (fleas, ear mites), incurable viral diseases (feline leukemia, FIV), dangerous chemicals and poisons (antifreeze, lawn chemicals, rat poison), frostbite, hypothermia (low body temperature), freezing, even cruel people who would harm a cat if given the chance.
  • Outdoor cats can transmit some parasites and diseases to indoor-only cats.

Even high-rise patios, decks and balconies are not safe. Cats will chase birds or bugs without understanding the potential life-threatening consequences a fall from any floor could have.

There are some safe ways to let indoor cats enjoy being outdoors, including enclosures and cat/pet strollers. Some cats even can be leash- or harness-trained and will go for walks or roam around a yard while tethered. Not everyone lives in homes where outdoor access is possible, however, or where these options are feasible.

So can measures be taken to encourage outdoor behaviors in appropriate ways indoors? Absolutely!

Bear in mind it's not the actual outdoors that cats need, it's the entertainment elements and mental stimulation they get from the outdoors. Bringing those things inside will get indoor cats up off the couch and enjoying a healthy, stimulating, enriched life.

Hunting and Playing

Since cats first graced the earth with their presence they have had to hunt to survive, so hunting is one of the most basic instincts all cats have. Even cats that have lived exclusively indoors know how to stalk and pounce. Although indoor cats might not need to hunt for their meals, they still enjoy chasing and capturing prey,  but when they're inside, it's all in the name of play.

Many cats have a prey of choice, some prefer to catch birds while others would rather chase mice or bugs. But you don't need to bring live critters into your home to determine which your feline favors. Try an assortment of toys and see how your cat responds.

  • Dangle or wave a feather toy or another suspended object to simulate a bird.
  • Pull a string with a knot on the end of it across the floor or shine a laser pointer on the floor and make it jitter to resemble bugs. Just be careful to not point the laser in the eyes of any people or animals.
  • Toss a furry mouse or roll a fuzzy ball down a hallway to mimic a mouse running away.

When you've identified your cat's favorite prey, choose toys with similar characteristics.
If your cat loses interest, try a similar, new toy, or try a different kind of prey toy, your cat may enjoy a variety!

Other popular commercial cat toys are:

  • catnip toys (socks, pillows, balls)
  • Cat Dancer (a flexible wire with a lure on the end)
  • fishing pole-type toys (sticks or wands with a dangling toy).

Not all store-bought toys are safe, however. Avoid ones that are small enough for a cat to swallow and those with yarn, strings, buttons, small bells or other little parts that cats can chew off and swallow. These can cause life-threatening intestinal obstructions or pose choking hazards. And be sure to put all fishing pole-type toys away when you're done playing so your cat doesn't ingest the cord.

Another good toy to help get your cat moving is one that offers a reward, such as a treat ball, which releases food when the cat pushes it around. Or, play fetch with your cat's dry food or treats. Toss a few pieces across the floor and watch your kitty go after them. You also can hide food in different locations for your cat to find, which simulates hunting.

Cats also like simple toys, such as:

  • crumpled balls of paper (never use tin foil)
  • plastic rings from milk or orange juice jugs
  • ping-pong balls
  • socks stuffed with cotton balls (include some catnip!) and tied at the end

Whether store-bought or homemade, anything that cats can bat around, carry, chase, capture, roll, pounce on, toss in the air or bite will help keep your cat active and healthy.

Whatever toys your cat prefers, provide a nice variety. And like children, cats will tire of their toys. To keep your cat from getting bored with them, don't leave the toys out all the time and regularly alternate the ones your kitty is allowed to play with.

A note about kittens and playing: Stalking and pouncing play behaviors are very important for kittens, they perform an essential role in a kitten's proper muscular development. If given a sufficient outlet for these behaviors with toys, kittens will be less likely to use family members for these activities. So be sure to give your kitten plenty of toys to play with!


What happens when you open a closet door or a low-level cabinet? Is your feline front and center, wanting to see what's inside? Cats are curious creatures, and they love to explore.

To give your cat some new territory to investigate, set out paper bags (no handles, please!), cardboard boxes or commercially available tunnels. Some cats even like cat carriers! All these also make excellent hiding places.

Another option is to open closets or rooms that are normally shut off to your cat. Just be sure the contents are safe.


Anyone who has a cat knows that cats often can be found on top of cabinets, refrigerators, window ledges and bookcases. Cats love to climb. In the outdoors, being up high lets cats survey their environment and watch for both prey and predators. In addition, sleeping in high places provides a cat with a sense of security, since they're safely out of reach of predators.

Although indoor cats' survival doesn't depend on catching prey or avoiding predators, they never lose these instincts.

Cat trees and wall-mounted perches and catwalks give indoor cats lots of climbing and napping options.

Cat trees come in a wide variety of sizes, colors and styles. Avoid models that aren't safe, sturdy or that are likely to tip or fall over when a cat jumps on or off.

Wall-mounted perches and catwalks have the advantage of not taking up living space, but they also need to be sturdy, and they need to be mounted securely.

Having multiple cat trees, perches or catwalks lets kitties watch the action from a variety of vantage points, and it increases available vertical space, which can be helpful in keeping peace in homes with more than one king of the jungle.


Another favorite activity of cats is watching, they love to watch things that move. Many cats can sit and watch the outdoors for hours. Some even like to watch television!

To provide visual entertainment for your cat:

  • Place cat trees near windows.
  • Install window beds or windowsill perches.
  • Place furniture, such as a couch, sofa, chair or sturdy table in front of a window so your cat can sit on it to see outside.
  • Set up a bird feeder near a large window, but not so close the birds will feel threatened.
  • Plant flowers that will attract butterflies, bees or other insects outside your windows.
  • Play commercially available, cat-tested and approved videos.
  • Set a timer on your television so favorite nature programs or videos come on at specific times.

If neighborhood or stray cats are a common sight outside of your home, you might not want to give your cat access to windows where they can see those interlopers. Some cats become agitated and act out inappropriately if they see other cats.

Happy and Healthy

Providing an interesting environment is important for your cat's mental and physical well-being and happiness. Environmental enrichment is available to suit the tastes of all cats, and on any budget. Consider your cat's pleasures and preferences to create an environment rich with the entertainment and stimulation your cat needs and deserves.

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