Enrichment activities help make pets' lives more interesting

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Posted: Sunday, March 24, 2013 12:15 am | Updated: 5:14 pm, Thu Mar 6, 2014.

Chipper is a 10-year-old dog with anxiety, low energy, and obesity. It seemed he lived to eat and go on slow walks to the edge of the yard and back indoors for a treat.

His owners learned about enrichment through my office. Once Chipper started a new diet, swim and massage therapy, he started perking up. His owners added new games at home. He became more social, active and stopped being anxious. He lost 24 pounds and now acts like a 5-year-old dog.

Enrichment is what humans provide for animals to make their lives interesting; it is what we do to stimulate them mentally and fulfill natural “drives”. Supplying varied activities creates better-adjusted pets. Just as humans who stay mentally and physically active lead fuller lives, so do pets. This helps with weight control, mood, and prevents many behavior problems that develop from boredom and insecurity.

When we bring animals into our homes, we prevent expression of many hunting, pack and play behaviors. Being housed inside, in backyards or spending time alone can become mundane.

Good news is that knowledge of animal behavior and zoo animal research has helped veterinarians develop new ways to make time away from pets guilt-free for owners and better for pets. The better news is that with a little thought, understanding of pets’ behavior and creativity, you can become an “environmental enricher” without spending a lot of cash.

When considering enrichment, research the natural behaviors of the species and breed of the animal. For example, dogs live in packs and love to dig, chew and hide toys. They also cover a lot of ground daily scavenging. Consider adding “digging” pits in your backyard where you can hide some toys and bones.

Cats are playful when kittens, but need less interaction from other cats as they age. They spend much of the time sleeping, with hunting and playing being their main activities while awake. Try playing for short bursts with fishing toys and placing prisms around the house to catch the sun at a variety of times to stimulate your resting cat’s senses.

Food and exercise times are often for our convenience. Add some fun to these activities through simple changes:

•Change your pet’s exercise routine by adding new routes. If you normally go out to the left, alternate directions. Go down different streets and add an extra walk a few times weekly. You both will be healthier, and realize greater stimulation.

•Consider agility, teaching tricks or Search and Rescue training.

•If you have an indoor pet, get out in the sunshine. You can try a leash, pet stroller or a Purr-fect fence system for cats to have safe outdoor time. Remember to use flea and tick control for all pets that go outdoors. For ferrets, rabbits and other pets, check with your vet before applying a flea preventive.

•Simulate hunting by creating games of finding food and getting it out of a container. Try a “Pet Maze” feeder. Pet stores carry toys that dispense food when your pet rolls a toy around on the floor. You can make a feeder by cutting notches in a one-liter water bottle and filling it with your cat’s food. Hanging the bottle from a rope and teaching your pet to bat at it for food will keep her from getting overweight and help encourage “hunting”.

•Create indoor, timed sounds using timers on radios and TV.

Some basic guidelines used in creating enrichment:

•Use safe, non-toxic items that are paint and lead free. If the item becomes broken, assure it cannot harm your pet. Never leave an animal unsupervised with an object that can cause damage.

•Consider all your pet’s senses; stimulate sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. You do not need to stimulate all senses at once. Consider getting your pet a therapeutic massage or learning how to stretch your pet.

•Use variety. To be effective, change routines to ensure your pet stays interested. If using toys, have a toy box with a collection that can be rotated.

•Assure it is interesting. If your pet shows no interest in a new item, then it really isn’t stimulating. A lot of natural instincts, breeding purpose (let herding dogs play Frisbee or round up other items) and feeding habits are great clues in devising playtime for your pet.

•It should be enjoyable, and non-stressful. Avoid constant games and stimulation, as pets need down time, too.

•Use your imagination. To get started, ask your veterinarian for ideas that will get you on the road to enriching your pet’s life and your own.

Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like to have addressed, email ellwoodvet@msn.com.

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