How to enrich the life of a cat
September 26, 2019 5:17 PM   Subscribe

How do I turn my small studio apartment into a cat friendly zone? And how do I be a good cat steward?

I recently adopted a confident, curious 8 year old tabby cat/micro mountain lion named Tessie. I have not had a cat, so I don't know how to enrich her life. I also do not have very much space at all (approximately 375 square feet, including bathroom/kitchen.)

I did discover she likes being up high, and she tries to escape when I open the door. I am not averse to cat trees, but my living space does not really accommodate off the shelf solutions to a lot of things, so I am trying to creatively make climbing/perch structures that multi-task. This is made more challenging by her using soft things on the floor to pee on (she does use both her litter boxes, one of which has a lid), including both of the beds I had got her. She has established a corner of my bed as hers, and has a nest.

I have bookshelves, but they don't seem easy to convert to cat friendly like my old IKEA bookcases would have been. I am not averse to new furniture, but would really like to work with what I have. I am looking at cat trees on Chewy. I just don't know what sort of tree(s) she would use. We have established that she only likes to scratch carpet and will ignore cardboard and sisal rope. I thought about carpet squares from Home Depot, but worry she will pee on them and ruin the surface underneath before I realize what happened. At least with clothes, it is pretty obvious when I go to put them on.

I also don't know how to tell what her meows mean? She talks a lot. She has hyperthyroidism (being treated) so she seems hungry all the time but never really gorges herself. She just likes to nibble her kibble during the day. But she is such a picky eater with wet food. I finally discovered she prefers pate and will not eat anything with chunks (but kibble is ok?), but also it has to be at room temperature so I feel like I am wasting half a can of food every day. I tried heating it in the microwave for a little but after like 8 seconds it started to explode and my kitchen smelled like Spam (which, you know, is not that bad, I guess. Better than nuked broccoli.)

I also don't know how to get her to play. She ignores all the toys. She will chase a laser pointer but only if she does not see that I am holding it. As soon as she sees it in my hand, it is game over. She likes string. The one toy she gets excited about is one that hangs from the door frame with a bird on the end...but she only tries to eat the string. Seriously. After a minute of playing with the string, it is as wet as a tennis ball with a dog. But other wand toys don't hold her interest. She is not bonkers for cat nip and ignores cat grass. I have tried multiple brands of catnip to no avail.

I think she will like exploring outside, so I have a Fat Cat backpack and Kitty Holster on the way. I could be completely wrong, though.
posted by apex_ to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't have furniture or food advice — hopefully others will.

But I used to have a cat who Hated All Toys, and… it turns out he didn't really like toying-with and mostly just liked killing. The high point of his day in the summer was when I caught one of the moths circling the back porch light and brought it in for him to hunt. If I threw little stuffed animal for him and he caught it and wrestled it to the ground and mauled it for a bit, then that was a satisfying game, and then he was totally over it and done and didn't want to keep going.

He got bored fast with batting around wand toys, and my theory was that if they didn't die he wasn't interested. So I just kind of decided that that was okay, and I would play with him the way he wanted, and that meant throwing him stuffies and catching him moths.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:27 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who also lives with a chatty cat, I will say that it'll probably take you a little bit of time (months) before you can start figuring out what they're trying to say. Just pay attention to the sounds she makes. I'm sure you'll pick up on her cues sooner rather than later!

I can now tell when Boots is about to be sick (she sounds really warbly), when she's hangry for her wet food (almost shrieking meow), when she's startled (chirpy), when she wants attention (she sounds like a crying baby), and when she's in pain (very frantic, plaintive sounding). Her voice cracks also when she meows right after waking up.

Boots is also a free feed cat with kibble (she will only eat the big pieces and will starve herself when she only has small ones). We give her wet food when we get home from work so it's not sitting out all day. Normally we keep it in the fridge, and she thinks it's the most amazing treat (and will sit in the kitchen if she sees one of us going to the fridge). Could you warm the wet food up with some hot water? You can mash it all together so it's smooth rather than lumpy.
posted by astapasta24 at 5:43 PM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: 1 - put toys away when not playing with them. If you leave toys out for kitty, only leave out one or two at a time. Then the toys stay fresh and fun.

2 - Always put away string. It's dangerous.

3 - Get and make treat puzzles for your cat! Google this if it's a new idea.

4 - Get the book "Clicker Training for Cats". Your cat will LOOOVE it, and you will too.

5 - Make sure the cat has appropriate things to scratch and, especially, climb.
posted by amtho at 5:51 PM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: Oh man, okay. I brought my first-ever cat home to my studio almost two years ago. I'm still figuring stuff out for her, but that's kind of part of the enjoyment, if that makes any sense? She doesn't care about most of the things my friends said all cats go bonkers for, so Plan A, boxes, catnip, and clicker training, went nowhere for me. As you've already found, it's some trial and error, and if there's a way to do it that doesn't blow some money, I haven't found it.

