Enriching Your Pets at Home, Lessons from an Animal Behaviorist

Have you ever wondered what your pets do all day when you’re at work? Have you come home to a chewed-up shoe or re-arranged living room? If so, these may be “tail” tell signs that your pet needs some daily enrichment!

Many people aren’t aware just how crucial enrichment is for animals in human care. Behavioral enrichment is as fundamental to animal welfare as proper nutrition and veterinary care.  At the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, our animal family is provided a wide variety of behavioral stimuli to encourage species-appropriate behaviors daily. From scents that mimic hunting trails to puzzle feeders that stimulate problem solving, the Zoo’s animal caretakers ensure that every species is regularly presented with unique experiences and the opportunity to showcase natural behaviors. With that being said, enrichment can prove to be just as important for the animals in your home.

Environmental enrichment for our pets can be essential to encourage smarter, healthier and well-mannered lifestyles for our companions. Enrichment can help engage your pets both physically and mentally, while reducing the occurrence of unwanted behaviors that stem from anxiety and boredom.  

If you are unsure of where to start, don’t worry! The concept of adding daily enrichment to your pet’s life doesn’t have to be a complex one. There are lots of great ideas out there, and your vet can help ensure that the enrichment you choose is safe and appropriate for your pet’s individual needs. 

The key to enrichment is adding elements that will encourage your pets to engage in their innate natural behaviors such as playing, chasing, smelling, chewing and climbing. For example, our Zoo canines love new smells, especially to roll in.  Your own dog may enjoy new scents, including perfumes or spices, being added to their blankets and beds. Toys like Kongs©, freeze treats or puzzle feeders can add a new level of complexity to regular treat time by challenging their problem-solving skills. 

Cats like jaguars and fishing cats are exceptional at using their paws and claws to acquire resources. You can encourage more activity from your pet feline by hiding treats or toys inside paper bags or throughout the house. Even something as simple as rotating toys can make them seem new and exciting again!

Enrichment isn’t just for cats and dogs!  Our non-fuzzy friends also enjoy new experiences.  Changing the habitat by adding new textures and items can be very rewarding for your lizard.  Snakes also enjoy new textures, as well as climbing up vertical spaces under supervision.  At the Zoo, our animal caretakers will even create mazes for our reptiles to explore.  Birds enjoy having a variety of material to shred and nest with.  Offering material that encourages manipulation before they can utilize it for these purposes, helps them to use their beaks and muscles. Even our fish friends enjoy enrichment, such as feeder puzzles or new plants to swim through.

Of course, some of the best enrichment includes social interaction.  Whether it’s going for walks or training new behaviors, spending time with our pets helps build strong bonds, as well as create enriching experiences for all the animals we share our lives with.  No one wants every day to be the same.  Adding activities and items meant to be mentally and physically stimulating can help keep things fresh and provide your pet the opportunity to express behaviors in appropriate ways. It may even save your favorite pair of shoes!

-  Kim Leser, behavioral husbandry and welfare manager

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