Curing Cat Cabin Fever

One consequence of kitty cabin fever may be a new behavior problem or two. Luckily, you can use your own resources and imagination to counteract the darkness for yourself and for your cat. Here are some suggestions for fighting the deep winter blues.

The safest environment for cats, year-round, is indoors. But even those who spend part of their day outside may find the outside door locked to keep winter’s cold at bay. If your cat is accustomed to outdoor time, it should be fine to let her out for at least short periods, even in January. The greatest risks of cold weather are wind and precipitation; as long as you avoid days of dipping wind chill and provide an accessible shelter, your veteran yard dweller will probably appreciate some outdoor time. But make sure you only let her out when you are also around to let her in. She may get chilled, or a storm may blow up suddenly. Don’t take any chances!

Try to overcome the worry that a sleeping cat is a bored cat. Sleeping can also be a sign of contentment. Cats are likely to sleep more during the winter months. Let sleeping cats lie-preferably in a sunny spot. In these darker months they will appreciate any extra access you can provide to a cozy spot to sleep in the sun. Don’t assume your cat will benefit from a busy social calendar. Unlike dogs, who tend to prefer the company of their owners rather then the familiarity of their home, cats are happiest in their own environment. Don’t take them visiting.

Who can resist a new toy? The Internet and pet supply stores offer a wonderful variety of playthings for cats. Keep a well-stocked box of cat toys (out of view) to provide diversion when it is needed. Among the favorites: bell balls, fleece remnants, crumpled aluminum foil, a rag pulled by a long string (toys with strings are dangerous when swallowed, and should be used only under direct supervision) and Ping Pong balls. Don’t just leave the toys around for kitty to pounce on; take out the toys and have fun playing with your cat. A frequent mantra of animal behaviorists is that playthings must be novel to be interesting. So whatever toys you make or buy for your cat will be most useful if they are put away when not in use. This is particularly true for "prey" toys such as dangling feathers or rags, which can animate even the most sluggish cat.

Place several bird feeders just outside your windows, and a soft, comfortable windowsill perch from which to observe the action. Although birds may be leery of your little predator’s gaze at first, they will soon learn to ignore him. The birds will really appreciate the food during the winter, too. Catnip has interesting effects on cats, and most cats seem to enjoy it. But some loose catnip and offer an occasional sprinkling on the floor.

As a harbinger of spring, offer your cat fresh herbicide-free grass to munch. Plant organic grass seeds in a row of small pots. When the sprouts reach two to three inches, offer one pot to your pet, and replant with fresh seeds when she’s done with her salad. This way, you will always have a snack of greens available for your erstwhile carnivore. Hide small treats here and there in your cat’s favorite room. A pinch of catnip or a few kernels of kibble will be welcome discoveries for your forager.

Try teaching your cat a simple trick. You might be surprised at what cats can learn when they are rewarded with good treats. Tasks such as jumping over a stick or through a hoop, or simply sitting when asked, can be easily taught when food treats are used as a physical lure. Offer the treat immediately when the cat does what you want him to do, and he will soon learn. When taught with positive reinforcement and short sessions (always ending on an upbeat note), even older cats love learning new tricks. And even if your cat doesn’t learn the trick, he’ll enjoy the time spent interacting with you.

Build a cat tree for your cat. Start with a floor-to-ceiling beam and add two to three horizontal shelves and at least one box. Cover all with carpet remnants or thick-coiled rope. Placed by a window, cat trees provide a lasting source of exercise and fun, and they make a terrific napping perch. Spend extra time grooming the loose hairs from your cat. These "nesting" months offer a great opportunity to reintroduce routines for which you seem to have run out of time.

Provide a variety of scratching posts that your cat will actually use. Although each cat is an individual with her own scratching interests, many cats enjoy horizontal corrugated cardboard scratchers (available at many pet supply stores) and anything wrapped with sisal rope. Go for a mixture of horizontal and vertical posts, and see which ones your cat likes best. Place these posts in central locations or near any place you’ve witnessed scratching in the past.