Environmental enrichment for cats

Understand what environmental enrichment is and how it is being used with the endangered Asiatic Lions at Chester Zoo

Asiatic lions and environmental enrichment

Environmental enrichment is the latest buzzword in the pet world. It may sound a bit fuzzy, but we are big fans of environmental enrichment for cats.

Environmental enrichment has been shown to reduce stress levels in cats, and lower stress leads to better feline immune systems and healthier cats. It is particularly important if your cats are indoor cats, and it is vital if you have an stud boy or un-neutered male cat.

Environmental enrichment at Chester Zoo

Environmental enrichment at Chester Zoo

It is essentially about keeping your cat stimulated in the way they would be in the wild. We are based near Chester and Chester Zoo is very close to us, and they are doing some excellent work there with Scottish Wild cats, Asiatic lions, tigers and leopards. They have two Asiatic lions at Chester Zoo, a male called Iblis and a female called Kumari. They were hoping to breed them to help grow their numbers in the world because they are endangered.

After some years, there were still no lion cubs on the horizon, so they commenced fertility investigations. The fertility investigations found no reason for reduced fertility in either of the lions. They tried injecting the female, Kumari, with fertility hormones to increase her chance of getting pregnant, but all to no avail. After some time they came to the realisation that the female simply was not interested in the male, and would not let him near her to mate with her.

Asiatic Lion Iblis at Chester Zoo

The staff at the zoo suspected that he had maybe become unattractive to her. In the wild the lionesses choose only the strongest males who are able to prove themselves by fending off other males. In captivity the male was the only lion, so he was never having to flex his muscles. The staff decided to try using environmental enrichment to build his muscles up, in the hope of making him more attractive to the female. They placed carcasses in trees, so that he would have to use his strength to retrieve the food. Amazingly, after several months of this, the female became more and more interested in him and they mated! 

Unfortunately there are still no Asiatic lion cubs at Chester Zoo, despite Iblis and Kumari mating. There could be many reasons for this, as it is known that wild cats often suffer from reduced fertility. Wild cats from limited populations suffer even more, often due to the level of natural inbreeding that then occurs. Read more about inbreeding and its effects.

Staff at the zoo explain how they provide daily environmental enrichment for the Asiatic lions:

"I love providing the lions with enrichment; they particularly love sensory enrichment. This means we have to collect lots of different smells from all around the zoo. We get scents from the bedding or dung of other animals, our horticultural team provide us with fresh cut herbs or different plants and we’ve also been known to use herbal tea. 

We place these around their habitat on stuff that is already in situ like the trees or rocks. Sometimes we make hessian sacks filled with straw and add the scent to these or stuff them inside a wooden ball!"

Environmental enrichment for your cat

Clearly, domestic British Shorthair cats are very different from wild cats, but this is still a very interesting example of how a change in environment (from wild to domestic) can have a significant impact on an animal. It also shows how effective environmental enrichment can be. By making the environment more challenging, it became more like the wild environment and made the animals more active, more interested and ultimately made them behave more naturally.

Puzzle feeders, cat trees, toys and interactive play are all forms of environmental enrichment. All cats benefit from environmental enrichment, but it can be particularly useful where a cat has behavioural problems, or is an unhealthy weight. 

You can find our top 5 best cat toys ever here.

For more ideas on using herbs for environmental enrichment, and the added benefits they provide, see herbs for cats: the power of plants


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Chester Zoo

Visit Chester Zoo's web page on their incredible Asiatic Lions