Last Updated on: April 22, 2022 by Ingrid King
Allegra was never supposed to be an only cat. When I adopted the then 7-month-old kitten last April, the plan was for Amber, who was 12 at the time, to show her the ropes, and for the two of them to become playmates and best friends.
Less than five weeks after Allegra’s arrival, Amber passed away after a sudden, brief illness. I was devastated, and in addition to coping with my grief, which took up almost all the energy I had, I now had a sweet, but rambunctious, slightly juvenile delinquent kitten on my hands.
I knew if I wanted Allegra to be happy, and address some of her behavioral challenges at the same time (she chewed on everything from picture frames to books to the edges of my bedroom dresser, and she was slightly play aggressive), I needed to keep her entertained. Ideally, I should have gotten her a companion of similar temperament, but I wasn’t emotionally ready for that yet (and I’m still not quite ready). So it was up to me to keep her active, stimulated and challenged.
All my cats always have been, and always will be, indoor cats. I thought my home was kitty paradise already. There are lots of windows with views of trees, birds and squirrels. There are window perches in two bedrooms for the cats’ viewing pleasure and for naps in the sun. There are cat toys everywhere.
But it was kitty paradise for older cats, not for a young, energetic kitten. So I worked on what behaviorists call environmental enrichment. I created hiding spaces for Allegra. Cardboard boxes work just fine, as do grocery bags with the handles cut off. Cat igloos and crinkly tunnels are fun, too. I bought extra scratching posts. I added vertical space. There are numerous ways to do this: cat trees, cat condos, shelves or window perches. I got puzzle toys for her; they’re a great way to keep a young cat entertained. I set up treasure hunts to keep her busy, hiding treats throughout the house and letting her find them.
All of this environmental enrichment was designed to keep Allegra entertained when I couldn’t play with her, but it was never meant to be a substitute for regular playtime. I use a lot of interactive, fishing pole type toys to play with her. These toys are designed to imitate prey behavior and they help wake the hunting instinct in cats. Tossing balls or other small toys for her sends her racing through the house. I haven’t managed to teach her to retrieve, although cats can learn how to do this. I have a laser pointer toy, but rarely use it. Even though Allegra goes nuts chasing after the red dot, it’s a very unsatisfactory way to play for her. Cats’ play mimics hunting behavior, and it’s no fun for them if they can never catch their prey.
With young cats like Allegra, burning off excess energy is important. We established regular play sessions of 10-15 minute each, at least twice a day, sometimes more frequently. Playing before meals, or just before bedtime, works best. Once we had these regular play sessions in place, a lot of Allegra’s behavior issues disappeared because she was no longer bored.
Eventually we’ll add another cat to our family. For now, Allegra is very happy to be the only cat in her environmentally enriched home.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.