Im bored: Everyday things to enrich our pets environment (Proceedings)


Animals are exposed to stressful situations throughout their entire lives.

Animals are exposed to stressful situations throughout their entire lives. Not only animals in confinement encounter stress, such as in kennel or shelter situations, but those in households do as well.  Behavioral enrichment helps decrease some of the stresses that the animals encounter, as well as playing a direct role in preventing and treating problem behaviors.

Stress in animals

There are many things in an animal's life that can cause stress and anxiety.  Certainly veterinary visits cause stress, whether directly due to the medical condition, especially those causing pain or discomfort, but also due to handling and restraint.  Kenneling an animal, whether short-term in the hospital or longer-term in an owner's house after orthopedic surgery, for example, is also stressful.  Specific stressful things about confinement away from home can include: the actual confinement itself; change in diet; separation from the family members; proximity to loud and/or aggressive animals; noise; change of routine; and even just having people walk by the cage and not interact with it.  Confinement at home for long periods of time, especially for young, active, or anxious animals, or those that have never been crate-trained, is also stressful.

Stressful situations specific to long-term confinement in shelters are often related to the things mentioned above.  However, lack of environmental enrichment also plays a large role in perpetuating stress in these animals. 

Signs of stress

Acute stress can manifest itself with signs of sympathetic nervous system activation.  Some examples are: dilated pupils; piloerection; increased fear and/or aggression; inappetance; and vocalization.  Chronic stress is often more insidious in nature.  Some of the signs seen during acute stress can be present.  However, some animals that are chronically stressed can develop repetitive behaviors, such as circling, excessive grooming (i.e. acral lick dermatitis), and pacing.  They can also be more likely to develop an illness, especially if they are exposed to multiple stressors.


One main purpose of enrichment is to help reduce stress in animals.  By enriching an animal's environment, it helps the owner develop a consistent and pleasant manner in which to interact with their pet, gives the animal something to do, both with the owner and when the owner is not present, and helps animals expend physical and mental energy.  It also allows the animal to display more species-typical behaviors.  Enrichment tools include: food dispensing tools or long-lasting food tools; solitary tools; human-interactive tools; and human interaction.

Food-dispensing tools

The reasons for using these tools include giving the animal something to do when the owner is not present, and letting the animal “forage” for its food, which is more ethologically correct than eating its full ration out of a food bowl, even though our pets adapt well.  Animals spend a good portion of their day hunting (carnivores) or foraging (herbivores) for food, which they are not able to do when they are fed their ration out of a bowl. 

Animals could be fed their entire daily ration in these tools.  Things to recommend to owners are for them to start out easy for the animal, gradually increasing the difficulty for the animal, and using larger quantities of the tasty treats at the beginning.

Self-play toys are especially good for pets which are left home alone while their owners are away. A lot of self-play toys dispense food, which motivates the pet to play with the toy. The basic principle is that you fill up the toy with food, and the pet learns to manipulate the toy to release the food out of a hole. Some examples are: Kong toys ®; Roll-a-Treat Balls ®; Deli Dome ®; and Pavlov's Cat ®. Owners can make their own toys with such objects as racquet or tennis balls, or disposable water bottles with plastic lids. Cut a hole into the ball or container, fill it up with dry kibble, and, presto, the pet is entertained.

Caution must be taken when recommending these types of toys for your clients to use.  Certainly take into consideration dietary restrictions for that pet.  Safety must also be taken into consideration, so that the animal does not injure itself or swallow part of the tool during vigorous chewing.  In addition, pests and vermin should be controlled if these tools are left about in the house or outside.  One should strive for a balance between extremely tasty (and perhaps fattening) and nutritionally balanced food.

Solitary tools

In addition to the food-dispensing tools, there are other types of things that animals can use when they are alone.  Such things include visual enrichment, odors, and other types of toys. Some animals may enjoy watching television, and there are some videos available for purchase for pets to watch.  However, perches by windows with bird feeders outside may provide more enjoyment for some pets.  Be aware that roaming cats may be attracted to the yard, and become a trigger for the household cat to begin urine marking.


