Environmental and Behavioural Enrichment

Mother with her baby playing with pet on the floor at the kitchen at home

by Dr. Pauline Taylor BVM&S MACVSc  Pets Central

About the author: Dr. Pauline Taylor’s bold and inexhaustible passion for the health and welfare of animals and her experience in caring for animals spans more than 30 years, in various countries including the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Hong Kong. 

She began her practice in Scotland after graduating from Edinburgh University, working with farm animals (including horses) before moving to New Zealand where she established her own clinic to serve a wide range of farm and pet species. 

Today, she works in the field of small animal veterinary medicine in Hong Kong and continues to grow the Pets Central network focusing on the advancement of pet care.

The way pets are raised and cared for today has changed drastically over the past 25-30 years. I remember as a child, as I am sure many of you in this room do as well, how the neighbourhood dogs would roam the streets to mingle and ‘socialize’ themselves with each other, people, other animals and the sights and sounds of the neighbourhood.

I also remember when I first started my veterinary career it was fairly common to be doing orthopaedic surgery in both dogs and cats as a result of them being hit by cars – something I’m sure many of you have experienced – and still do.

Nowadays, certainly in Western countries, rightly or wrongly, dogs and cats have been mainly curtailed into apartments or closed yards. In some countries pet cats are not allowed by law to roam outside the home while dogs must be on a leash at all times and muzzled. As a result cats and dogs lack natural lifestyle enrichment, become bored and veterinarians are seeing a rise in boredom and anxiety related behaviours, as well as dogs with poor social skills.

Dogs are being kept within the confines of the garden area, backyard or apartment often on their own for many hours a day, some even for days at a time. Some may not even get a chance to go for walks.  Frustration and boredom related behaviours such as barking, destroying furniture, digging up the carpet or garden and raiding garbage bins can be a common complaint from dog owners.  The fact is that dogs are social animals and need contact with conspecifics and in the case of our pet dogs also humans. Regular and spur of the moment playtime, exercise, picking up olfactory “messages” and meeting other dogs is very important and necessary.

In cats, frustration and boredom is shown by aggression, biting, rough play, as well as other problem behaviours.  Cats are naturally predatory hunters.  Some prefer to be solitary most of their lives, while others form “in home” social groups which may include non-cat species e.g. humans or dogs. Playtime, exercise and other forms of mental stimulation is important to cats too.

Environmental enrichment contributes to lowering stress levels and depression in contained animals, or any animal not free to exhibit their normal behaviours be it in a pet selling store, zoological or safari park, laboratory, food production farm or feedlot, and also improves healthy mental activity. It is my experience after many years of veterinary practice, that the everyday pet parents, animal care staff in indoor and outdoor workplaces and also veterinary hospital staff do not really understand the concept of environmental enrichment, let alone the benefits of providing such enrichment for pets both sick and healthy.

The Five Freedoms state the following for all animals (1)

1- Freedom from hunger and thirst

2- Freedom from discomfort

3- Freedom for pain, injury or disease

4- Freedom to express normal behaviour

5- Freedom from fear and distress

Animal welfare guidelines (2) occur when all of an animal’s needs including physical and mental wellbeing are met. These are

1- suitable water and food

2- comfortable and not in pain

3- able to behave normally and exercise

4- social animals able to be group housed or interact with conspecifics

5- not afraid or distressed

Environmental enrichment is providing animals under managed care with environmental stimuli that seek to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. In a hospital situation this also contributes to a better response to treatment by lowering stress levels, depression and improving mental activity.

The goal of environmental enrichment is to improve or maintain an animal’s physical and psychological health by increasing the range or number of species-specific behaviours, increasing positive utilization of the captive environment, preventing or reducing the frequency of abnormal behaviours such as  stereotypy’s, and increasing the individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of captivity. Grooming, stroking and talking to animals are important for the animals’ well-being. If possible, male and female humans should interact with animals at different times as it has been shown that some animals respond different to the human sexes. Cage furniture should include different levels where animals can stand or look out, and hiding areas where they can escape to if desired.

All animals require an environmental that is physically and mentally stimulating. Animals kept in a restricted environment may not have adequate opportunity to engage in their full behaviour repertoire. When insufficient space, inadequate stimulation and lack of other resources are unavailable, captive and pet animals may engage in behaviours undesirable to owners and develop health or stress related issues.  Most common behaviour concerns of owners can be prevented or managed, even resolved by providing appropriate and stimulating outlets.

Most enrichment stimuli (Ref 1, 2, 3) can be divided into seven groups:

  1. Sensory; stimulating animals’ senses: visual, olfactory, auditory, tactile and taste.
  2. Feeding; making feeding more challenging. Different methods of food presentation and feeding toys encourage animals to investigate, manipulate and work for their food as they would in non-captive environments.   Waste product elimination places and the substrates used including number, size and type of boxes for cats, litter cleaning and location affect and enrich the environment.
  3. Manipulation; providing items that can be manipulated by the paws, feet, tail, horns, head, mouth, etc. This promotes investigatory behaviour and exploratory play.
  4. Environmental; enhancing the animals’ captive habitat with opportunities that change or add complexity to the environment.  Use of furniture, aromatherapy, music therapy, animal TV, being able to check out the environment out of the captive area.
  5. Social; providing the opportunity to interact with other animals, either co-species or inter-species. These help maintain healthy social relationships. Prey type toys for cats attached to wands or rope stimulate hunting behaviours.
  6. Training; training animals with positive reinforcement or habituation.  Humans can use toys, treats, catnip to train animals to cues for positive communication e.g. come, sit.
  7. Puzzles; requiring an animal to solve simple problems to access food or other rewards.

