Cat Boredom Busters

Why do cats need boredom busters? While the housecat life is a safer one that results in cats living longer, healthier lives, it can also be a less mentally stimulating life compared to life outdoors. The environment rarely changes significantly and many housecats are left home alone during long workdays. This can result in a rather monotonous (aka boring) life for our cats unless we, as their caretakers, strive to help make their worlds a more exciting place.

If I think about it, one of my favorite things about cats is how easy they are to take care of. They are still wonderful companions, but you don’t have to rush home to let the cat out to pee. She will just use her litterbox. Daily walks, not necessary. In fact, cats are so easy, it can be easy for us humans to forget that they are highly intelligent and active animals. And as such, they need things to do to prevent boredom. In other words, they need good environmental enrichment.

I was recently reading an article written by Dr. Wooten for a veterinary magazine. In that article she states that “zoos do a better job with enrichment for captive wildlife then most pet owners do with our companion dogs and cats.” After thinking about this for a minute, I can only conclude that she is right. Especially when it comes to cats.

In my house, it is hard to forget to make sure that my dog receives good environmental enrichment. Daily walks, frequent car rides, trips to other peoples houses, countless chews and treat dispensing toys, training sessions and more are part of our regular routine. And my dog lets me know when she is bored with a nudge to my arm or by staring me down as I sit typing on the computer.

Then you have cats. My cat, and maybe yours too, is much more subtle about his needs. In fact, many of the behaviors that bored cats exhibit don’t even seem to be directly related to boredom. From urinating outside the litterbox to aggression towards other animals, cats can demonstrate that they need more enrichment in several ways. But even if you have a happy, healthy cat that is not exhibiting any behavior problems, I recommend taking the time to evaluate your cats life. You can always find more ways to improve it.

Cat Boredom Buster #1: Don’t feed in a bowl.

Have you ever heard of the term contrafreeloading? I will be honest, I only learned of this word recently. The term was coined by Glen Jensen, an animal psychologist in 1963. Contrafreeloading explains a phenomenon where animals will prefer to work for food they have to earn, rather than just eat the identical food that is available in a nearby dish.

For cats, perhaps this correlates to a more natural feeding pattern. Outside of a home, cats are predators. They will often catch multiple small meals over the course of a day. Helping to mimic hunting inside the house gives cats a way to eat that also involves their brains and helps enrich their day to day lives.

There are several ways to achieve this. I will highlight a few below.

  1. Hide food around the house. Place a few kibbles in various locations so your cat has to search for his complete meal.
  2. Use treat toys. While there are not quite as many options for cats as there are for dogs, many treat dispensing cat toys can be found. You can even make some yourself if you like DIY projects. An easy example is to use an old toilet paper roll. Staple the ends together with just enough room for a treat/piece of kibble to fall out if the roll is batted around. Or completely seal the ends and cut a small hole in the middle of the roll that the food can fit through. Use toys with larger openings while your cat is learning to eat out of these. Then upgrade to smaller openings to increase the difficulty later on.
  3. Combine both options with a product like the one made by Doc and Pheobe. They manufacture toy mice that are made to be filled with kibble. I have yet to try this product, but if anyone has, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Cat Boredom Buster #2: Playtime

Playtime may seem like a rather obvious boredom buster. However, there are several ways that you can maximize playtime for your feline friend. Have a variety of toy types and rotate them. Why rotation? Well, I don’t know about you, but I get bored if I perform the same activities over and over again every day. For example, I love board games. But do I only want to play monopoly every day? Nope. I want to mix things up. Your cat does to. So even if you just have 3-4 toys, rotate them. Bring a different one out every 2-3 days.

Also, if you cat is not one for flipping around toy mice by themselves, there are many fantastic toys that require a minimal human effort to cat enjoyment ratio. Get a couple good wand toys. You can sit on the couch while you flick the wand back and forth. Your cat will have to run across the room. Or try a laser pointer. Most cats LOVE laser pointers. Just don’t shine it right in your cat’s eyes.

Whatever toy you pick, I recommend at least 10-15 minutes a day of interactive playtime with your cat. This can help alleviate so many boredom based behaviors.

Cat Boredom Buster #3: Change up the environment

Like rotating toys, adding novel items to the environment is a great way to provide enrichment. Rotate scratching posts. Move the cat tree to the other side of the room. Every time you unpack a cardboard box, leave it in the house for a day or two. Your cat will love the variation, and this is a really inexpensive way to provide enrichment.

Cat Boredom Buster #4: 3-D Space

It is a fairly well known fact that many cats like to hang out in elevated spaces. This is often where the age old struggle of keeping your cats off the kitchen counter gets its roots. So if you don’t want your cat up on the counter-tops, make sure you are providing him or her with plenty of other places to get off the ground. Cat trees are a wonderful way to do this. At the end of this paragraph, I have included two pictures of a cheap DIY project that I made (with my Dad’s carpentery-skilled help) prior to setting up my foster cat room. You can see that my first foster mama cat, Shira, made good use of the 3-D space in her room.

