The cat's ancestors were not only predators, but above all active, hunting predators, having hunted dozens of times a day throughout their lives. Cats therefore have an innate need to explore and hunt for small, moving things and also to get their food by doing. It is also typical for a cat to pursue positive things, such as food, and pursuit produces the cat's pleasure hormone - whether it's completing a predatory chain or eating prey.
Even today's pet cat is active throughout its life when allowed to carry out its species-specific behaviour. Since activity and pursuit played a big role in the life of a cat's ancestor, it is easy to understand that today's cat also needs and craves activation to feel well. Research has shown that performing species-specific behaviours produces the pleasure hormone, and that a lack thereof leads to depression in humans.
As an active animal, a lack of activity can naturally lead to frustration, which can manifest itself as visible problem behaviour. Problem behaviours include aggression, destruction of household items and growling, all of which can be signs of poor activation, which the cat channels into other activities. Sadly, it is often heard that a cat is moody or otherwise just plain crazy/annoying. In fact, such behaviour could be simply stopped by offering the cat opportunities for species-typical behaviour through activation.
It is also worth noting that cats are indeed naturally active animals, and depression – or a lacking pleasure hormone – is also easily reflected in a cat's passivity, for example not getting excited or sleeping much.
While the word activation seem to involve time-consuming chores for owners, creating fun activities for your cat takes very little work. I've put together five easy tips to activate your cat – five ways to allow a species-specific behaviour for your cat, and five reasons why you should activate your cat in different ways.
Cats explore the world and communicate mainly through smells, and their noses are surprisingly accurate. This is why cats are so adept at sniffing.
You can offer your cat a scent activation by "bringing the yard inside your house," for example, with branches, cones, snow, ice and leaves for your cat to smell. Most cats will enjoy interesting smells for a surprisingly long time. Also, scented toys such as catnip and valerian toys are an easy way to activate the cat's sense of smell, if the cat likes them.
If you are into training, nosework or scent training is also a very typical and pleasant activity for cats. Through nosework, cats can be trained to recognise certain smells or to search for and locate a desired smell.
Indeed, cats hardly expect to find a food bowl right under their nose. However, most modern cats will get their food in ready-to-eat portions without a struggle. What is more, they don't even have to wait for mealtimes, as food is always ready and waiting at the "snack bar."
And yet, food provides a very easy and natural way to provide cats with the opportunity to perform species-typical behaviour. The best thing about food activation is that it's easy to do no matter how busy you are. Eliminate open bars and food bowls and offer food instead – even if only occasionally – through an activation game, a lick mat, a smell mat or other activity.
A simple and completely free method involves throwing bites one by one, so that the cat runs after them as if catching them. Hiding food around the room or under pillows and blankets is also a very fascinating activity for cats and takes no time or money. You can also create activation games using, for example, the sleeve of a toilet paper roll with a hole in it, or a shoebox with food at the bottom and, for example, by placing plastic shells of a chocolate egg on top of the food.
Hunting is a big part of a cat's ancestral life. There are several steps in the predatory process: locating prey, stalking, attacking, killing and eating. The end result is not important for the meaning of predation. In the wild, in fact, less than half of predation processes of the cat's ancestors ended with catching and eating prey. Thus, cats enjoy even individual steps in the predation process.
Needless to say, the easiest way to implement a predatory process is to use various toys that cats can first locate and stalk, attack and, in a way, kill by kicking or biting. Cats don't care about the price tag or the finery of toys but get excited at the smallest and most mundane things. You have surely noticed how earplugs, bottle caps, dangling charger cords and anything small and mobile catches their attention. You can also make your own toys while bearing the cat's safety in mind. Please ensure that the cat cannot swallow any parts of the toy (such as an earplug or a piece of wool yarn). However, an earplug, for example, can be a safe and fascinating toy if it is securely attached to the head of the cat so that it will not come off when the cat attacks the stomach.
While each cat is an individual, one thing is for sure: every cat loves to hunt and will happily do so throughout its life if given the opportunity on a regular basis. However, a cat's preference for toys can vary widely, even depending on the day. Moreover, cats like to play in different ways. If your cat doesn't like to play, try moving the toy in different ways: does your cat prefer lurking or running? A stationary, creaking toy or one with a fast-moving, snappy movement? For example, would you be excited by a moving toy hidden under the blanket? Do you prefer toys that travel on the ground or toys that fly through the air?
Predation is in a cat's genes, so every cat is sure to have a toy that encourages predatory behaviour and play. While finding a toy that fascinates the cat might take some time, it's definitely worth the effort because the end result is a happy cat that gets pleasure hormones from hunting.
The pursuit of positive things, such as food or a toy, is very much a feline trait, and it is as pleasurable as the pursuit’s successful outcome.
Training is a great way to activate cats while keeping their species traits in mind. Training a cat is most effective when done in a positive way, reinforcing and allowing for autonomy, for example in learning how to care for the cat. So training is not only good for cat activation but also allows for a less stressful life. As you might imagine, cats are hardly used to having its nails clipped, coat groomed or teeth brushed. By training the cat to be comfortable on its own accord with such care activities – which modern cats' wellbeing calls for anyway, they can be conducted in a positive way, thereby avoiding the stress of non-species-typical things.
Cats learn things just like dogs, and cats are very enthusiastic about things like agility, nosework, dobo and all sorts of tricks, depending on the individual cat. You can find help with training in cat training books and you can also get individual help from animal trainers, and the internet is now full of training tips.
Walking outdoors is a varied and natural activity for cats which combines smells and many things to explore and play with. Free-roaming in the wild can be harmful for a cat's well-being because they are exposed to many dangers – from people and other cats to predators and cars. Also, free-roaming can lead to painful injuries and even death. When cats are outdoors, their health is inevitably less monitored. Modern cats are no longer part of nature and cannot survive in the wild. Therefore, outdoor cat walks should always be carried out safely with a human.
Not all cats are enthusiastic about wearing a harness, but are afraid of a large, unknown spaces where many things happen outside the cat's control. Harness walking is something you should get used to, starting with learning the harness and lead very slowly, following the cat's lead.
If your cat finds harnessing stressful, you should skip it and find other ways for your cat to be "out in the yard." The easiest way is to place a cat scratching post, pole, window ledge or level near the windows inside where the cat can safely watch what's going on in the yard. Many cats also like a catio, i.e., a glazed or netted terrace or smaller outdoor garden, especially when fitted with climbing structures and things to explore.
The need to explore can be easily met by allowing the cat to observe the domestic environment in general; as a cat is naturally a predator as well as a prey, it likes to be up high and watch what is happening from there. Climbing trees and different wall levels also contribute to a good stimulation while providing a safe place to sleep.
Cats' wellbeing does not require the whole range of activation methods every day but that cats can carry out as much of their species-typical behaviour as possible - even one aspect per day, combined with stimulation, increases their well-being. So when adopting a cat, you should be prepared to provide opportunities for species-typical behaviour on a daily basis. This will result in happy and healthy cat that can behave as such.
You may implement different activation methods depending on your own life situation. As you gradually add new activation methods to your daily routine, you realise that activating doesn't really take as much time as you thought – at best it doesn't take any time at all!
I challenge you to try out different ways to activate your cat and provide him with opportunities for species-specific behaviour – which activation form does your cat fancy today?