We are reminded daily of the obesity problems facing Americans and we see how these issues are mirrored by the percentage
of pets that are overweight. The veterinary profession is confronted with the struggle of working with busy pet owners who
find it hard to make the time to exercise. Also unsafe neighborhoods, weather that is too hot, too wet or too cold may discourage
pet owners to encourage activities outside.
Enrichment is defined as to make rich or richer by the addition of or to increase some desirable quality or attribute. As
a profession, we think of environmental enrichment as creating a feeling of emotional wellbeing by modifying the pet's surroundings.
This concept of enrichment can also be applied to also help burn calories. With some preparation, environmental enrichment
adds another concept to weight loss that might appeal to some pet owners because of its passive nature.
In my practice, I take the focus off of weight loss by redefining it as strengthening or fitness especially when multiple
attempts to accomplish weight loss have failed. Part of this strategy is also incorporating environmental change. The ultimate
result is weight loss or at the very least strengthening of muscle reflected in the increased activity and ease of which exercise
is carried out.
Basically by manipulating the environment and our behavior, we can provide stimulation for our pets. The plan can be broken
down into several areas. Environmental enrichment can be changed by making a change to the physical environment and by modifying
activities in that environment.
All of the changes are to increase the likelihood that the pet will sleep less and burn more calories. Examples of modifying
the environment include allowing visual access to windows, putting up bird feeders, laying out an obstacle course that pets
must climb or walk through, installing cat stairs/ ramps against the walls, and investing in a cat tree, etc. Encourage the
presence of wildlife like deer and squirrels by putting out corn. Also for cats, add additional scratching posts or cardboard
boxes laced with catnip that they can climb and play. Invest in an abundance of toys then rotate them to recapture their novelty
for dogs and cats.
Modifying activities can also create environmental enrichment. This can be of much benefit when pets are housed in unsafe
neighborhoods, or when the weather does not permit going outside. Some rehabilitation techniques can be applied to modify
a pet's indoor activities. Encourage the pets to use the steps 4 times more than they usually do during the day. This can
be done for cats by coaxing them or by actually carrying them part way up the flight and have them walk the rest of the way.
For dogs and some cats integrate in additional sit-to-stand exercises slowly working up to 10 to 15 twice daily. When there
is only one pet in the household or if pets can be separated consider using their meals in planning activities. This will
also stimulate their problem solving abilities. For example, use the kibble as a treat trail through an obstacle course. Hide
kibble to serve as a treasure hunt of food. One may also feed portions of meals in Kong toys or other interactive toys.
While watching television, teach the pet owners a physical therapy called weight shifting where a pet is gently pushed side
to side in an oscillating motion. This helps build core strength and balance.
Triggers that might initiate activity include the ring of the doorbell and the sounds at mealtime preparation. Remember to
maintain these as triggers any positive response should be reinforced by praise of a small treat.
Also consider the addition of another pet depending on the behavior and the financial constraints of the family. A dog's activity
may be enhanced by the addition of another dog or cat. Consider fish, reptiles or pocket pets to stimulate both cats and dogs.
With dogs, consider inviting over a play date or fostering a pet if another addition to the family is not possible.
Presenting and applying common concepts in a creative way can help pets become more physically and mentally stimulated with
the goal to burn more calories plus also fortifying the active relationship between the pet owner and pet.