Puzzles, clicker training, and a healthy diet are all key, according to animal behaviorists.

By Roxanna Coldiron
June 09, 2020
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Cat playing with feather toy
Credit: NiseriN / Getty Images

A cat's intelligence has always been difficult to measure. The main reason behind this, of course, is that cats tend to do their own thing in a laboratory setting or find it too distressing to behave naturally. Despite this, cats do very well in some social cognition studies. Our feline friends are smart animals with an approximate intelligence level comparable to a three-year-old human child. But mental decline happens for almost all species as they mature and our cats will be no exception. How can we keep our cat's brains sharp as they grow older?

"If we want to keep our cats sharp as they age, we need to give them enriching and mentally challenging activities," explains Julie Posluns, applied animal behaviorist (ACAAB) and trainer at Cat School. "For many cats, life can be quite monotonous. Giving your cat mental enrichment helps direct their energy in a positive way, and reduces boredom and apathy." You can provide mental enrichment for your cat in a variety of ways. Activities can introduce different levels of puzzle-solving skills, so make sure that you are also patient with your cat as you teach them new things. We asked Posluns for some advice and here's what she had to share.

Have them solve food puzzles.

Food puzzles are games in which your cat has to navigate the puzzle to find hidden food. Some examples of these include the Petstages Green Buggin' Out Puzzle & Play Interactive Cat Treat Toy ($19.99, petco.com) or the Catit Senses 2.0 Cat Digger Slow Feeder ($17.99, chewy.com). But you can make your own food puzzles, too: Take an empty paper-towel roll and poke a hole in it big enough for treats to fall out of it, then hide some tasty treats on the inside for your cat to find. The treat inside matters, too—after all, a healthy diet is important for your cat.

Try clicker training.

Clicker training is often combined with food puzzles for maximum motivation and benefit for your cat. "Clicker training and food puzzles are, in my opinion, the best way to keep our cats learning, solving problems and give their brains a workout," says Posluns. With clicker training, you train your cat to do "high-paws" or "roll over" and give them a treat when they perform it the correct way.

Bring them on outdoor leash walks.

Walking your cat on a leash is not as unusual as it sounds. "If you have an indoor cat, consider expanding their world with activities like leash walks," Posluns says. "Even if you don't go further than the porch or yard, the act of teaching your cat a new skill like following you, or wearing a harness are all opportunities for them to learn." There is so much for your cats to explore when they are outside that it could sharpen their curious minds.

Upgrade your home environment.

Even your home can be designed with the cat in mind. Posluns suggests incorporating new toys, climbing structures, cat-friendly scents, and puzzle feeders. Your cat will have plenty of things to keep her occupied while inside of the house. You can also alternate which toys are available to make things more interesting for her.

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