Is your pet’s daily routine a bit stale? Are you fetching the ball more often than your dog? Have you recently returned yet another expensive cat toy that failed to provide the promised  “hours of entertainment?”

Once you’ve fulfilled your pet’s basic needs (i.e., food, water, shelter, and elimination), one necessary but rarely talked about category must be addressed—enrichment. 

What is enrichment for pets?

Enrichment is an animal care strategy that was developed to reduce stress and improve health by encouraging natural behavior in captive animals. Enrichment creates specific opportunities—through games, environment, or experiences—for each species to safely express and rehearse natural behavior.

Although dogs and cats are domesticated, they still need to perform instinctive natural behaviors, and they benefit greatly from enrichment.

What can enrichment do for my pet?

Enrichment has innumerable advantages for pets, and is commonly used in shelters to improve dog and cat wellbeing. Adding one small enrichment opportunity to your pet’s daily life can lead to:

  • Improved behavior Unwanted behavior is often caused by insufficient mental or physical exercise. Enrichment encourages your pet to use their mind and body, resulting in a satisfied, tired pet.
  • Weight management Enrichment aids in weight loss by promoting physical activity and slowing food consumption.
  • Better health Pets who are physically and mentally satisfied experience less fear, anxiety, and stress, which can negatively impact their health.
  • More confident pets — Enrichment empowers pets to solve problems, explore their environment, and try new things. 

5 easy ways to enrich your pet’s life

While pet enrichment toys and puzzles are convenient and effective, once you learn how to recognize enrichment opportunities, you’ll see them everywhere—and they’re often inexpensive or free! Let’s explore five easy ways to enrich your pet’s life:

  • Environment — Dogs and cats are not only natural predators, but also prey for larger animals. Fortunately, your pet does not need to eat-or-be-eaten to practice the associated behaviors, including observing, stalking, chasing, and pouncing. Instead, try the following:
    • Hiding places — Cats prefer to move inconspicuously from place to place. Arrange your furniture to create secret paths, so your cat can appear and disappear. 
    • Elevation Dogs and cats are naturally attracted to high places. Cat trees and perches can be purchased or created from strategically placed shelves or tables. If your dog isn’t allowed on the furniture, try an elevated platform.
    • A room with a view — Place your pet’s perch or elevated platform near a window where they can safely observe their surroundings. No windows? Try cat or dog TV. 
  • Novelty — Boredom and monotony can lead to destructive behavior. Novelty is an enrichment cornerstone, but must be used with caution, to avoid overwhelming or frightening your pet. Introduce one new thing at a time, observe your pet’s body language to ensure they’re comfortable, and then remove the item after the play session, to help your pet maintain interest.
  • The senses — Look for sensory opportunities for your pet, but remember that their senses are different from yours. While some—such as scent—are stronger, others—such as sight in dogs, and taste in cats—are weaker. 

Observe your pet  to determine how they use their senses when they encounter new things—do they use their nose or their paws, or do they prefer to watch from afar? Plan activities that cater to these strengths. For example:

    • Nosy dog? — Go to a new park, and let them sniff to their heart’s content.
    • Grabby cat? — Try a DIY reach feeder, which can be purchased online.

  • Cognition — Encourage your pet to think critically. Always start with easy games to build their confidence, and allow them to “win” often during the learning phase, to develop resilience and motivation.
    • DIY puzzles — Try these fun DIY ideas for cats and dogs from the ASPCA.
    • Foraging games Hide your pet’s treats around the house, in the grass, or on a snuffle mat. Fill a Kong or Licki-Mat with your pet’s food and a wet ingredient, such as canned diets, peanut butter, low-sodium broth, or plain yogurt.

  • Play — Exercise and social play improve your pet’s mental and physical health. No two pets play the same way, so encourage your pet to get active by learning what they like.
    • Exploration — Walking, hiking, swimming, and biking are great for physically fit dogs. For cats, set up an obstacle course, and guide them through with a laser pointer or feather-wand.
    • Chasing and fetching — Look for toys with unusual textures and unpredictable movement.
    • Personal play — Petting, gentle wrestling, chase games, and hide-and-seek can encourage reluctant pets.
    • Independent play — For pets who prefer to play alone, try motion-activated toys and treat balls.

Always supervise your pet, and remove toys and puzzles at the end of play time to prevent inappropriate play, and to ensure the toy remains interesting for next time. 

Canine and feline enrichment is a simple way to improve your pet’s health and behavior, while having fun and strengthening your bond—but, remember, safety first! Have your pet examined at Somerset Animal Hospital before beginning any new physical activity. Contact our team to schedule an appointment.