Is Your Pet Bored? How to Provide Enrichment in 7 Steps
Let's be honest. Your pet doesn't really have that hard of a life, right? You spend your hard earned money in order to provide them with food, water, and shelter while they sit around all day free-loading. What you probably don't know is that they could be dying of sheer eye-rolling boredom.
"But I give them toys to play with!"—You
Imagine you lived your whole life in a house. You get to go outside sometimes, but only for restricted periods. Your "owner" loves you, and decides to give you something to occupy your time while they're gone. They go out and buy you a nice TV. The catch? It only plays three movies. The first couple of times you watched the films, you'd probably be pretty entertained. After a week, you'd be hearing the words in your sleep. Give it a month, and you'd know the script by heart. After a year, you'd snap.
Although humans do tend to get bored more quickly than our animal companions, the above scenario gives you an idea of how many indoor pets live. Play with the same toys over and over again, and they tend to lose their fun.
Even though our pets are domesticated species, they still have a lot of the same behavior and instincts that are displayed in their wild cousins. If their current environment isn't dynamic enough or doesn't mimic their natural habitat, animals in captivity may experience negative mental health effects.
Psychological problems in animals can be diagnosed through observing something called "stereotypic behaviors". These are repetitive, abnormal behaviors that serve no purpose. This can happen in any species, from hamsters to dogs. Self-mutilation, excessive licking, bar biting, pacing, circling, and chewing are all common examples of stereotypic behaviors in captive animals. Unfortunately these behaviors can result in serious medical problems, as well as general unhappiness for your pet.
Keep in mind that abnormal behaviors can be species-dependent. For example, let's say you have a hamster named "Batman." If Batman chews up all of his toys, you shouldn't be too concerned. It's normal for Batman to always be stuffing his face. This is because hamster's teeth constantly grow, and they file them down by chomping on anything in sight. On the other hand if Batman licks all of the fur off his body, you need to consider that his naked little self might have a problem.
The good thing is that as harmful as they can be, the vast majority of stereotypic behaviors are just caused by excessive boredom and frustration. You won't have to take Batman to therapy to fix his mental health issues. Instead, you can use a technique called "enrichment." The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) defines enrichment as "a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history." Put in more simple terms, you change something in their environment in order to encourage appropriate behaviors.
Recently the importance of enrichment has come into the spotlight as a foundation for captive animal wellness. To be AZA accredited, zoos have to have a comprehensive enrichment schedule. Surprisingly, the concept of enrichment is much less well known in the pet owner world. There are huge benefits an enrichment cycle can provide to both the pets and their humans. Animals participating in enrichment programs don't just show a decrease is stereotypical behaviors. They also have been shown to have increased intelligence and happiness. Also, destructive behaviors that we consider to be "normal" in some species can be significantly decreased.
For example, your dog chewing up your homework a couple of times is a pretty ordinary behavior for your pooch. On the other hand, your dog destroying the furniture every single time you leave isn't just really annoying (and expensive)...he may actually be suffering from a mild psychosis. Although we may think that dog chewing is just typical for the species, excessive chewing may be indicative that something needs to change in his life. Enlisting him in an enrichment program could possibly save you a lot of frustration, not to mention money spent on couches.
Remember that this isn't just for dogs and cats! Pets of all species can live better lives if you create and stick to an enrichment schedule.
Have you ever heard of enrichment programs before this article?
1. Categorize It
Enrichment focuses on different aspects of the animal's life. Activities can be broken into several different groups. Keep in mind that since this field of study is relatively new, the categories aren't universally established between organizations and researchers. However, most will break them into five to seven different areas to focus on when creating an enrichment plan. Most of the time, these groups overlap.
Basically, any kind of enrichment that stimulates one or more of the senses.
- Burn a new candle in your house for the day (Sense of Smell)
- Providing a different mix of foods (Sense of Taste)
- Giving access to different substrates (Sense of Touch)
- Playing sounds that mimic another member of their species (Sense of Hearing)
- Displaying objects of varying colors/patterns (Sense of Sight)
Tip: Birds have been shown to have a very limited sense of smell. If you're creating a schedule for your feathered friend, you shouldn't include enrichment ideas that focus on scents.
This involves an object that can be used and investigated. The purpose of this category is to promote exploratory play.
- A box (For a cat)
- A Ball (For a dog)
- A Bag (For a ferret)
Environmental enrichment is all about enhancing your animal's habitat. It differs a bit from the manipulative category because the novel item doesn't necessarily have to be movable.
