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Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

By Karen Asp

Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

This scenario may be all too familiar: An unsuspecting cat owner comes home from work to find that his or her once well-behaved feline has tipped over a houseplant, batted everything off the home office desk and pulled a foot-long thread from the living room curtains. What’s the scoop? Simply put, kitty could be bored.

Understanding Cat Boredom
To understand the behavior of a cat, consider what goes on in zoos. Several decades ago, zoo animals were often just given food and water and left to sit in their cages. Now, zookeepers devise numerous enrichment activities, encouraging the animals to hunt for food and even playing games with them.

“Today’s cats are like yesterday’s zoo animals -- they stay home without much to do and rarely use their instincts to hunt, explore, play and interact,” says Steve Duno, a pet behaviorist in Seattle and author of Be the Cat (Sterling 2008). “As a result, they get a little nutty.”

While bored cats can exhibit destructive and antisocial behaviors, they might also demonstrate less obvious symptoms, including depression, excessive grooming, skin disorders, hypervocalization, house-training accidents, overeating and excessive sleeping. 

Inspiration From Zoos
So what’s the solution? “Open your own zoo, so to speak, by offering your cat behavioral and environmental enrichments,” Duno says. However, instead of overwhelming your cat with these enrichments, introduce a few at a time.

In addition, don’t adopt a kitten to entertain your cat, especially if your cat is older and not used to other animals. “You’ll only create more problems,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (Cattledog Publishing 2009).

Cures for Kitty Doldrums
If your own cat seems stuck in a dreary rut, and any underlying health problems have been ruled out by your veterinarian, our experts advise the following:

Make your pet work for its food By nature, cats are hunters, which is why constantly putting their food in bowls or free-feeding may cause boredom. Instead, make it a game for them to find food. Dr. Yin recommends cutting 2-inch-high openings in a shoe box, making sure the openings go to the bottom of the box. Place your cat’s dry food under the box and let your furry pal bat it out. You can also use balls that hold food.

Train your cat “If you’re not free-feeding, cats are easy to train, and the training provides stimulation,” says Dr. Yin. She likes to train cats to “sit” and “come” for when they’re hungry enough to eat treats. To train your cat to sit, hold a treat away from your pet and wait until your cat sits. Then put the treat right up to your cat’s mouth and give it to your pet. If that doesn’t work, push the treat from your cat’s nose to right above its head, which should prompt a seated position. If your cat remains seated, reward with another treat. Now walk away while saying “come.” Your cat should follow you. Repeat the instructions for sitting to return your cat to a seated position. Be sure to reward with treats when warranted. Later, you can use these commands to distract your pet whenever it misbehaves.

Put kitty on the trail If possible, hide food -- or other smell-good items -- around the house to stimulate your cat’s olfactory sense and to excite its hunting drive. For instance, leave scent trails throughout the house. Drop a little lavender oil or cinnamon in various places, leading your cat to a treat. You can also hide catnip or place an evergreen bough out of reach of your cat.

Provide visual stimulation If possible, hang bird feeders near windows or a mobile from the ceiling -- out of paw reach -- for your cat to view. An aquarium or cat-themed DVDs are good for entertainment and companionship. You can also try rearranging the furniture to spark kitty investigations.

Boost the fun factor Set up scratching posts and leave out interactive toys. One caveat? “Rotate the toys so your cat doesn’t get bored seeing the same one,” Duno says.

Your cat should respond almost immediately to these enrichment activities. Not only will you notice that it is more interested in its environment, but you should also start to see behavioral improvements. Duno concludes, “Now that you’ve followed the lead of today’s zookeepers and provided a more stimulating environment for your cat, you’ll probably even notice that your cat is happier and more content with life.”

Karen Asp covers health, fitness, nutrition and pets for numerous publications, including Prevention, Woman's Day, Shape, Self, Fitness, Health, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping and Natural Health. She shares her office with two cats.


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Posted on November 24, 2009

Melissa says: Our 7mo male cat wakes us up every morning at 4am. We have tried the spray bottle, o short shower in the sink, and multiple other things to make him stop mewing and scratching at the door at 4am. My husband is talking about giving him away, HELP!!!

Posted on November 9, 2009

Marilyn says: why is cat always putting her toys in water dish?

