Keeping Your Cat Happy On Activity Restriction

published on 10 January 2023

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Our Chief Purr Officer, Zoloft, had surgery yesterday and I got word not too long ago that he gets to return home today! I am clearly pretty excited, but part of his recovery process is that he needs to be on activity restriction for 2 weeks. That means no running, jumping, or rolling around. Basically, all things cats love doing.

Me being a behavior consultant, one of the things I have been really concerned about is make sure Z is happy when he gets home as it will be a long time he's not able to do some of his favorite activities! I've spent time preparing his new home to make him as comfortable as possible. I wanted to share some suggestions for other cat parents who may be  in similar situations because it's a tough spot to be in! A lot of these suggestions may also apply to folks working in shelters or while traveling.

First, two disclaimers:

  1.  This post is not meant to be veterinary advice and you should always defer to your own veterinarian for specifics of your cat's situation. I'm discussing some general suggestions, but I advise you run everything by your veterinarian before implementing anything. There may be some situations where some of these suggestions aren't a great idea depending on dietary restrictions, illness, or any number of other factors.
  2.  In no way am I advocating for keeping cats confined for long periods. If you have the space and don't have a reason to keep your cat confined like a medical reason or needing to do a reintroduction, it's better to let your cat run, jump, and play! Get them a cat tower and let them be a cat. This is meant for situations where it's medically or situationally necessary on a temporary basis.

Meet Basic Needs

First, let's take a look at what I'm dubbing Zoloft's bachelor pad. I don't have everything completely in place yet, but I've got the basics. 

Zoloft's (incomplete) set up.
Zoloft's (incomplete) set up.

You need to make sure your cat's basic cat needs are going to be satisfied. This includes:

Normally I'd add vertical space, but for what I hope are obvious reasons that one's not included on this list!

I haven't adding in a scratcher, hiding spot, or a food dish yet, but will be doing so before Z gets home. For scratchers, they make smaller scratchers you can hang on doorknobs or specifically in kennels that you could purchase. Zoloft got a very cute over the door scratcher from his grandparents for Christmas so that will be added in a while. Just make sure it's not going to accidentally encourage something like stretching if your cat isn't allowed to do that!

To try to keep things as normal as possible, I have Z's water fountain hooked up so he can drink from it. He'll get a regular food dish as well. Normally you don't want either this close to a litter box, but the space needs to be small so there isn't a ton of choice.

I'm using a disposable litter box so I can fully change his litter out after a week and also keep a close eye on his urine output. Normally he gets a bigger box as I usually recommend clients get an XL sized box, but we're making the best of the situation and he's used these boxes in the past. Just make sure it doesn't require your cat to do too much extra work to get in and out. If you're using a disposable box like this one, you can also cut a lower sided entrance to encourage them to use it. Use the same litter they're used to. Lastly, I purposefully am placing this one close to the entrance so I can more easily scoop it!

For hiding spots, again, given the size of the kennel I'm borrowing, there isn't exactly a lot of extra room. That said, I plan to cover part of it with a blanket so he feels more secure. If you can't perfectly meet a need, find a way to get close!

Lastly, think about your household set up. You can to spend time with your cat and near your cat, but don't want them to be too stressed out. Think of a quiet place they can be away from other pets, kids, and noise. It should be a comfortable temperature and away from any large appliances. Ideally this will be a place you can spend time checking in on them during the day so a spare bedroom is a great choice, as is an office.

Mental Stimulation

Once you've got your set up and your cat is comfortable, you'll want to make sure they're not bored. That doesn't mean you need to be constantly entertaining them, but you'll need to provide some sort of stimulation for them.

Toys or regular play will likely be out of the question, though confirm with your vet as in some situations it might be okay. Zoloft had an abdominal surgery so he's on pretty strict no rough play instructions. If your cat is allowed to play with toys (or they're being isolated for other reasons and not on as strict of activity restriction), you could consider a stick like feathered wand toy that is easy to use through the kennel wires, especially in comparison to wand toys on a string. Once again, check with your vet if this type of play is okay first.

