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Pet Enrichment: Stimulation Prevents Behavior Problems

Enrichment – It?s the latest buzzword, but what does it really mean when we say ‘environmental enrichment’ for our pet? To fully understand why pet?enrichment contributes to the happiness and well-being of your pet, we need to compare the difference between our dogs live today and the way their ancestors lived.

Pet Enrichment

Take the house cat; descended from an African wild cat whose life was spent in search of food and a mate. Her territory took her over rocks and brush and streams and grasses; each bit of terrain a home to various living creatures. The encyclopedia of scents, the ingredients we call the ?smell of outdoors,? envelops her. Out of the grass scampers a field mouse. Slinking into her hunting crouch, she prepares. In a flash, she?s on top of the mouse.

Now compare that vivid scenario with today’s house cat. In a temperature controlled home, she wakes up and stretches, having napped in a ray of ?sun.? It?s a light source that provides heat?but has the health benefits filtered out through panes of window glass. She walks across steam cleaned, nylon carpet to a plastic tub filled with pine pellets. It?s where she?s supposed to eliminate, so she does. She eyeballs a motionless catnip filled fabric ?mouse? on the floor but walks past. Without much else to do, she hops up on the windowsill and watches the world outside before settling in for another nap.

The Consequences of an Under-Stimulated Pet

The pets in our lives, whether cats, dogs, fish, goats or birds; are all descendants of ancestors who lived and thrived in natural settings. Each day presented them with both life and death challenges as well as indirect experiences that encouraged physical agility and mental growth. When we brought these animals into our lives and contained them for safety; often they were forced to give up the daily stimulation they might otherwise have enjoyed. Without suitable mental and physical exercise, behavior problems soon develop.

  • Feather plucking
  • Chewing
  • Digging
  • Spinning in circles
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Barking/Yowling/Screeching

Each of these actions is often nothing more than a result of boredom.

Environmental Enrichment Ideas for Your Pets

Zoo caretakers were the first to add enrichment activities to the daily routines of their captive animals. The immediate and amazing results were noticed by pet enthusiasts, resulting in a flood of new toys, puzzles and training skills designed specifically to encourage thinking and movement. A few of my favorite commercial items include:

You don?t need to purchase items to enrich your pets lives, you can easily make your own enrichment toys.

  • Cut six dime size holes in a two-liter soda bottle and fill it with your pet’s dry kibble. Let them knock it around to make food fall out.
  • Moisten your pet?s food until it?s the consistency of oatmeal. Fill a hollow marrow bone with this and freeze.
  • Hide treats in different areas of your yard.
  • Place treats or toys in a box filled with empty plastic bottles for you pet to dig for.
  • Change your pet?s daily walk to incorporate different sights and sounds. Make a detour through a stand of trees or down to a brook. Even a small change from routine can make a big difference.

University studies have shown that animals prefer to work for rewards rather than being given them for free. Use your imagination to come up with other ideas. Without even realizing it, you will be adding enrichment to your life, too!


Mike Robertson is a certified animal trainer and certified behavior consultant located in Plymouth NH. He is the owner of White Mountain College for Pets in Plymouth NH. He can be reached via the website:? by phone 603-369-4PET.

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