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Enrichment never gets old: Why senior pets need stimulation too

dvm360dvm360 November 2023
Volume 54
Issue 11
Pages: 67

Keeping pets physically and mentally engaged as they age is fundamental to their well-being and overall health

 Lenti Hill / stock.adobe.com

Lenti Hill / stock.adobe.com

It is necessary to enrich the lives of dogs and cats, so they can exhibit their natural behaviors. Zoos have known this for decades and provide enrichment activities for captive animals of all ages.1,2

Increasingly, veterinary professionals are emphasizing to clients that enriching their pet’s life helps to prevent behavior problems, treat behavior issues, enhance welfare, and—to some degree—maintain proper weight. Arguably, mental exercise is as important as physical movement and flexibility.3

Why enrichment activities for senior pets are important

Here are some ideas to stimulate pets’ sense of smell.


  • Borrow a dog toy from a friend or neighbor to intrigue them with a new sensation.
  • Borrow a cat toy, and dogs will be amazed at what they have discovered.
  • Dab a clean rag with a few drops of vanilla, coconut, ginger, lavender, perfume, or cologne.


  • Use catnip and/or silvervine.
  • Use cat grasses.
  • Use valerian root.
  • Dab fish oil on a clean rag.
  • Provide them with safe, cat-friendly spices, such as oregano.
  • Dab a few drops of perfume or cologne on a clean rag.

Old dogs (and cats) can learn new tricks. In fact, it is healthy for them to do so. However, the reality is that enrichment efforts typically wane when it comes to senior pets. Pet parents tend to think, “Fido knows how to do that,” or, “Fluffy is too old to seek out food puzzles,” or, “I am too busy with the younger pet(s),” or, “Petunia has arthritis.”

Dogs have long been used as a model to study brain aging in humans, particularly for Alzheimer disease and dementia.4,5 It turns out human Alzheimer disease and dementia are associated with the factors listed below (not including genetic predispositions, smoking/drinking, and poverty), which are similar to those in dogs with the diseases5-9:

  • Lack of mobility, movement, or physical exercise
  • Obesity (59% of dogs and 61% of cats are overweight or obese)
  • Lack of social interaction
  • Lack of a job—even volunteer work—a commitment of any kind, a reason to get up in the morning
  • Lack of a positive attitude—laughter may truly be the best medicine, as a positive attitude does appear to delay cognitive decline and/or reduce its effects, at least for a time (for dogs and cats, this may translate to play)
  • Lack of intellectual activity—it turns out great grandpa was right when he said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Most of these factors have to do with a lack of enrichment in daily lives; similarly, finding ways to keep senior pets stimulated can help promote their health and well-being for the long run.

How to enrich the life of senior pets

Offering food or treats from toys and food puzzles is one method for enriching companion animals’ lives. Eagerness to work for food and a preference to problem solve has been studied, although little research has been done in this specifically for dogs or cats. Study findings indicate that laboratory rats, grizzly bears, and other animals will choose to work for their meal over receiving a “free meal” in a captive or laboratory environment. This phenomenon is called contrafreeloading. Although there are limited data regarding contrafreeloading in dogs and cats, much less in senior pets, the phenomenon appears to be very real for many species. Of course, debilitated animals should not be “forced” to work for food, but animals who enjoy this may continue to do so for a lifetime, even into old age.10

Even as cats age, their prey drive doesn’t diminish. You can help them fulfill this need with interactive play. Older cats may benefit from shorter play sessions; around 5 minutes or less usually suffices. When geriatric dogs can no longer take long walks, more frequent shorter walks can allow them to get outside to smell the roses or grass, which is incredibly stimulating. Another option is dog strollers (also for those cats who may have enjoyed rides in strollers previously)—it is a way for geriatric pets to still be with their people and simultaneously enjoy the sights and smells of the world.

Can a new pet bring out the old pet’s youth?

That adage about adding a younger pet to the household to spark new life into an older one can certainly work for social dogs and for cats who have had previous positive experiences with other cats. But beware: This decision is not the pet’s choice and may or may not work well, and may be anxiety inducing, particularly for cats.

A virtual pet is a safer option. If the TV or computer screen showing programs of dogs or cats is ignored or disliked, it is easy enough to turn off. Some cats enjoy watching lizards and birds on TV or you can provide them with a step up, so they can watch them out of windows.

The bottom line is that older pets benefit from enriching activities the same as, or arguably more than, younger animals do.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes for veterinary professionals and pet owners, hosts 2 national radio programs, and has appeared on TV shows, including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is on the dvm360 Editorial Advisory Board as well as the boards of the Human Animal Bond Association and EveryCat Foundation. He appears at conferences around the world. Visit stevedale.tv.


1. Dale S, Briere A. American Zoos. Mallard Press; 2022.

2. Schultz C. Behavior techniques in zoo animals. In: Eastern States Veterinary Association. Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference. US Department of Agriculture; 2004.

3. Dodman N, Lindner L, eds. Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable. Mariner Books; 2012.

4. Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Wilson RS, Yu L, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):499-505. doi:10.1001/ archgenpsychiatry.2011.1487

5. Milgram NW, Siwak-Tapp CT, Araujo J, Head E. Neuroprotective effects of cognitive enrichment. Ageing Res Rev. 2006;5(3):354-369. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2006.04.004

6. Can I prevent dementia? Alzheimers.gov. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.alzheimers.gov/ life-with-dementia/can-i-prevent-dementia

7. Preventing Alzheimer’s disease: what do we know? National Institute on Aging. Updated September 24, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.nia.nih.gov/ health/preventing-alzheimers-disease-what-do-we-know

8. Stress management. Stress release from laughter? it’s no joke. Mayo Clinic. September 22, 2023. Accessed October 17, 2023. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/ stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456

9. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention announces World Pet Obesity Awareness Day: October 11, 2023. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.petobesitypre- vention.org

10. McGowan RTS, Rehn T, Norling Y, Keeling LJ. Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Anim Cogn. 2014;17(3):577-587. doi:10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x

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