Our pets bring us so much pleasure, we want them to have the best life. With very little investment we can provide experiences and objects which make them happier. However, as we keep an array of species as pets, enrichment needs to be specific to the needs of our pet. For example, cats love to pounce, stalk and ‘kill’ so a moving toy will provide great fun.
Traditionally, we have fed pets in food bowls or buckets. This is, though, a dull way of experiencing food. We enjoy a plate that stays still, but animals love to forage and hunt for food. So, scatter feeding, where food is thrown around an enclosure, room or garden, can elicit more natural hunting or foraging activity. This provides mental stimulation as well as exercise.
An overweight cat may benefit from dry food hidden around the house or thrown up or down the stairs. Food or treats can also be hidden in objects to find. There are commercially available puzzle food dispensers such as Kongs, mazes or balls for most species. Alternatively, you can make your own out of cardboard boxes or tubes, scrunched up paper or fabric. A snuffle ball is usually made for dogs out of fabric with lots of folds to hide food in.
Whichever method you choose, make sure you start simple so that your pet does not get frustrated and give up. Also, use safe materials without sharp edges. Small furries like rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, degus, gerbils, hamsters and chinchillas love a food puzzle. Remember that these species love to chew, so cardboard, hard plastic or wood are best. Horses, reptiles and birds also enjoy a food puzzle, so with a little imagination you can provide hours of enrichment.
Treats can also be used to provide variety and reward. They must be carefully considered, if your pet is on a special diet. However, most species can benefit from a small proportion of their diet being treats, with different tastes and textures. Rabbits and guinea pigs have constantly growing teeth, so need to graze on grass or hay for the majority of the day to stay healthy, but small portions of fruit and vegetables can encourage them to forage more enthusiastically. Hanging treats from branches, the top of an enclosure, or furniture can encourage stretching and jumping and increase activity.
Treats can also be used to train pets to do tricks or for obedience. Training stimulates them mentally and can make them just as tired as exercise. Most animals need short training sessions with lots of repetition and praise or treats. Never force any behaviour, but instead go back a step if they become stressed or confused. The rewards and human interaction can make training a high reward activity for you and your pet.
Environmental enrichment ideas
Many pets will enjoy platforms and shelves to explore in their environment. Cats enjoy a high shelf or piece of furniture. Hamsters love endless tubes and all the small furry species love to tunnel. Provide cardboard boxes and tubes, even mazes made of objects around the house.
Most species also love a hide, somewhere that they can get away for peace and quiet. If an animal ever feels threatened it can retreat to a hide and feel safe. Although most cats appear very confident and unaffected by their environment, they appreciate a quiet, safe place to hide if they are stressed. It is even better if it is high.
Climbing and chewing can be combined by adding fruit tree branches to small pets’ enclosures and mice love a rope to climb. Digging is also a high reward activity for most small furries, so a dig box filled with soil, shredded paper or shavings can provide hours of fun. Sand baths are important to many small furries, you can obtain clean sand form pet shops for this purpose.
A scratch post or board for a cat gives them the opportunity to stretch and scratch and for a horse allows them to scratch an itch without damaging fences, stables and posts.
Toys and games
Toys are loved by most species, but do make sure that they are safe for your pet and rotate them as pets can get bored. A cat toy can simply be string attached to a kitchen roll, guinea pigs enjoy a scrunched up piece of paper to push around and nibble. There are many toys available for all species and you can make your own too with a little imagination. A cardboard box is a great plaything for most species, with toys or treats inside or dangling objects.
Dogs often love soft toys, although you should supervise them so that they don’t eat the eyes, other small parts of stuffing. As well as toys being specific to your species of pet, breeds can make a difference. Bengals and some other breeds of cat love playing in water. Retrieving breeds like Labradors and Pointers will enjoy fetch, hide and seek with toys or people.
Exploring out and about
Dogs can explore different environments on their walks. Taking them to different places and giving them opportunities to experience all sorts of scents stimulates them. Scent can be used for other species, catnip will encourage a cat to play with a toy if a drop is added to the surface. Some cats go wild for catnip and turn into curious, excitable kittens.
It is vital to consider the social needs of your pet too. Although most reptiles, Syrian hamsters and some cats would prefer to live alone, most pet species are social. Having company means that they can groom, interact, communicate, play, exercise and sleep together which increases their wellbeing. Take care when introducing animals, or start with same sex groups from the same litter for small furries, or neutered bonded pairs. Having pets who don’t get on is very stressful and difficult, but a good pair bond or stable group enjoy many benefits.
As you see, there are many ways that we can enrich our pets’ lives and have fun doing it!