Wet food's tough, mine's not super food-motivated and I'm going through the process myself of finding something affordable that she'll eat and is of good quality. Basically, I'm just trying lots of brands, flavors, etc., keeping track of what she'll eat, and going more in that direction. It sucks to throw out food, I feel you. I will say she's more consistent about her flavor preferences than texture, but I don't know if that's a common thing.

Mine also loves to claw carpet, and I haven't totally broken her of the habit when she gets excited, but she does enjoy this one non-carpet scratcher, and I eventually gave up and got a carpeted scratching post. Just be aware those little bits of carpet end up on your floor and it's not necessarily going to make her like your carpet any less.

If yours clearly enjoys being up high, a small-footprint cat tree is probably worthwhile. Between that and the scratching posts my apartment felt MUCH smaller for a little while, then I barely noticed. (Or at least, I'm so constantly moving things and squeezing around things that two more things to squeeze around don't register.) I went for one that's about on level with my couch and a nearby shelf, so she can a) climb from one to the other and b) monitor me on the couch, in case I look like I might do anything fun or delicious.

As for playing--not all cats are super into it, and even those who are tend to get bored. But my approach is sort of similar as with food--okay, she likes string, string is long and wiggly all over and fun to wrestle, would she also like piece of yarn? would she like a snake? Does she like the string to dance around for her or does she want it to creep around a corner while she stalks it? etc. Also agree on trying puzzle feeders; it sounds like she wouldn't mind only getting a bite or two at a time anyway, and if you mix some treats in there with her regular food, JACKPOT.

My cat is also super talky, and all I can tell you is that over time I've gotten to recognize happy sounds from I WANT GIVE ME sounds from all the others. I've chosen to believe the internet when it says that cats mainly only talk to people they like, and take it as a compliment when she's screaming outside my shower at 7am. Chattiness wasn't something I even considered as a factor when I was meeting cats to adopt, but now I think it's one of the most fun parts of having her around. (Most of the time. She's whining her face off at me at the moment.)

It can be frustrating and feel like a waste of money to try all this stuff, I know. But between the talking and the sleeping, it sounds like she likes having a human friend, and you're doing all the right stuff; right now you're maybe still just getting to know each other. And if you end up with cat stuff you can't use, a lot of times your local shelter would LOVE to take it off your hands.
posted by jameaterblues at 6:05 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've always wanted to get some shelves for my cat to climb/jump/perch on. These are pre-made, but you could make some of your own pretty easily. I think aesthetically and space-wise, these are a better solution than a cat-tree (if you're going to buy something).
posted by hydra77 at 6:09 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They have cat shelves you can install if that works better for your space then a cat tree. I had some in my apartment, and they were pretty sturdy, but you may want to upgrade the mounting hardware to something more heavy duty. My cats liked them a lot.

For toys, my only advice is to keep trying different ones and, when you find a few she likes, be sure you rotate them. Most cats seem to love Da Bird, and mine go insane for the peacock feathers that you can buy in craft stores. Maybe also try a treat ball and put some of her kibble in it so she has to work for her food if you can't get her moving with toys.
posted by MaryVictoria at 6:19 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am semi-obsessed with cat enrichment (we got kittens a few months ago). This is what I've come up with so far in terms of toys and activities.

In a previous AskMe I described how one likes tunnels and the other likes splashing water (and fishing floaty objects like straws and plastic bottle caps out of a tub of water). These items are put away after play time. Other tunnels have also been super fun for the cats. The long box that a 12 pack of soda cans sometimes come in was a huge hit, but now they are getting too big for it. Straws in general have been very exciting toys.

Non-wand toys have also been surprisingly well-received: Caterpillar kicker is very beloved and is now super gross because they carry it around in their mouths and it is now crusty with kitten slobber. Furry things in general are their favorites. Things that jingle are also popular. Taking out the furry ball that jingles is my best way of distracting them from whatever mischief they are up to. I put a bunch of shredded paper in a box and hid some toys in it and that entertained them for a while but they seem over it now?

Food puzzles that have worked out well include a toilet paper roll taped to the floor with kibble inside and a paper bag with kibble in it. They have to paw it out.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:18 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This corner cat brush is like a little cat spa as far as I can tell, and at $4, you can’t beat the price.

Also good is a cat dancer on permanent installation (I had one attached to a radiator that got a lot of play)

Finally, this telescoping feather stick really does look like a bird flying around. Gets my guy playing every time, plus feels like a fishing pole =fun for me
posted by wowenthusiast at 10:16 PM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: This would obviously be dependent on your particular space, but I've had decent luck with regular empty shelves set offset from each other to make a short path to a higher shelf.
posted by past unusual at 7:44 AM on September 27, 2019

Best answer: I haven't tried it yet but our shelter care person recommended large thick hiking laces as string to play with (to hold as a toy).