Posted on November 5, 2009

cathy kieger says: good afternoon - I have 2 kittens they are getting on the counters and knocking over my plants, I tried contact paper and foil and even used a squirt bottle. can you please tell me what to do next. thank you

Posted on October 8, 2009

bobbie says: my kitten has ruined my screens with holes in them will he stop this too? he is after the bees. thanks

Posted on October 28, 2009

Stephanie says: I use a spray bottle to stop my cats from doing things they are not supposed to. All I have to do is shake the bottle now at my 5 yr old cats and they stop the bad behavior. My two 1yr old cats are still learning. But they are starting to listen better. They have learned what NO means and they know they will get wet when they get on the counter. Only if their curiosity is larger than their fear of the spray bottle will they get on the counters now. :)

Posted on September 19, 2009

kitymow says: we have 2 kittens,1boy & 1 girl about 1mo. apart in age 61/2-71/2mo.old all of a sudden they both started kneeding the blanket while sucking like their nursing as a kitten. Is this a form of teething? they don't live in the same household but recently both have started this odd behavior.Can U please explain!!!!

Posted on October 8, 2009

bobbie says: my kitten of 6 mo has been a terrorshe climbs curtains walls blinds how can i stop him he is a fetal one.when do they stop

Posted on September 15, 2009

Lyndda says: 1) As to the biting at your legs... it is trying to get your attention. If it does hurt - they don't realize it and you just need to let them know by saying "ow"... and/or "no". .2) Never play rough with your kittens like you would a puppy... they confuse it when they get older and can get a mean streak and not realize it.. playing and hurting. if they start kicking with their back feet or biting too hard.... say "no" and/or blow in their face gently - if they are in a position (their back) for you to be able to blow. 3) We purchased two 6 month old kittens... they were like having toddlers in the house. We had to put child locks on the cabinets while they learned what they could and couldn't do. The one was and still is really inquisitive. They do settle down later and get into a more normal pattern. My husband said he wanted one with personality... so I would just remind him with a smile. Actually, the more active inquisitive one keeps the slower one up and active... having two we find is healthy for both of them... especially while we are not home.

Posted on August 21, 2009

Deb says: We just purchased a Maine Coon kitten recently. We also have a darling 5 yr. Coon. The kitten is destroying all our possessions. I have had to baby proof so-to-speak the house but now she is into climbing on the curtains and attacking wall hangings. She is breaking anything she can and I can't keep putting things in a closed room to keep it away from her. She's sweet and loving but gets into a lot of trouble. She wrestles with our older Coon and you'd think that would be enough along with all her toys but everyday there is something else she has gotten into and I'm at wits end. I'm hoping once she is fixed she will calm down. Does anyone have any suggestions? We've tried the spray bottle, the double tape on furniture but she continues and she's only 4 months. Help!

Posted on August 9, 2009

Esther Stramler says: my 2 male cats got along fine till the youngest turned 2 then a big fight broke out and now they do not like each other and must be seperated. Help

Posted on August 7, 2009

Jean says: Do older cats (around 14 -15 years old get senile?

Posted on August 7, 2009

April says: My cat - his name is Kitty, just started this thing where he will walk up to me and bite me on the back of my legs, all the time here lately. And I have no idea why, he does not do this to my hubsand. I think for some reason he is mad at me, any idea's why he may have just started doing this.

Posted on July 19, 2009

Andre Saati says: My cat is 7 years old, and recenlty his gets very angry of his reflection. Would please tell me how I can help me. Thank you

Posted on July 14, 2009

JEAN HUPFEL says: not a problem but my female cat sleeps on her back with legs extended. have never seen a cat do this. no problem, just odd.

Posted on June 19, 2009

Paula says: He was taking away at 2 mos,I have never dealt with this what can I do?

Posted on July 13, 2009

Jean W Johnson says: I have diane's problem, my cat once went out, has gotten beaten and I am trying to make her a house cat. Any suggestions?

Posted on April 27, 2009

kazootie53 says: can anyone please tell me the best food to feed my FIV cat? Thanks

Posted on June 3, 2009

diane says: what can i do,will fixing him stop him from wanting to go out,,[he always went out,&was fine,now 3 new cats move in the neighborhood,and there tearing him apart,,can you tell me the best thing to do

Posted on June 3, 2009

Ken says: one time i was holding my kitten, and he took his paw and dug me on the upper lip. all i did was kissed him on the forhead? I have a string with a toilet paper role on the end of it and he loves to chase it and play with it when i get it i let him catch it and let him play, i work the third shift so i am pretty tired when i get home.

Posted on April 9, 2009

Karen says: This is a great article! Maybe my cats will be happier now. I'll try the cat food-in-a-box trick first!

Posted on April 10, 2009

meow says: my cat maggie is almost like a miniture james bond. she is so clever! she was a cat found in our front pourch. nobody around owned her. when we fiirst saw her, she was eating wood ants. she is happy now that she is a house pet, but when all the humans are gone, she and sam (our other cat) get bored! so im not surprized when i come home to see a mess to clean up. i tried the cat post and it worked... just wakes ya up at night. having cats keeps prevents couch potatoes! lol! now they found a better way; watch the pretty patterns on the tv! XD

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