Tonawanda News

May 21, 2012

Easy ways to enrich your pet's life and help the environment

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The day has come where my finely articulated words have been placed on the bottom of my bird cage to be soiled upon. Sure, it was funny when it was Joe Biden’s face or another writer’s work. But mine? So cruel. So proud. 

Recycling, enrichment and pets go hand in hand. By adding a toy to an animal’s environment or by changing the environment, we can stimulate behaviors resembling those of a healthy wild animal. Enrichment is vaguely defined as “adding greater value or significance to something.” Luckily enrichment doesn’t have to cost much, or anything.

Enrichment is intended to encourage behaviors that are appropriate for the species, and that satisfy an animal’s physical and psychological needs. In addition enrichment, like toys and feeding devices, may reduce stereotypical behaviors, such as pacing or over-grooming. They also offer an animal the sense of control.

Wild animals expend considerable time and energy finding food, building nests and defending their territories. Most of their waking hours may be spent meeting these needs. Since we take such great care of our pets we significantly reduce the time they must spend doing these behaviors, but do not address the behavioral needs associated with these activities. Enrichment can improve an animal’s well being by many methods: increasing exercise, satisfying behavioral needs, optimizing the level of stimulation and reducing abnormal behavior patterns.

The way animal professionals know enrichment is working is easy: Enrichment increases an animal’s natural behavior. So next time you are about to throw something out ask yourself, “How can I turn this into enrichment?” Simply remember reduce, reuse, recycle.

Reduce refers to reducing the amount of waste you produce in your daily activities. Before you toss out that cardboard box think about how you can use it to elicit a naturalistic behavior through enrichment. The amount of trash you get rid of may remain the same but at least your animals will have benefited from something that was simply going to the landfill.

I know of many animals that have benefited from a cardboard toy box. Dogs, birds, cats and small mammals will all enjoy this free enrichment device. Fill a cardboard box (tissue box to refrigerator size) with shredded paper, their favorite toys or some food and they will be busy foraging for awhile. You can start off easy, by placing a little food on top of toys or paper that are inside the box, and then slowly progress to hiding the food at the bottom. Paper towel tubes, cardboard egg cartons and paper bags also make interesting foraging devices.

Just because an item falls off a chain or rope doesn’t mean it has to be discarded. We can reuse many toys by sanitizing them and restringing them. Some of the best cat toys I have are long pieces of string with broken cat toys tied at one end. Another item you can reuse are old or broken animal carriers. They unscrew in half and can be reused into animal beds. Once turned upside down they provide the perfect hiding hut.

Recycling is another great way to provide free enrichment to our pets. When it comes to enrichment, recycling has two meanings. First, you can simply use old items in new ways or incorporate those items into new devices.

The second meaning for recycle is to share the wealth. Just because one species of animal has had its fill of a particular opportunity doesn’t mean that the enrichment offering can’t be sanitized and offered to a different animal. A great example is scent enrichment. Many pet caregivers are familiar with how superior their olfaction is to ours. Recycling a toy or piece of fabric one animal has scented and giving it to another is a great form of free enrichment. In the wild they are navigating through a large range of smells. Hiding rabbit hair in your yard for your dog or spraying peppermint in the house for your cat will surely get your pets to elicit natural responses.

Just remember some of the scents we like, our pets might find dull. Most predatory animals (like dogs and cats) seem to enjoy the odor of a dead animal. While a dead mouse in your house might be very enriching to your pet, chicken or beef broth might be easier to accommodate. Now that’s enrichment to get excited about.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions” on Facebook.