By Dr. Becker and Diane Weinmann
When veterinarians and other pet care experts talk about “environmental enrichment,” they’re often referring to improving a pet’s environment. All companion and captive animals can benefit from environmental enrichment. Today I want to talk specifically about ways to enhance your pet’s quality of life.
So what is Environmental Enrichment?
Environmental enrichment for pets, also called behavioral enrichment, means enhancing an animal’s surroundings and lifestyle so that he is presented with novelty in his environment, opportunities to learn, and encouragement to engage in instinctive, species-specific behaviors.
Environmental enrichment is used to address many behavioral disorders in dogs and or cats, including “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction syndrome, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors resulting from boredom and/or frustration.
In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.
When you offer a new toy to your pet, you’ve probably noticed that while she’s very excited by it initially, she loses interest within a day or so (or within hours or even minutes, depending on the pet and the toy). That’s because pets habituate to toys, meaning they get used to them. The new toy quickly becomes just another inanimate object in your pet’s environment.
You can work around the problem by rotating your pet’s toys. Provide your pet with a supply of different types of toys in varying shapes, sizes, textures, colors, and scents. A general guideline is to offer three toys per day. At the end of the day remove them, and reintroduce them about every five days so they remain “new” to your pet.
Dogs especially need daily exercise to be optimally healthy and emotionally balanced, and this goes double for young pets and high-energy breeds. It’s important to understand that your dog – no matter how small – can’t get adequate exercise running around your home or backyard by himself. You may be able to stimulate play with your cat but again, probably not enough as a daily routine.
In a perfect world, every dog would have opportunities to do some high-intensity endurance running on a regular basis to release endocannabinoids, which are the “happy hormones” responsible for the “runner’s high” in both humans and canines.
Most pets don’t engage in intense exercise with their owners for a variety of reasons, but your dog really does need your help to get the most out of exercise and playtime. There are lots of activities you can enjoy with your pet, no matter your own level of physical fitness or limitations.
Take a walk or hike with your dog
Play a game of tug-of-war
Roller blade or jog with your dog
Take your dog for a swim and play fetch in the water
Take a bike ride alongside your dog using a special dog bike leash
Play hide-and-seek with treats or your dog or cat’s favorite toys
Play fetch the ball using a ball launcher to extend the distance your dog runs to retrieve and return the ball
Take your dog swimming
Play with feathers or strings on a stick to stimulate stalking, jumping and attacking for your cat
Provide catnip filled toys along with stuffed leg kickers for your kitty to wrestle with
Use a flashlight, pen light or laser to lure your cat to chase it
Get another pet for your current pet to play with. You’d be surprised how much exercise they will get playing with each other
Walking Your Dog
Another way to enhance your dog’s experience of her environment is to take her on a variety of different types of walks. For example:
- There are short purposeful walks in which your pet will only be outside long enough to relieve herself.
- There are mentally stimulating walks during which your dog is given time to stop, sniff, investigate, mark a spot, and discover the great outdoors with her nose and other senses.
Most leashed dogs don’t get to spend much time sniffing and investigating. Allowing your pet time to explore canine-style is good for him mentally. Dogs gather knowledge about the world through their noses.
- There are training walks that can expand your dog’s skills and confidence. You can use them to improve his leash manners, teach basic or advanced obedience commands, or for ongoing socialization opportunities.
- You might also want to consider power walks to improve your dog’s fitness level (and yours!).
- Take your dog into the woods and let him jump up on stumps; walk on logs and cross creeks.
If your canine companion does well at the dog park or dog water parks, visits there can provide opportunities for dog-to-dog interaction, exercise, and vigorous play.
If you have friends with dogs, arrange play dates. These can be excellent low-pressure social situations for dogs that need to hone their interaction skills without being overwhelmed by too many dogs, or an overly dominant dog.
Involve your dog in agility, obedience, dance, dock dogs, nose work, tracking, flyball, or another dog-centered event.
Additional Enrichment Strategies
- Provide your dog with visual enrichment by giving her a view outside through a window (unless she’s reactive to external stimuli).
- Provide auditory enrichment by leaving a television or radio on, playing music or outdoor sounds on a CD, and offering your dog toys that make noise. Animal planet is a favorite of a lot of animals!
- I know some people have made a screened in area for their cat to “spend time outdoors” without the worry of other critters bothering them or running away. Being able to spend time in nature is very stimulating to cats.
- Let the flies stay in your house –there are entertainment for your cat or dog! They will get them eventually without you chasing them around with a swatter.
- Provide tactile enrichment by petting, massaging, and brushing your dog. Make sure to follow her cues for what type of touch she does and doesn’t like.
- Appeal to your dog’s olfactory senses by placing her toys in the clothes hamper so they pick up the scent of her humans. Use essential oils that are safe for pets – lavender is a great one! (Only use therapy grade oils) Hide treats around the house or in cardboard boxes.
- Puzzle and treat release toys can help focus the attention of high-energy dogs, and keep dogs with storm phobia or separation anxiety occupied before and during anticipated stressful events.
It’s a good idea to stuff the toys with small amounts of healthy, species-appropriate treats for both cats and dogs so they’ll hold his interest. You can also try freezing the toys to keep your pet occupied for longer periods. And since you want to avoid weight gain in your pet (unless he’s underweight), be sure to account for the calories in the treats by adjusting the amount of food you offer at regular mealtimes.