Is your cat getting enough exercise?

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12 October 2014
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Behaviourist Debbie Ottway gets creative to inspire you and your pet!All year round, we thoughtfully provide our cats with food, comfortable beds, companionship and indoor toilet facilities. With everything they need in easy reach, is it any wonder that many cats rarely venture from the sofa in the colder months? Unlike us, cats don't have jobs or grocery shopping trips to force them into action, so they can easily become extreme couch potatoes, gaining weight and losing fitness as a result. How, then, can we encourage our cats to take healthy exercise without forcing them outside and locking the cat flap?

The answer lies in some quite simple, largely inexpensive measures that appeal to every cat's appetite for food and innate response to the fast, erratic movement of small rodents and birds.?

Throw out the food bowl!

The domestic cat's wild ancestors, and today's feral cats, have to use physical and mental energy to find food. What drives them is, of course, hunger, but they also find it almost impossible to resist responding to the movements of their prey - just think of all the cats that hunt when they aren't remotely hungry! Cats enjoy hunting and working for their food, and we can give them a similar sense of satisfaction and get them moving by using?puzzle feeders.

Commercially-produced puzzle feeders are available in a variety of forms, but an equally entertaining and much cheaper range can be made quite easily at home. The simplest uses a cardboard tube from a toilet roll. Cut one or two small holes in the body of the tube and stick a circle of card over one end. Put your cat's meal of complete dry food inside, then seal up the other end with another circle of card. Put the tube on the floor and let your cat?investigate. Most cats will soon learn that by rolling the tube around, they can make pieces of food fall out of the holes.

It is a good idea to make the holes quite wide at first then gradually narrower as your cat gets used to the new way of feeding. If you tape the 'lid' end carefully, you should be able to unseal and reseal it?several times to last for several days. These feeders can also be suspended with string so your cat has to tilt the tube in just the right way to get the food out.

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Zoos often enrich the lives of their wild cats by hiding food so that the animals have to forage for it, and this practice can be adapted for use with our pets too. Pieces of dry cat food can be placed under scattered cups, plant pots, pebbles and cardboard boxes, and inside paper bags for your cat to seek out. Most cats need encouragement at first and you should start off by using paper or plastic cups - but don't forget to put some in unexpected and hard-to-reach places, including elevated surfaces, and change the locations frequently. Your cat will soon get used to seeking out his food?rather than simply wandering from bed to bowl and back.

One type of puzzle feeder often used for zoo cats incorporates a feature of the natural environment: food is placed into holes drilled into tree-trunks and branches so the cats have to climb to reach the food then use skill to get it out. You can create indoor 'trees' for pet cats using thick, tall logs (available from firewood suppliers) or fence posts, attached to a sturdy wooden base plate. With more advanced woodworking skills, you can even create an indoor wooden climbing frame with holes drilled randomly in which to hide food.

Jump and prance!

Away from mealtimes, cats' reactions to movement can be used to entice them?into activity. Attach a longish piece of string to a ping-pong ball or a bunch of feathers and tie the other end to your ankle. As you and the ball or feathers move around, your cat will give chase. Feathers, or one of the?inexpensive fishing rod-style toys on a stick can be used to lure your cat around an indoor agility course made up of chairs, buckets and other similar household items. Be creative in devising a course with obstacles that your cat has to jump over, squeeze through or run around! If your cat won't chase the toy, you can clicker train him to follow a target - such as your hand or a pen - around the course for a food reward.?