- A new set of tunnels (For a hamster)
- A new hiding place (For a lizard)
- A trail ride (For a horse)
Most of our pets are social animals. Even those that are generally solitary would've encountered multiple individuals of the same and different species in the wild. The purpose of this kind of enrichment is to stimulate natural behaviors and instincts.
- Showing a picture of another bird (For a bird)
- Giving them access to a small container of shavings from your gerbil's cage (For a cat)
- Going to a park (For a dog)
Tip: The trick is to induce beneficial natural behaviors. Take care not to provide overly-stressful stimuli. For example, putting cat hair in Batman's cage would not be a good idea because he'd think that he was about to get eaten.
This category is meant to improve your social and emotional bond with your pet. A fun fact is that almost any animal can be trained. People have taught their goldfish to play soccer, turtles to yawn, bunnies to slam dunk, and dogs to fetch beer.
2. Let It Come Naturally
Before you create an enrichment schedule, you need to do a little research on the natural history (evolutionary history) of your pet. This way, you make sure that your enrichment activities are species-appropriate. For example, your cat likes to play with feathered toys because her wild ancestors hunted birds. What if you tried to give the same toy to your gerbil?. His ancestors were more likely to hide from birds than to hunt them. Unlike the effect on your feline friend, feathers wouldn't have a big positive impact on prey species. By researching your pet's natural history, you can ensure you're providing the best enrichment possible.
3. Switch It Up
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to provide enrichment is leaving the stimulus in the presence of the animal for too long. The whole point of enrichment is to provide animals with novel experiences.
Let's go back to our "three movies" scenario. If you had access to the three movies all the time, you'd end up watching them to the point where you knew them forward and backward.They would become boring. However, let's say you were only allowed to watch one movie every two months. All of the sudden, watching that movie is the most exciting thing you get to do in 60 days.
The same works with enrichment items. You'll feel like a mean parent when you take your dog's new toy away soon after giving it to him, but the only way to keep things new is to not let them have it all the time. The next time he sees that toy, his heart will figuratively explode with happiness because it's new all over again.
You should try to keep enrichment items around for a maximum of 24 hours. If your animals are exposed for much longer, they will become acclimated and it won't be as effective. This goes for all enrichment including smells, food items, and sounds.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't allow your pets to have toys. They can still be allowed to chew on and cuddle their favorite objects all the time. Just save a few special ones for enrichment time, and don't count the others as "enrichment objects."
4. Plan It Out
Even the most creative people have a difficult time coming up with new and exciting enrichment every day. Not to mention the time commitment! That's why many animal care institutions have a pre-made "enrichment calendar." The days rotate the five enrichment categories so that different parts of the animal's brain are stimulated. Once a month, take the time to plan out what you'll do for the next thirty days. That way when you're in a hurry, you can just look at your calendar instead of taking the time to come up with quality enrichment on the fly.
5. Get Creative With It
Above all else creating enrichment for your pet is, well, enriching! It can be a lot of fun to come up with new and exciting experiences for the animals in your life. You don't have to spend a lot of money on your ideas either. Use things like paper towel tubes, laundry hampers, and plants to spice up your furry friend's day. Check out what local stores will donate to you as well. For example, Martins will let you take their old cardboard boxes if you ask nicely. With a little creativity, an ordinary item can become an extraordinary enrichment piece.
6. Keep It Safe
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Before introducing something new to your pet, you need to make sure it isn't harmful. For example, species have certain dietary restrictions. Most people know that dogs shouldn't eat chocolate (or rather, the theobromine in the chocolate). Therefore, an enrichment plan that involves giving your dog chocolate is probably not a good idea. Like I said, most people are already aware of the whole dog vs. chocolate thing. However, did you know that avocados, grapes, onions and garlic also contain compounds that are toxic to your canine?
It's a good idea to do a bit of research on anything you want to give to your pet. Remember, better safe than sorry!
7. Write It Down
Make an enrichment journal! Record what you did that day, as well as your animal's reaction to it. This will help you determine which ideas your pet found most exciting, and which sent them to snoozeville. Over time, you'll learn better techniques to captivate your fuzzy audience.
Healthy Pet, Happy Pet
Unfortunately, not all abnormal behaviors can be cured simply through creating a fun environment. If your pet seems to be in pain, discomfort, or suddenly begins acting strange, you need to call your vet. Stereotypic behaviors generally develop over time, and an acute abnormal behavior may indicate that your pet needs medical attention.
If you end up creating your own enrichment schedule, have any questions, or want suggestions on what to include in your pet's personalized schedule, please write in the comments section. I'd love to hear from you!
Did you learn anything from this article?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.