Environmental enrichment for dogs and cats (Proceedings)


Environmental enrichment is an important and essential aspect of most animal management programs.

Environmental enrichment is an important and essential aspect of most animal management programs. While we often envisage enrichment in the context of zoos and animal parks, it also has an important place in pet homes. The average pet receives very low levels of environmental stimulation, and most of this stimulation is repetitive and highly predictable. Non-domestic, stray and feral animals spend the majority of their time foraging for food. In addition, they must seek out or construct resting areas and avoid predators and other natural hazards. Pet animals on average spend less than 15 minutes per day eating because they do not have to forage for food. The majority of dog breeds were developed for some functional purpose (guarding, herding, hunting, etc.) yet few animals actually participate in these activities, leaving them with no constructive outlet for behavior patterns that are biologically generated.

In a natural environment, the animal's environment is constantly changing in many ways. There are fewer spatial and temporal restrictions in natural settings than in home environments. Insufficient stimulation can cause or exacerbate a number of behavior problems including hyperactivity, destructive chewing, acral lick dermatitis, attention-seeking behavior, compulsive disorders and aggression.

Environmental enrichment can not substitute entirely for providing animals with outlets for heritable behavior and heavy physical exercise. It can encourage a more normal range of behaviors in the animal and serve to constructively occupy the animal's time and aid in reducing "boredom."

One relatively easy intervention is for animals to receive their entire daily ration of food during training or from enrichment devices. All enrichment items should be rotated so the animal does not see the same items repeatedly every day. Enrichment is about environmental variability – introducing novelty and some degree of unpredictability into the stimuli to which the animal is exposed.

There are a variety of puzzle type toys on the market now, especially for dogs. Premier Pet Products (i.e. Busy Buddy toys) and the Kong Company have a varied line of such toys that are durable and come in a variety of sizes. Not all animals will be able to participate in all the suggestions that follow. Know the animal and its propensity for destroying and/or eating toys. Certain animals should only get certain toys while under direct supervision.

1. Feed the animal from a Buster Cube, Roll-A-Treat ball, or other food dispensing toy.

2. Place food or treats inside a cardboard box, old towel/rag, or plastic jugs and allow the animal to "dissect" the item apart to get to the food inside.

3. Scatter food out in the grass in the yard or across the floor in the home to make the animal search for each piece. (Owners can spread a large blanket or sheet on the floor to protect the floor.)

4. Stuff Kong toys full of various food items (or the animal's meal) and freeze them overnight before giving them to the animal. These can also be given unfrozen.

5. Divide portions of the animal's meal into small Tupperware (or other containers) and hide them around the house for the animal to find.

6. Place novel scents in the environment using small amounts of spices, herbs, extracts, or synthetic animal scents (e.g. rabbit, quail, squirrel, etc. available from a sporting goods store).

7. Place sheds from reptiles or insects (or other animal skins) out for the animal to find and investigate. You can also use clumps of fur from other species or even gather small amounts of dirt from around a rodent burrow and place it in the home or yard for the pet to discover.

8. Build dogs a sand box either by sectioning off a 5-foot plus square area in the yard or buying a child's wading pool and filling it with sand and dirt.

9. Buy dogs a child's wading pool and fill it with water. If the dog enjoys both water and digging, you can alternate the substrate in the pool each week or provide one of each.

10. Place vegetables or fruits (e.g. melons, apples, lettuce, squash, watermelon, carrots, celery, etc.) out in the yard, bury them in the sand box, or float them in the wading pool. (Avoid grapes and raisins.)

11. Add sugar-free Kool-Aid, Gatorade powder, or bullion (or other broths) to water and freeze into a popsicle in a variety of sizes of Tupperware. You can add various pieces of food items to these: cereal, fruits, vegetables, animal food, cheese, meat, etc. There is also a product called a Kool Dogz Ice Treat Maker (Premier Pet Products, Inc).

12. Hang rope or innertubes from a branch or other item in the yard for dogs to play tug with.

13. Give the animal old water bottles or milk jugs made of either cardboard or plastic. You can increase the animal's interest by putting food items inside. (Always remove the plastic rings and the plastic caps before allowing animals to play with these items.) Many dogs will also play with 5-gallon water jugs.

14. Some dogs will play with old tires either loose on the ground or hanging from ropes.

15. Training sessions and other animal sport activities (flyball, agility, tracking, Frisbee, etc.) are also forms of enrichment.

16. Be sure the animal has both toys (e.g. squeakies, rope toys, stuffed animals, rubber toys, balls, etc.) and chewing items (Nylabone, Galileo bones, rawhide bones, etc.). These two types of toys serve different purposes.

Additional suggestions for cats include

1. Move the cat's food bowl to a different location in the house every 1-2 days so the cat must search for it. (This is best done with young healthy cats.)

2. Obtain ornamental "cat shelves" that can be mounted on walls in decorative patterns that allow the cat to use multiple levels in the house and move through the house via different pathways. (See "The Cats' House by Bob Walker.) Alternatively have a variety of sizes of cat trees in the home.

3. Make single cat sized perches on windowsills (these can be purchased commercially), in bookcases, on appliances, etc. Rotate the location of these perches periodically. (Note that many cats enjoy resting in the sun and will move to find such spots throughout the day.)

4. Give the cat a stuffed toy to attack and "beat up." Placing catnip on the toy may increase the cat's interest.

5. Set up bird feeders, squirrel feeders or cat videos for the cat to watch.

6. Give the cat access to paper bags or cardboard boxes.

7. Cats frequently like large mobile-like toys that move and jerk when they swat at them.

8. Offer clean natural wood branches for the cat to chew.

9. Certain bird toys may be acceptable for cats and more appealing than dog or cat toys. Many small dog toys can also be used for cats. Cats will sometimes chew on small rawhide strips and other dog bones.

10. Offer kitty grass or other sprouted plants.

11. Train the cat to wear a harness and leash so it can be walked outside or place cat fencing around all or part of the yard. (www.purrfectfence.com)

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