Adding something to chew on like some cat grass is a fun idea that typically won't require your cat to move too much. You can also consider doing some scent enrichment to make sure your cat gets to stimulate their senses. A word of caution, however: While those of you who know me or have followed my blog know that I love catnip and catnip alternatives, one of the effects of these cat drugs is that your cat will likely roll around and rub up against things. If you have the green light from your vet that these are okay, go for it. If not, don't use any catnip, silvervine, valerian root, or any similarly intoxicating cat herbs.

Probably your best option is going to end up being food puzzles. Food puzzles are a great way to turn meal time into play time for your cat. They get them thinking and satisfy the hunting instinct all cats have. Most don't require a ton of wild movement, but avoid anything that would send food flying. A great resource I send to most clients is Dr. Mikel Delgado's fabulous Food Puzzles for Cats website. It covers some of the many options available out there and even includes some DIY instructions.

Two specific suggestions: Petstages' Buggin' Out Puzzle and Play is one of Z's favorite food puzzles and it's not something that requires a ton of movement from your cat. Plus, you can start out with making it a bit easier and then adjust the difficulty as your cat figures it out. Another option is a snuffle mat! If you're local to Minneapolis or St. Paul, I sell snuffle mats or DIY snuffle mat kits at events or you can pick one up at Sunshine Pet Spa. These are a great option for activity restriction as they don't require a ton of movement and the mats are flexible so they can fit into unusual spaces. Just make sure you supervise your cat while using any food puzzle and remove it if it becomes damaged or your cat tries to eat one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Finally, consider clicker training! While you can't do any complex behaviors, there are some low movement behaviors you can work with your cat on like nose targeting or high five. Some of these behaviors may also be useful should your cat be trying to move a bit too much. You can cue a more calm behavior and reward your cat for it so you interrupt the temporarily forbidden movement. It's fun, stimulating, and keeps your cat safer!

Pheromones

One option to keep your cat a bit more calm is to use pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals produced by an animal to communicate to members of the same species and in cats, there are a few synthetic versions available. These pheromones can help calm cats down in stressful situations like not being able to move or being stuck in a kennel for two weeks. (Even though I know it's medically necessary and for the best, even I'm struggling with this one!)

You have a few options of methods of pheromone diffusion available: First, there's a spray version that you can spray on a blanket, bedding, or if you're my cat, the couch you crocheted for him. Just please don't spray it ON your cat! There are also diffusers available. The most commonly used brand of cat pheromones, Feliway, has three varieties of diffusers. For this situation, the original version or the Optimum variety are likely the best choices. Plug it into an unobstructed outlet and you'll be good to go! There are also pheromone collars available, but I'm a bit leery of them. If your cat isn't okay with a collar in general, they may be more stressful Additionally, a lot of them aren't breakaway collars (which are a safer collar design). I'd go with one of the other options for pheromones.

Love and Affection

Lastly, something I alluded to a bit earlier is just spending time with your cat. Cats like us more than various internet memes and their popular reputation would suggest. Spending time with your cat is a great choice to make sure they get their social needs met and will help keep them content.

What exactly you do depends on their medical condition and your cat's individual personality, but gentle petting, whispering sweet nothings, or brushing are all great choices for many cats. If your cat doesn't like being brushed, however, this can backfire and increase their stress levels as they're now trapped, possibly in pain, and having something aversive happen.

If they do like being brushed, an easy tool to brush them while on activity restriction is a hand brush. They are a glove that you basically just pet your cat with the brush and the excess fur gets caught in the little nubs. Z absolutely loves getting brushed with his so I can guarantee he'll be getting a lot of extra brushing the next few weeks!

Unfortunately, activity restriction can be challenging for cats. It really is better for cats' mental wellbeing to have freedom to move and exhibit their natural behaviors. Sometimes their veterinarian advises a temporary restriction on activity out of medical necessity and it's best to listen to their recommendation rather than risking your cat's health. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to make an uncomfortable situation less uncomfortable for your cat and still keep the purrs coming!

About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.

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