What is enrichment?
Enrichment is a practice used by pet professionals that I first learned about while volunteering at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. The zoo keepers use different techniques to keep the animals happy and healthy by encouraging natural behaviours and introducing new and interesting items into their space. The majority of enrichment activities involve food in some way. This can be as simple as spreading the animal’s regular food in different parts of their enclosure so they have to hunt or forage as they would in the wild. It can also be added to homemade ‘food puzzles’ the animal has to open or play with to get the food out. A paper mache pinata was a very popular item for the volunteers to make for this purpose.
Scent is also an important aspect of enrichment practices. For some of the big cats in particular, staff or volunteers would add nice stinky manure into the pinatas which the cats would then carry around and tear apart. Sometimes different spices or perfumes may also be used. Other items include ‘boomer balls’, lures, cardboard boxes, sparkly disco balls, pools, brushes, barrels, and so on. Many zoos will also have seasonal items such as pumpkins in the Fall and used Christmas trees after the Christmas holiday is over.
One of my personal favourites is what the Oregon Zoo does for their Beavers Maple and Filbert. If you want to experience the ultimate joy in life I think you should check out their videos on YouTube. The zoo keepers take the Beavers on little field trips around the zoo so they can collect braches and bring them back to their house. It is brilliant.
One way to apply this practice for your own pets is to add some pizzazz to their regular routine. You can add items like pet grass, food puzzles, and interactive toys.
Pet grass is a particularly useful enrichment item because it lets the pet self regulate any digestive upset and they can do it as needed. Some pets do nibble a bit too much and may throw up so if you really care about your carpets you could supervise and limit the amount your pet ingests by only putting the grass out for a short period of time. You could also use scotch guard or something like that to protect the carpet. Either way, if you can find a way to make it work your pet will appreciate it. I also have a catnip plant which Bean really loves to chew up.
Food Puzzles and the Kibble Toss Game
Ziggy is my food puzzle champion. He is obsessed with food and due to some health issues I have to limit what kind of food he gets. He is also devious, or maybe tenacious is more kind, and will go to great lengths to steal food he should not eat. To keep him engaged, active, away from my other cats, and healthy overall I use a bunch of food puzzles and different spots so that it takes him a while to get all his food. He has 5 treat dispensers that I divide his kibble into and I also put a few kibbles in a bowl up on the hutch and under a shelf for extra exercise. Before bed we also play a treat toss game. I think that may be his favourite part of the day. I throw a small handfull of kibble, one kibble at a time, across the kitchen and he has to catch them, run, sniff them out, and he has a blast. The only caveat is that occasionally a kibble ends up in a tricky spot and I have to help find it for him. But we both really love this activity and it is a fun way to end the day.
I also make Moxie and Ramses ‘hunt’ for kibble twice a day by spreading their kibble portions around the room. This keeps them moving and sniffing around to find them all. Ramses is a little less active than his brother so sometimes gives me what as I interpret as an incredulous look, but he still joins in because he loves food.
Interactive Toys and a Playtime Routine
Interactive toys are also a great way to keep your pets interested and engaged. Some toys are set up for the pet to play on their own but I would specifically recommend using ones that you need to do together. You are likely to get your pet moving more if you play with them. I also highly recommend making playtime a part of your daily routine, even if it’s only for a few minutes. And even though older pets may no longer play like they used to you can still spend a bit of time trying to entice them to keep moving. Ziggy and I play in the morning before breakfast. Ideally he plays himself out and does not chase Bean, but this admittedly is not often the case. Bean plays a bit different but whenever she hides in the cat tunnel it is time to play so I have to indulge her. Ramses is not as playful but I can still get him going with a feather wand toy. In his case this means a paw swat. Moxie likes chasing a fleece strip on a stuffed toy. It’s the only toy that really brings out his playful side.
Items like the Furbo are a fun techie way to engage your dog. Wand toys are a fun way to get your cat playing. Lure toys or ‘flirt poles’ for dogs are also a great idea.
Cardboard boxes are a hot commodity for cats. Particularly in this era of Amazon shopping use your large boxes for your cats. You can set them up as is for a cat to jump in. You can flip them on the side so the cat can use it as a mini-cave. Ramses in particular loves this and uses a sideways box as his primary scratcher and hang-out spot. You can also cut out cat-sized holes and set them up around the house as an escape for your cat or even a mini obstacle course game. The Fraser Valley Animal Hospital has a great video about this on their YouTube channel (“The Power of a Cardboard Box”).
DIY Agility and Food Sniffing Course
You can also set up some DIY agility courses for your dog (or cat). One cool and easy way is to set up different containers (muffin tins or different pans), food puzzles, treat dispensers, lick mats, stools, chairs, boxes, tunnels, blankets, and so on around the living room or a playroom. Then put a portion of their kibble or some treats that they really love in all different spots so they have to sniff around and hunt for the food. This was an idea I discovered watching a presentation by Sarah Fisher, a Tellington Touch instructor and dog trainer, who has developed a way to assess a dog’s mobility and overall health by watching the dog go through this elaborate food finding course. I may do a separate post about this eventually because I found it intriguing and want to do more research about it. But, to summarize, this type of easy food/scent driven obstacle course allows her to see how a dog moves, if a limb or their neck is a bit stiff for example, if they favour a particular side (left or right), if they have trouble with sniffing stuff at a higher elevation or on the ground, spinal issues, and much much more. To watch a video about Sarah and her work check this out on YouTube: https://youtu.be/10C4qdizEtw
Rotate and Enhance Old Toys
Another good tip is to rotate the toys your pet uses so that old toys can become new again. One thing I used to do for Hal in particular was to put his toys in a container with catnip so they would be even more enticing once we pulled them out to play with later. You could try this with some clean toys and place them in with your dog’s kibble or treats so that they kind of smell interesting when you pull them out again. If you can sew try restuffing your dog’s toys so they can tear them apart all over again.
Catnip and Silvervine
Of course catnip is a good tool, though not all cats care about it. Another thing you can try is silvervine. It is getting used more here in Canada in certain cat toys but you can also order it as a powder that you can use at home.
Other Must Have Items
Cat scratchers, particularly large ones that have a nice sturdy base, are also an important item. A lot of the typical ones sold in stores are often for kittens so if your cat ends up tipping over their post it is time to find them a bigger one, so they do not use the couch.
Find some comfy beds and blankets and put them in different spots around your house. Some dogs may like a specific spot but if you are not sure try out a few places they tend to hang out and give them the option to choose. Cats definitely like to move around and so I make sure to have a lot of different comfy spots that they can use depending on their mood. Sometimes pets need some downtime to themselves so it’s nice if they can have that option when needed.
Here is a really in-depth article about enrichment activities for dogs:
Visit the blog on felinebehaviorsolutions.com for several articles about playtime and enrichment for indoor cats.
Originally published November 24, 2020