Behavior enrichment (Proceedings)


Behavior enrichment (Proceedings)

Apr 01, 2010

Animals are exposed to stressful situations throughout their entire lives. Not only animals in confinement encounter stress, such as in kennel or shelter situations, but those in households do as well. Behavioral enrichment helps decrease some of the stresses that the animals encounter, as well as playing a direct role in preventing and treating problem behaviors.

Stress in animals

There are many things in an animal's life that can cause stress and anxiety. Certainly veterinary visits cause stress, whether directly due to the medical condition, especially those causing pain or discomfort, but also due to handling and restraint. Kenneling an animal, whether short-term in the hospital or longer-term in an owner's house after orthopedic surgery, for example, is also stressful. Specific stressful things about confinement away from home can include: the actual confinement itself; change in diet; separation from the family members; proximity to loud and/or aggressive animals; noise; change of routine; and even just having people walk by the cage and not interact with it. Confinement at home for long periods of time, especially for young, active, or anxious animals, or those that have never been crate-trained, is also stressful.

Stressful situations specific to long-term confinement in shelters are often related to the things mentioned above. However, lack of environmental enrichment also plays a large role in perpetuating stress in these animals.

Signs of stress

Acute stress can manifest itself with signs of sympathetic nervous system activation. Some examples are: dilated pupils; piloerection; increased fear and/or aggression; inappetance; and vocalization. Chronic stress is often more insidious in nature. Some of the signs seen during acute stress can be present. However, some animals that are chronically stressed can develop repetitive behaviors, such as circling, excessive grooming (i.e. acral lick dermatitis), and pacing. They can also be more likely to develop an illness, especially if they are exposed to multiple stressors.


One main purpose of enrichment is to help reduce stress in animals. By enriching an animal's environment, it helps the owner develop a consistent and pleasant manner in which to interact with their pet, gives the animal something to do, both with the owner and when the owner is not present, and helps animals expend physical and mental energy. It also allows the animal to display more species-typical behaviors. Enrichment tools include: food dispensing tools or long-lasting food tools; solitary tools; human-interactive tools; and human interaction.

Food-dispensing tools

The reasons for using these tools include giving the animal something to do when the owner is not present, and letting the animal "forage" for its food, which is more ethologically correct than eating its full ration out of a food bowl, even though our pets adapt well. Animals spend a good portion of their day hunting (carnivores) or foraging (herbivores) for food, which they are not able to do when they are fed their ration out of a bowl.

Animals could be fed their entire daily ration in these tools. Things to recommend to owners are for them to start out easy for the animal, gradually increasing the difficulty for the animal, and using larger quantities of the tasty treats at the beginning.

Self-play toys are especially good for pets which are left home alone while their owners are away. A lot of self-play toys dispense food, which motivates the pet to play with the toy. The basic principle is that you fill up the toy with food, and the pet learns to manipulate the toy to release the food out of a hole. Some examples are: Kong toys ®; Roll-a-Treat Balls ®; Deli Dome ®; and Pavlov's Cat ®. Owners can make their own toys with such objects as racquet or tennis balls, or disposable water bottles with plastic lids. Cut a hole into the ball or container, fill it up with dry kibble, and, presto, the pet is entertained.

Caution must be taken when recommending these types of toys for your clients to use. Certainly take into consideration dietary restrictions for that pet. Safety must also be taken into consideration, so that the animal does not injure itself or swallow part of the tool during vigorous chewing. In addition, pests and vermin should be controlled if these tools are left about in the house or outside. One should strive for a balance between extremely tasty (and perhaps fattening) and nutritionally balanced food.