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How to keep your cat from losing its mind

This fluffy feline is working for its kibble. (Ingrid Johnson)

If you own a cat, you’ve probably heard that you should keep it inside — and if you live in Australia or New Zealand, you’ve definitely heard it. Veterinarians and rescue groups argue that it’s better for the cats, who can be slammed by cars, eaten by coyotes or poisoned by antifreeze while strolling about. Conservationists say it’s better for birds and other wildlife that cats love to maim and kill.

But there are downsides to the indoor feline lifestyle. Cats can get bored, leading them to bug you at midnight or leap at the television during the best moments of the World Series or David S. Pumpkins. They can become aggressive, causing them to view your ankles as enticing scratching posts. They can get lazy and fat, like the majority of American cats.

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Or they can fall victim to what Abigail Tucker, author of the recent book about cats, “The Lion in the Living Room,” refers to as “the most serious disease of feline modernity”: idiopathic cystitis, or Pandora Syndrome. The symptoms are bloody or painful urination, frequently outside a litter box, and other gastrointestinal, dermatological and neurological ailments. The cause, researcher Tony Buffington told Tucker, is indoor living that has removed from cats the control and territory they crave.

A new study reveals feeding your cat from a bowl might not be the best option for their wellbeing. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

One big issue, cat experts say, is that in the 10,000 years or so since humans adopted cats as vermin-catchers, people have not selectively bred them to match their new lethargic, indoor lifestyle. In other words, just beneath the surface of that fluff ball on the ottoman is a skilled predator whose instincts tell it to roam, stalk and pounce. When there’s nothing suitable to act on, problems can arise.

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People have long mistakenly viewed cats as low-maintenance pets that only need a bowl of kibble, a place to sleep and an occasional scratch, said Mikel Delgado, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who studies cat behavior.

“We’ve just been like, ‘Oh, you’re cute and cuddly. Come inside,’ and we’ve kind of forgotten about what cats are built to do, which is hunt,” Delgado said. “We’re not recognizing who cats really are and what they need.”

But fortunately, we are living in pet-obsessed modern America, so there’s a growing industry to help cat owners make their home something of a predator’s wonderland — or, at least, a tolerable territory. Blogs can show you how to build screened cat patios, or catios, or you can order a kit or hire someone to construct one. The website Hauspanther, which says its mission is “to spread the word about how good design can enhance the way we live with cats,” directs cat owners toward minimalist cat climbing complexes, modern felt cat baskets and Nordic-style feline furniture.

And for those desiring a smaller investment, the market now sells a plethora of products intended to offer cats a sort of simulated hunting experience. Indoor cats may not be able to act on their drive to scale trees and stalk prey. But they can use what are known as “food puzzles,” or contraptions that hold food — wet or dry — in balls, boxes, mazes or even piñatas that cats must use their brains and bodies to swat and open.

“Any cat in their natural environment would not just be handed a bowl of mice,” said Delgado, who co-hosts a website exploring the features — and extolling the virtues — of food puzzles for cats. “They would have to work for any food item they obtain.”

Many cat owners might not believe their pudgy, sleepy kitties would cooperate with food puzzles. But Delgado recently co-authored a recent paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, and it listed several cases of problematic cat behavior that the researchers resolved or improved with the products.

One young male was extremely afraid of people, but after being given food puzzles, he allowed petting and came when called. An 8-year-old obese cat lost 20 percent of his body weight after being given purchased and homemade food puzzles, which can be as simple as a yogurt container with holes punched in it. Several kitties stopped urinating outside of their litter boxes — once they had food puzzles.

But even if the cats exert effort to obtain their food from a rolling piece of plastic, does that mean they like to? Might it not drive them nuts in the process?

Asked that question, Delgado brought up a counterintuitive phenomenon called contrafreeloading, which is used to describe animals’ preference for food that requires effort over identical food that is given to them. This behavior has been observed in many animals — from rats to gerbils to pigeons to wolves — and scientists still haven’t agreed on why they do it.

Just one species studied didn’t display contrafreeloading. That’s right: Cats.

But Delgado said she is skeptical of that finding. The study was conducted decades ago and with a very small sample size, she noted. “Why would cats be the exception?” she asked. “We need to revisit this study with cats.”

Delgado acknowledged that introducing food puzzles can be challenging, and she advises owners to start with easy ones — with a regular food source still available so cats don’t get frustrated — then ramp up the difficulty. Each cat in a household should have its own puzzle, she said.

When it works, owners often “see their cat in a new light,” Delgado said. “Given that the overall trend from the conservation movement and vets and rescue groups is to keep cats indoors, then we have to face this problem we have, which is that just keeping cats indoors isn’t enough.”

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