Food!!!  A much wasted opportunity for behavioural environmental enrichment is feeding time! (Ref 2)

specially with young kittens and pups one of the easiest ways to start with behavioural enrichment is with feed time, although this often meets with the most resistance from owners.

Veterinarians should keep in mind that puppies spend 12.5% of their day eating, 50% sleeping, 10% resting ….. The eating time is one area veterinarians can focus on and get our clients to do the same.  Cats in contrast allocate 44% of their day to sleep, 22% to rest and 15% to grooming… in a feral state they eat little and often throughout their day, food they have caught.

We have been indoctrinated for so many years to feed our pets from a bowl, once or twice a day at times that are convenient to humans. This may have worked well 25-30 years ago, when dogs and cats were roaming free and able to contribute scavenged food or prey to their diets, but now feeding time can very often be the only highlight of an animal’s day.  It therefore seems obvious that dog and cat boredom is manifested in eating, particularly those that have free access to food all day. That is one reason we may see so many fat dogs and cats today.

When puppies and kittens come in for their vaccinations and/or puppy/kitten socialisation is an ideal time for veterinary staff to discuss feeding tips with clients and explain to them how to start implementing fun feeding habits for their pets.

We can start by asking our clients to put the food bowl away for most of the week and try some new ways of feeding, including: make feed time more natural by creating foraging and hunting opportunities. This not only extends eating time, it also helps relieve boredom and makes feed time much more fun.

For cats, this can be anything as simple as creating multiple feeding stations – with just a small amount of food at each station, but making sure the cat has to climb or get into tight (safe) spots to get to the food – and the need to travel far for it.  I call it “cat aerobics”, making cats exercise for food. Cat owners can be very creative in making their own Food Dispensing Toys as well.

Dogs can have food scattered all over the garden or home. Cardboard boxes can become creative food dispensing outlets. Toys are things that dogs can have food hidden in that are dispersed in spots around the house.  They can also be set on a timer so food is dispensed at certain times.

There are many products available to assist.  Slow feeders also have the added bonus that they are excellent for mental stimulation in boarding facilities or for patients that require strict cage rest.

给猫犬及有蹄家畜的各种喂食器包括 (4):Different food feeding products available for cats, dogs and some domestic hoof animals include (4):

Porta Grazer、Trixie Range、Nina Ottossan 产品、Aikiou Stimulo Buster Food Maze; Food Dispensing Trays (FDT); Porta Grazer; Trixie Range; Nina Ottossan products; Aikiou Stimulo; Cat Senses Food Maze and others.

These products have been designed to not only provide stimulation but to also slow animals down with eating. This can also help with issues such as regurgitation, overfeeding and overeating. They mainly cater for dry foods only however but wet foods can be used with the food mazes. They can also be used for a variety of species including birds.

With cats instead of providing the dry food in one food bowl with free access, it is much better to either provide multiple food stations (not piled high) or place the food in a slow feed or FDT – encouraging the cat to be active and providing it with a more natural way of feeding as they are really hunting for their food.  This is recommended for all overweight animals.

When selecting an appropriate food dispensing toy, it is important to know the animal’s PAWsonality. Often the key point many people also fail to appreciate is we have to teach our pets how to use the new games. It makes sense if we get a new board game, or anything new, like new software or mobile phone, we need to learn how to use it.      SO DO OUR PETS!

We need to teach our pets how to use a simple FDT until they are confident enough to use it. We need to teach our pets how to use something new. Some will catch on quicker than others. It is thought that the earlier you start animals off with different FDT’s the easier it is for them to understand the concept of new ones. But this does not mean you cannot teach an old dog new tricks! If a pet is sufficiently food motivated they will work things out. It has been shown that geriatric humans and pets slowing up mentally respond well to “brain games”.

In conclusion, we are seeing increasing numbers of clients struggling to deal with behavioural issues in their pets. Some are serious enough to have a major impact on the human—animal bond, even leading to the abandonment, rehoming or euthanasia of some pets. Environmental enrichment can make a real difference to the lives of pets and their parents. We should educate our veterinary staff and clients as to these benefits as well as how they can practically enrich the environment in which their pets live.  The very best place to start educating our clients is at the first veterinary visit.

References and Thanks

  1. Anderson David  Animal Welfare Legislation in Europe  2013 Osaka Japan
  2. Shippen Gillian Environmental and behavioural enrichment for all types of captive animals Behaviour Chapter AVA Proceedings Science Week 2014
  3. Overall KL(2013) Clinical Behavioural Medicine of Small Animals Mosby St Louis MO
  4. www.petsneedalifetoo.com online source of many food toys

 

PET Central May2016small