Enriched Pet Environments Lead to Healthier Lives


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I contend the average monkey, black bear or lion at a zoo has a more enriched life than most of our dogs and cats at home.  In fact, all pets require some enrichment – even lizards, and most certainly pet parrots.

Enrichment is manipulating the environment to suit an animals’ natural behavior.  Over a long winter, and through a wet spring, providing environmental enrichment may also simply alleviate boredom for dogs who can’t get out as often.

Some larger zoos have a full-time employee with the sole task of enriching the lives of residents. It’s something most pet owners rarely think about.

Here are some examples of enriching environments at zoos:

Various condiments are dispensed into holes in a log (offering choice), and as seen on National Geographic TV specials, chimpanzees (and sometimes other primates as well) use sticks and other debris as utensils to scoop the delicacies.

Inside of a giant ice cube, a polar bear might find a fish treat, bringing an entirely new definition to fish ‘n chips. A pulley speeds across a cheetah exhibit with a whole (dead) chicken; the big cat now chases it as if it was alive. Also, randomly spreading food on the ground of exhibits, ranging from various hoof stock species to warthogs, which encourages natural foraging behavior.

Our dogs, cats and pet parrots often lead monotonous lives – a challenge for social animals.  Families are busier than ever, both spouses work full time; kids involved with friends and after school activities, and the pets languish home alone. And when we are home, are we interacting with TV remote control or the pets?

All dogs were bred to do something, but today the rate of canine unemployment is sky high.  While increasingly, people keep cats indoors (where life is unquestionably safer); we live in a nation of brain-dead fat cats. Parrots are by nature problems solvers, and relish to use their beaks as construction tools – opportunities not always offered in homes.

But natural behaviors can be replicated indoors; for example, cats enjoy hunting, even playing with their food.

Ideally, cats (and dogs also) should be fed exclusively from enrichment toys that dispense kibble when pushed or maneuvered.  We work for our food, why shouldn’t our pets?

Today, there a myriad of food dispensing toys available at pet stores and online. Use doors to separate individual animals, so they don’t compete over food, and so you can keep tabs of who has eaten what.

Even if you’re not feeding all the pets’ meals from the toys, reserve about 20 percent of their daily food for a game of hide n’ seek. Hide the food toys with kibble inside, so pets’ “hunt” for this portion of their meals, then once the treasure is discovered the pets work at getting the food from the toys.

A more challenging category are intellectual toys incudes Nina Ottosson Company of Animals games and puzzles , which the pets have to figure out how to move around puzzle pieces to snatch up treats. Cats like to search in small closed spaces, and the Stimulo indeed stimulates natural behavior, as cats get to use their paws to snatch treats inside narrow feeding tubes.

Pat Sajack and Vanna White would likely endorse the Treat Wheel. Dogs literally spin the wheel, and if lands in the right spot, the fortune is a treat that’s dispensed. Northmate offers a variety of pet products, including Pulse and Green which pets uniquely work at for yummies.

While most pets are motivated by food, some individuals just aren’t. Besides, enriching a pet’s environment doesn’t need to be associated with spending a penny. For example, a return trip from a grocery store that includes an empty box or paper sack, might result in the happiest kitty on the planet.

With a touch of imagination that empty box can be a new cat toy every day. Just relocating the same box to another room makes it new and exciting all over again. The next day, cut a mouse hole for kitty to poke a paw through, on the day after sprinkle some catnip inside, and on the day after that drop a little squeaky mouse toy inside, etc.

For pet birds, similarly, adding a novel item into the cage daily can be exciting. In the wild, of course, birds fly from place to place – their environment changes.

Perhaps, the greatest occupational therapy invention for dogs is the classic Kong toy (a hard rubber spherical-shaped red or black toy) which you can stuff low fat cream cheese or low fat, low salt peanut butter inside, and dogs have to work to get it out. Have a few of these toys stuffed and ready in the fridge before you leave the house. As you depart, hide them, and let your pup sniff them out when you’re not home.

Another idea, as you leave, turn on the TV or a DVD. Parrots often appreciate some of the same programs we do. Cats sometimes like watching DVD’s starring running rodents or lizards.. There’s even a DirectTV choice with programming content for dogs, called Dog TV.

Enrichment also includes adjusting the environment for your pets. For example, cats use vertical space. Offering high places to hang out is good for the feline psyche.

Lots of behavior issues can be prevented when environments are enriched. As one example if the pet is playing with an appropriate toy when you’re not home, the game doesn’t become tearing up pillowcases or tearing down drapes.

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Content Agency

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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