Beyond a cat tree, you can also add shelving the cat is allowed on, clear space on a bookshelf or allow access to the top of a dresser. Cats aren’t too picky. Check out Adventure Cats’ article on adding vertical space to your cat’s environment. Or if you are feeling really inspired, do what Peter Cohen did and design your whole home as play space for your cat.

Cat Boredom Buster #5: Outdoor Time

Not all cats can (or even should) spend time outdoors, but safe time outdoors can help enrich your cats life. There are many ways to accomplish “outdoor time” without having an outdoor cat. At the very basic end, make sure your cat has access to windows and open them when the weather is nice. Your cat will love watching the squirrels and birds outside the window.

Step it up one notch further with a screened in patio. If your house doesn’t have a patio, just google “catio” for a variety of easy suggestions to purchase (or DIY) for your cat’s very own patio.

Or purchase a secure harness and take your cat for walks (some training and socialization required). For more ideas and tips for safe outdoor cat adventures, check out my article, The Great Backyard Jungle Cat.

Cat Boredom Buster #6: Training

Yes, cats can enjoy training sessions as much as dogs. They are intelligent and trainable, and many cats will happily work for food rewards. I highly recommend reward based clicker training. If you aren’t familiar with clicker training, this involves using a “clicker” sound to mark when a cat is performing the correct (or desired) behavior. Your cat can learn the basics, like sit and down, in addition to fun tricks.

If you need some inspiration, here is another Adventure Cat’s article about clicker training your cat!

In Summary

Hopefully this post has given you some great ideas on how to enrich your own cat’s life. There is no reason that zoo animals should have better environmental enrichment than the pets that live in our houses. Be your cat’s boredom buster!

Comment with your favorite cat boredom buster below.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

13 thoughts on “Cat Boredom Busters

  1. I try to keep my cats as engaged as possible. My environment is small, so changing it isn’t always an option. But I do introduce new beds, toys, scratching posts, etc. And everytime a box comes in the house Lexy enjoys it for a while.

  2. These are some great ideas! Our cat is indoor/outdoor, which I know a lot of people frown upon, but she loves her freedom and being able to run and chase things. We did try to keep her inside, but she was hell bent on getting out and would run out the door when we let the dogs out (10 times a day), so we caved. When she’s inside, especially in the winter, she gets super bored, so we get new toys and treats and put boxes around for her to play in. Amazon boxes and a handful of treats can lead to hours of fun!

  3. These are great ideas. I remember back in the day playing with my cats and throwing treats around the house to have “hide and seek”. They loved that. Helped keep them active and their hunting skills on point. They needed and enjoyed the mental stimulation.

  4. When our cat was younger, I played a variation of hide and seek with her. I would engage her attention, then show her that I was holdilng one of her favorite treats in my hand before leaving the room. She would inevitably follow me and try to find out where I’d gone. I might hide in a closet, behind a door, etc. and she would “hunt me down” to get the treat. When she found me, she got the treat. These days she’s too old and stiff for chasing me.

    1. That is a great idea. My dog loves hide and seek (stay command and then release her when I have “hidden”), but I haven’t tried it with a cat yet. My own is pretty old now to, but I will have to try it with one of my foster cats.

    1. That’s true. Having a companion can definitely help reduce boredom. While some cats definitely prefer living alone, I always recommend adopting kittens (littermates) in pairs. If you adopt littermates (or an already bonded pair) you don’t have to worry about the cats not liking each other, and then the cats get the benefit of added companionship.

  5. As a former pet sitter I saw many ingenious ways that cats enjoyed themselves. They definitely loved the vertical spaces. I always laughed when a certain kitten would take the toy mice and drown them in the water bowls. Cats are full of surprises…including hiding above the basement ceiling tiles and in dresser drawers. This is a great post with valuable information for cat lovers.

  6. It’s definitely important to keep cats mentally & physically stimulated! My cat loved looking out the window, so we had a great perch for her to observe the outdoors from. We also let her out in the yard for short periods of time – we had a 6′ concrete block wall around the yard that she couldn’t jump up on. She loved getting her dose of the outdoors!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  7. That bit about zoos really puts things into perspective, *cringes*! This was a great post and I’m glad that you’re bringing it to light, there are so many ways to stimulate both dogs and cats and we should stimulate both of them!! I wonder if cats could play with brain games that are usually targeted towards dogs or why they wouldn’t play with them.

  8. Contrafreeloading is a new term to me! I had heard having pets “work” for their food, but it’s nice to know the term! This all makes so much sense to me. While I only have dogs and an adopted feral (who is a world traveler apparently, gracing us with his presence from time to time), these are really great tips for cat parents.

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