Enriching the environment means providing suitable outlets to meet the needs of a species. One example: Cats have a hard-wired need to hunt and pounce.
Many zoos have a full-time employee with the sole task of enriching the lives of their residents, but it’s something most pet owners rarely think about.
Evidence has shown that when animals live in dull environments void of enrichment, behavior problems are more likely to occur. Brain health is as important as physical health—they’re actually intertwined.
For cats, living in a dull environment is stressful, and it increases the odds of idiopathic lower feline tract disease (FLUTD). When FLUTD happens, it hurts to pee in the litter box, so many cats urinate outside the box. When cats have accidents, the human-animal bond may fracture, and cats are then sometimes put outdoors or relinquished to shelters. All this can be prevented or solved by enriched environments.
The Winn Feline Foundation supported a study to demonstrate a specific way to provide olfactory enrichment in cats. Winn Feline Foundation continues, after 50 years, to fund cat health studies.
Below is from the Winn Feline Foundation as a summary of this study Bol S, Caspers J, et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research.2017;13:70.
The value of environmental enrichment strategies in promoting optimal physical and mental health of pet cats is well-known and evidence-based. These researchers explored the role of olfactory stimulation as a modality of environmental enrichment for cats. Catnip is renowned for its apparently euphoric effect in most cats, but there also anecdotal reports of other plants with similar effects on domestic cats. Much less is known about these other botanicals, what percentage of cats have a positive response to them, or what chemicals they contain that are responsible for triggering enjoyment behaviors in cats.
The 100 domestic cats who participated in the study were randomly selected from animals living in a cat sanctuary, an adoption-guarantee shelter, in private homes, and a cats-only veterinary practice.
All cats were six months of age or older, and were classified, based on the observations of staff and volunteers who worked with them, into three different behavioral categories: 1) scared or shy (avoiding humans and hiding); 2) intermediate (showing an interest in human presence and enjoying petting); 3) affectionate or friendly (approaching humans on their own initiative and inviting petting).
The botanicals were offered to the cats either in a thin, porous sock or spread out on a small piece of carpet. Identical empty socks and carpet without plant materials served as negative controls. The cats were exposed to catnip, silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle, and valerian root in their normal living environment. None of the cats demonstrated enjoyment behaviors when exposed to the control sock or carpet.
Silver vine and catnip were the plant materials that elicited the most positive responses, with 79% of cats responding to silver vine with enjoyment behaviors, and 68% responding similarly to catnip. Significantly fewer cats responded to Tatarian honeysuckle (53%) or valerian root (47%).
The response to silver vine was more intense than to catnip. Male and female cats responded in equal numbers to the four plant materials, and no sex differences in intensity of response to the botanicals were detected.
There was no association between responsiveness and enjoyment behaviors and the cat’s behavioral category. The “scared and shy” group responded as frequently and as intensely as the other behavioral groups. No conclusions could be drawn regarding the association between breed and responsiveness to the botanicals, as virtually all of the cats were mixed breed domestic shorthairs.
Almost all of the cats (94/100) responded to at least one of the plant materials, while 6 cats did not respond to any of them, and 23 of the 95 cats (24%) who were exposed to all four botanicals responded to all of them. Most of the cats (71%) who showed no interest in catnip responded to silver vine.
When the plant materials were analyzed using gas chromatography, only the catnip had substantial quantities of nepetalactone; the other botanicals did not contain significant quantities of this chemical. The four species of plants evaluated in this study are generally regarded as safe and non-toxic for cats and humans.
Although silver vine is even better liked by cats than catnip, it is expensive and hard to obtain, as it comes only from east Asia.
There are likely to be significant ways in which the use of botanicals such as catnip can contribute to the welfare of cats.
In shelters, plant materials can help shy or frightened cats to experience enjoyment behaviors and display playfulness, which has been identified in another study as being a very important factor in the decision of potential adopters to choose a particular shelter cat.
Plant materials from which cats derive pleasure can be used to support cats in stressful situations such as boarding, transportation, or hospitalization and medical procedures.
Excerpted from: Bol S, Caspers J, et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research.2017;13:70.
Catnip / Silver Vine Study