Written by: Leann Quire, Director of Shelter Operations
When the cold, winter temperatures drop outside, the dangers to your pets can also increase. The cold winter days can also make it difficult to get some quality time outside with your pet. We all know a tired dogs makes a happy dog, so what can you do if 20 degree snowy days are stopping you from getting in your routine walk, dog park visit, or outdoor play time? You may be surprised to find that physical exercise isn’t the only way to tire out your playful pooch.
Pet enrichment can be described as altering or manipulating an animal’s environment to increase activity and encourage normal species behavior in order to satisfy that animals innate needs. This means when we place animals in environments, like zoos, shelters, and even homes, it can restrict their ability to act out their natural instincts, such as digging, hunting, or herding. Animals can develop behavioral problems if they aren’t able to express these natural behaviors. Similarly, consider how humans read books, meditate, knit, or play video games to help them relax, reduce stress, and stimulate their mind and senses. Sometimes animals need our assistance to create the ability for them to act on their inborn behaviors to reduce stress and anxiety.
Enrichment comes in many forms, including feeding, toy, social, cognitive, sensory, and of course physical. Many toys and games can fall into multiple categories of enrichment.
Feeding enrichment can come in the form of puzzle feeders that make your pooch take a little extra time and actually have to work to get their meal, which is similar to hunting in the wild.
Toy enrichment is easy now that the pet toy market has exploded and provided many different options. You can provide your dog a toy like a Kong, which you would stuff with treats after adding a base, like peanut butter or broth, and then freeze overnight. Your dog has to work to get the frozen treats out of the inside. There are also toys like flirt poles that can help dogs with impulse control and tire them out quickly with minimum energy expense on your part.
Social enrichment is great for dogs who enjoy meeting people and animals. If your dog displays anxiety or aggression towards people or animals then this would not be an appropriate form of enrichment for your pet without the assistance of a professional trainer. For the dogs who do enjoy social interactions, parks, beaches, and pet friendly events can be great places for your dog to meet new people and pets. A bonus is that they will be surrounded with LOTS of new smells. Which leads us to sensory enrichment.
Sensory enrichment is any type of enrichment that stimulates one of the five senses. For hounds or dogs who are particularly good at nose work, you can bury spices or other animal’s scents and then have your dog investigate and find the scents. Sensory enrichment can also include bubbles, or a noise machine to expose your dog to new sounds they may have never heard.
Cognitive enrichment would include puzzle toys or games that require the pet to have to think and problem solve. Teaching your dog new tricks can be stimulating by causing them to follow instruction with repetition and reinforcement.
Physical enrichment is probably the most well-known, but most people think this strictly means taking your dog on a walk or run. This can also mean allowing them to dig in a sandbox or learn how to run an agility course.
Enrichment doesn’t have to be expensive. Many people think they need to purchase an expensive feeder or toys, but in reality a lot of things can be made from things you already have around the home. For example, you can make an obstacle course from items in your garage or basement. Yummy frozen treats can be made in your ice cube tray with yogurt, bananas, and other pet friendly food you most likely already have stocked in your fridge. Don’t let the concern of breaking your budget stop you from creating great bonding time with you and your pet.
Cats also benefit greatly from regular enrichment. Many domestic cats are overweight, which can lead to major health issues. Just like with dogs, cats don’t just benefit from physical enrichment, but from all types. Toys like the “Babble Ball” include diverse sounds to create excitement for your cat and encourage them to get up and place chase! It helps their natural instincts to catch prey. Use a feather toy to mimic your cats prey (don’t forget to let them catch it so they feel like a good hunter). It creates a better bond with your furry friend and helps to prevent boredom. Play can help to decrease anxiety and aggression in cats, which in turn helps your cat to feel more confident and relaxed.
It is important to find a balance between physical and mental stimulation for your pets. While exercise is extremely important, it is just as important to remember their mental wellbeing. Remember that each dog is different and while they may follow certain breed characteristics you will need to tailor enrichment to your dog’s specific personality and needs.
Enrichment in the shelter environment is critical. Animals are placed in cages that hinder their ability to act naturally, even more than in a home environment. At Humane Pennsylvania, we use many of the same ideas stated in the blog to help provide enrichment. We greatly appreciate our volunteers who are devoted to making up Kongs and other forms of enrichment, as well as the people who donate enrichment items. These efforts make a huge difference to the animals and can even be lifesaving in certain situations. There are tons of ideas on the internet for ways to provide enrichment, so what are you waiting for? Don’t let the chilly weather get you down. Go enrich your pet’s life OR volunteer and enrich the life of a shelter animal!