Our cats enjoy a cardboard scratching tunnel a lot. It folds up.
posted by typecloud at 9:43 AM on September 27, 2019

Best answer: Cat-friendly space suggestions:
- most cats are strongly averse to some common smells like citrus and mint; pay attention if she hides from certain perfumes, cleaners etc and I'd avoid essential oils and potpourri entirely
- research any new flowers or plants in the apartment, for example lilies and aloe are often overlooked toxins
- she might prefer a water source that's not near her food bowls
posted by crone islander at 10:17 AM on September 27, 2019

Best answer: oh my gosh she really does look like a little mountain lion!
posted by cadge at 11:35 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing the suggestion to keep toys out of sight and pull out one or two at a time. Novelty is key. We have a drawer in the living room with all the toys, when we open it at least one cat will come running to see and we can let them poke around. They don't quite pull something out most times, but we can see what they are interested in.

Before spending money try stuff you have around the house. things cats past and present have turned into toys:
  • shoelaces, I keep one tied to the bathroom cabinet door so it won't go missing.
  • Beverage lids and the little plastic ring from around the bottle make great toys on a wood or tile floor, or in the bathtub.
  • Maggie would play in, around, and on top of one specific fabric totebag for years, but now it is nothing to her.
  • Rose stems - we trimmed the stems off of flowers for a vase, and Maggie stole them. Now we keep a few 3-4 inch pieces after trimming the roses outside, they like to chew a little but mostly carry them around and play on the floor.
  • Plastic strap that came around a box in the mail
  • Zip ties, but keep an eye on the chewing
  • Rufus loves the big rubber band that comes around produce, he carries it around and then plays with it in the tub.
  • Q-tips. Oh my god the q-tips they have killed, buried under the carpet, pulled back out for more killing...
  • Erasers that are meant for the end of a pencil
  • After trying to wrap gifts I discovered I could just lay a sheet of paper on the floor, wrinkle it a bit, and either cat will come running to attack. One likes to get under it and become invisible, if we fold it to stand up like a tent. The other will obsessively smooth out the paper and then crinkle it up. over and over. Eventually it tears too much, and we pull out another sheet of used gift wrap from the stash in the cat-toy-drawer.
  • the cardboard tube from toilet paper, put some cat treats inside, fold the ends inside themselves to close it up, and watch the cat go nuts.
  • 'The Best Toy in the World' for Maggie is one she made herself. It was a wand toy with feathers glued into a little plastic cap, tied to a string. She broke off all the feathers, chewed through the string to separate the little plastic cap, and has carried this piece of plastic with a few stumps of feather around to tuck into secret corners behind doors for five years so far. We look for it every time we vacuum to make sure it's safe
As for going up: In a previous small living space I got one of those cat trees that is a spring loaded pole with a few shelves, and you wedge it between floor and ceiling. Stuck behind my headboard it let my cat perch over my head all night which was exactly what she wanted. All without holes in the wall, though I did end up using some folded fabric to protect the ceiling. Just think about where the cat might jump from the perch and make sure it's either safe or inaccessible.

Currently my bed is a bunk bed frame with no top bunk, and curtains hung around. Maggie will scale the corner post like a bear climbing a tree, do a chin up to scramble the last bit up, and then sleep on the rafters above me - I added a wider piece of wood over my feet (so we can see each other) and keep a towel up there as bedding so I can wash it whenever I change the sheets. Rufus tried it once, freaked out, and now just meows sadly at her when she's up there.
posted by buildmyworld at 11:44 AM on September 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Balls of aluminum foil. I can't tell you how much Gidgette loves it. She also has an old (like probably 8) piece of green fake fur. She gets it in her mouth and carries it around singing the song of her people. Then she comes in and deposits it on my floor waiting for praise for killing it. She also does the same with an ancient blue mouse. Most other toys are ignored, although the plastic rings off milk jugs sometimes get her attention.

Ivory, on the other hand, doesn't do toys.
posted by kathrynm at 3:43 PM on September 27, 2019

Best answer: My cat is very selective about his toys; he basically only loves felt balls, the cat dancer carboard on a wire, and... any and all fabric belts from my dresses. I've ended up cutting up a few old fabric belts to dangle for him and he loves it.

My cat also took a while to warm to scratching posts, but now absolutely loves them and uses both vertical and horizontal scratchers. I accidentally discovered this by being too lazy to put away things that he ignored for *months*, so I also encourage you to give some of the toys longer than you might think for your cat to suddenly love them.
posted by TwoStride at 9:43 PM on September 27, 2019

Best answer: Older cats arent as active so the usual cat toys will more than likely just be tripping hazards for you. My cat is crazy about any form of cotton...q-tips, cotton balls, rolled up may be just her. A friend of mine took book shelves and added wedges to hold them on the wall and built a cat wall. The shelves had carpet padding on them and were not in a stair pattern more so just offset so the cat could climb them but it made it interesting. Maybe you could hang something over the door like a toy mouse. Cats love to bat up at things. Mainly they just need a scratching post and warm bed. Window sills work nice in warm weather.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 9:55 PM on September 28, 2019

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