Odors can also enrich the environment of some animals, especially when taking kenneled animals into consideration.  Odors, such as lavender, may provide some calming effects.  Music and/or other radio sounds may provide enrichment or calming effect for some pets.  Take into consideration the volume of the noise, and be aware that, while pleasing to us, some odors are aversive to animals.

Self-play toys that do not dispense food are not nearly as exciting for the average pet. However, for example, some cats find balls on springs or a wall- or door-mounted Cat Dancer ® (rolled cardboard paper pieces on a spring coil wire) irresistible. 

Human-interactive tools

Interactive toys help strengthen the bond between the owner and the pet by letting them share fun and positive experiences. Both owners and cats can have a great time playing with wand-type toys with strings, feathers, and fabric attached, or even just wadded up pieces of paper. 

Dogs often enjoy games of fetch or tug-of-war.  Care should be taken to make sure that the dog does not aggressively guard the tossed toy, as well as not display aggression when playing tug-of-war.  Despite what is mentioned, tug games to not cause aggression, but can exacerbate it if the dog is already aggressive.  Owners must learn to play safely with their pet.

A controversial toy is the laser pointer.  While they can be a source of exercise for pets of owners with limited mobility, care must be taken to not overuse it, and to watch the pet's reactions closely, as some animals can become very intrigued by ALL moving lights, to the extent of “obsessively” searching for them.

Human interaction

A human's interaction with a pet is a very important way in which an animal's life is enriched, as the human-animal bond is secured.  Some pets prefer to just be petted and handled instead of playing, especially as their physical ability to do so decreases.  Some animals would prefer training.

Training techniques

The majority of animal benefit from some sort of training, whether it be from attending a class or from the owner following instructions found in a book.  When an animal learns to follow a command from an owner and is consistently interacted with and rewarded, it is able to develop a closer bond with the owner.  Training techniques involve any combination of the following: positive and/or negative reinforcement; and/or positive and/or negative punishment.  Reinforcement increases the chance of a behavior occurring in the future.  Punishment decreases the chance of a behavior occurring in the future.  Positive means the *addition* of something. Negative means the *removal* of something. 

  • Positive (+) reinforcement: clicker training, food or toy rewards

  • Negative (-) reinforcement: Head collar, horse bridle

  • Positive (+) punishment: physical punishment, choke collar, remote punishments

  • Negative (-) punishment: “time out”

When referring to a trainer, do not rely only on word of mouth, and never rely just on an advertisement of “positive reinforcement used”, as they also may use coercive techniques as well.  Visit every trainer that you are referring to, and make sure that you are comfortable with the techniques that they use for training animals, since YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES are responsible for the physical and mental well-being of your patients.  A good rule of thumb when referring to a trainer is never refers to someone who uses techniques that you would not want to see used on a child.  There are a lot of excellent trainers around, and a lot of trainers that use excessively harsh and cruel techniques.

Training tools are just that – tools.  They are not magic in and of themselves, but allow people to perhaps make the animal do something that they may not readily do.  They can be broken down to: leashes and collars and those products that deliver a punishment, such as remote punishments and booby traps.  The more humane tools available are: head collars; front-attachment harnesses; and clickers. 

Various forms of successful outlets for training are available.  They can be from the basic obedience class to more advanced ones, such as agility, flyball, tracking, lure coursing, and even dancing.  Just as there are various outlets for training, there are many ways that trainers work with their clients.  One increasingly common method is by using “clicker training”.  This allows a person to use a bridging stimulus (the clicker) to mark the exact moment an animal performs a correct behavior, allowing some time to get the reward to it. 

Even cats can be taught any number of tricks, from “sit” to “down” to “wave.” To be successful, you must use positive reinforcement methods (such as clicker training) since most cats cannot be forced to do something they don't want to do!


In summary, the stress level in animals can be greatly reduced by incorporating behavioral enrichment into their lives.  It helps foster a better relationship between the owners and their pets, as well as helps decrease the incidence of problem behaviors.

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