The Importance of Enrichment
Posted by Heather Parsons 26 May 2021
Enrichment refers to allowing your dog or cat to engage in their innate, instinctual behaviours. Behaviours like playing, chasing, smelling, digging, and chewing are essential for your pet’s mental wellbeing and fulfillment.
We curb many of our pet’s instinctual behaviours, so they fit into our lives and homes. We punish dogs for chewing furniture or shoes. We scold cats for clawing furniture (or, in more extreme cases, we have them declawed). Dogs are encouraged not to dig up our lawns and flower beds. Although these restrictions are understandable, each of these “bad behaviours” is an expression of a natural instinct.
Dogs are designed to chew, and they love to dig; cats need to scratch. So how can we strike a balance that keeps our homes safe while respecting the need for our pets to have outlets for these natural behaviours? Many pets, although beloved, are not having their needs met. They are underexercised and understimulated. As a result, we see frustration behaviours like incessant barking or cats who eliminate inappropriately.
Creating safe opportunities for your pet to engage in these instinctual actions will increase their physical, emotional, and mental health and happiness. Enrichment reduces stress. There are many simple and affordable ways to provide outlets for your pet’s needs.
Many dogs LOVE to dig, but their owners often don’t appreciate their landscaping help. Try building a digging spot, allowing your dog to explore in their own area. You can make a sandbox or simply cordon off an area of your yard.
Encourage your dog to start digging by hiding some toys or chews and praising when they dig in their area. If they try digging elsewhere, simply gently and calmly bring them to their designated digging area.
Cats naturally dig in their litter box area to cover their waste, but many cats also enjoy digging for fun. Unfortunately, this typically means your house plants are at risk! If your cat has been excavating your plants, try covering the dirt with tinfoil to discourage them and give them their own digging tub. A large Rubbermaid container with some loose dirt can work to satisfy their desire to dig. The high sides will help keep the soil contained, and the fun of digging will help keep your plants safe!
Dogs have a truly amazing sense of smell. From bloodhounds who’ve been bred to have keen noses for tracking down to our squishy-faced pugs, all dogs have a vastly superior sense of smell to humans.
Walks aren’t just for exercise! The mental stimulation your dog gets from different sights, sounds, and smells is also vital. Dedicate some walks as “sniffaris” and let your dog’s nose lead the way. You might not get as far if your dog decides to stop at every tree and post, but your dog will enjoy the chance to sniff at leisure.
Use mealtimes as a chance for your dog to use their nose. You can get many different toys designed to hold food and treats, or you can DIY some sniffing fun. To start teaching your dog to use their nose to find food, grab an old muffin tin and some tennis balls. Start with just the muffin tin and a few kibbles. Drop them into the tin and let your dog eat them. Now add a tennis ball over the kibbles and let your dog push it out of the way to get at the kibble. Once they get the game, you can start increasing the challenge. Add several tennis balls but have food under just one or two. Keep mixing it up so your dog can use their nose to locate the food.
Let your cat express their inner hunter by feeding them in toys that dispense food or hiding their food in multiple places. Just like with your dog, start slow. Instead of putting all your cat’s food in their bowl, maybe split the meal into two and have a second bowl nearby. Once your cat understands they need to find their food, you can divide the meal into multiple bowls and keep changing their location.
Cats might love being catered on paw and foot and having food brought to them (who wouldn’t?!), but they are natural hunters. Having to search for their food engages their hunting instinct and also encourages activity.
Chewing is an innate behaviour for our dogs. If we don’t give them chewing outlets, they will choose their own, and we probably won’t appreciate it! Provide your dog with safe, healthy chew treats. Remember that not all chew options are safe. Anything harder than your dog’s teeth can potentially fracture a tooth. Anything your dog can ingest could risk an intestinal obstruction. Talk to your veterinary team about which products are safe for your dog.
Pets love to play. Try out different toys to see what your pet prefers. Cats tend to be “birders”, enjoying toys that leap into the air, or “mousers”, enjoying toys that dart along the ground.
Many dogs like squeaky toys, some prefer soft toys, some love to chew on rubber toys. Again, keep safety in mind. Your veterinary team can help you choose safe toy options. Playing fetch is the iconic pastime with your dog. Keep an eye on how much time your dog is holding and chewing a tennis ball; the abrasive surface can wear down their teeth.
Some dogs love to play frisbee. Practice your throwing without your dog, then start with small throws or rolling the disc along the ground to get your dog engaged in the game.
Few cats can resist a box! Setting up a few boxes can make your living room into a kitty playground. Your cat will enjoy jumping in and out of the boxes, hiding, and simulating hunting behaviours.
Some cats enjoy a feline friend, and some prefer to live alone. Dogs often enjoy playtime with other dogs. Dog parks can be fun outlets, OR they can be problematic. The safety of a dog park depends on size, setup, and the mix of dogs who attend regularly. Not all dogs want to play, and not all dogs who go to the dog park are safe buddies for your pooch. Introducing your dog to friend’s dogs in controlled environments might be a safer option than risking the dog park.
We all love our pets and want the best for them. By incorporating enrichment into their daily routine, we can take care of their mental and emotional needs.