that such stereotypes can be used as an indication that the animals are suffering from
their confinement." Essentially, stereotypic behaviors are simply one possibly
manifestation of terminal boredom. It doesn't take much for we caring pet owners to
empathize with animals in captivity. We imagine sitting there in a cage day in and day
out with nothing to do but what we've been given to play with, nothing to eat but what is
brought to us, nothing to sit on but the same furniture as always, and nothing to look at
but the same view every single day. Imagine you're food is exactly the same every day.
Imagine you received no interaction from your keepers. Imagine there were no others
of your kind anywhere nearby. Imagine you were never given anything to read,
anything to play with. Pretty soon you'd go crazy, and the same thing happens to
animals if they're kept in ever-unchanging circumstances.
As pets, our animals do tend to fare a little bit better than that, of course. They get
daily interaction with their owners, and possibly with other pets. Their "cages" are big:
the entire house, the whole back yard, maybe several daily walks. But, we're not
always there, and sometimes they are stuck in their crate or their cage, or sometimes
they're left out, but then, unsupervised and alone, they destroy things. So, what can
we do to improve their lot? And why should we do it?
Providing animals from enrichment staves off boredom, promotes physical and mental
health, and can even prevent destruction of your property. It is the bored pets, and the
ones with no other alternatives, that chew on your shoes, pee on your bed, poop in the
corner, and scratch up our furniture. Additionally, providing enrichment to your pets
also enriches you! How fun is it to give a treat to your pet? How delightful is it to give
your pet a new toy and watch him play with it?
So, what can be enrichment? Many people have a hard time thinking of things. They
just go off to the pet store and buy a toy. Well, that's a start, and a good one, but we
can do even better. I find that it's helpful to think of two things.
1: The five senses.
2. What does the animal do in the wild?
First, let's look at the five senses, and at several different kinds of animals to determine
possible enrichment choices for them.
This is the biggie. Food is a primary reinforcer, so any enrichment you come up with
that has to do with food is sure to be popular. There are a number of things you can
do to make food interesting.
First, don't be afraid to use their normal diet in their enrichment. For one thing, if you
use too many treats, you will make your little one fat and unhealthy, and you don't want
that. You should be measuring how much food your pet gets daily, and 10% of that can
be substituted with treats. For example, if your pet gets 1 oz. of kibble every day (ha! it
must be a small pet!), then you can safely give it 0.9 oz. of kibble and 0.1 oz. of treats
every single day!
Now, what can you do with this food? You can hide it around their enclosure. You can
put it in things, like a kong chew toy, and make them work to get it out. You can train
them with it! Did you know that most dogs will train for their kibble? Here are some
examples of things you can do with food as enrichment. You can certainly mix and
match where you think it's appropriate.
Treat ball (food comes out as they roll it)
Ball game where you hide treats in some parts of a cupcake pan, but cover all of the
cupcake holes with balls. The dog has to sniff around to find out which balls to move to
get the treats. You can also do this by hiding a treat in one hand or in one pocket and
having him find it before you give it to him.
Hide food around the yard or house (make sure it's something like kibble that can't
Toy gumball machine with kibble in it (food comes out when they hit the lever)
A different kind of food than they usually get
Food wrapped up in some corn husks
Food in a toy that they have to work to get the food out (can be found in many pet
stores, or you can make your own)
Sheep (just to show that any animal can benefit from enrichment)
Set up a feeder high so she has to stand on her hind legs to reach it
Food inside a PVC pipe with holes in it -- she has to kick it to get the food to fall out
Slightly sweetened ice cubes in her water on a hot day
Food inside a hollow log -- she has to use her tongue or paw at it or break away the log
to get at it
Some of these things utilize the animal's natural behavior. A sheep will stand on its
hind legs, propping up their front legs, to reach some leaves. A dog will typically locate
food with its nose. A bird will work on a hard fruit or nut in order to get all of the
goodies out. A cat will play with its prey. It's easy to find enrichment that will stimulate
them mentally in this way.
Some of the enrichment in the section on Taste also used a sense of smell. It's one of
the major tools of many animals for finding food. You can, however, use smell in the
absence of food and many animals will find that enriching because they'll be able to
investigate it, maybe even roll in it!
Other animals' urine or feces. Ok, this sounds gross, but dogs really love it, and once
they reach a certain age, there really isn't any harm in them smelling it or rolling in it.
Just be sure they get a bath before you bring them in the house!
Perfume. Any new scent will do. Spray some here and there around the yard when
your dog isn't aware. When next he gets put into the yard, he has something
interesting to investigate.
Barbecue sauce or gravy. It has a nice strong smell, but it will still take a little time
before the dog locates it. He will probably lick it.
Crushed, torn or freshly mown grass
Mulch or new soil
You! Play hide and seek with your dog. I bet he finds you.
The scent of other animals. I have a pet rat, and sometimes I put some of his soiled
bedding in my cats' litter box. They usually investigate it a little bit.
The outdoors. My cats are indoor-only, and one of their favorite things to smell is the
outside, when I have the back patio door open (but the screen closed).
Birds are one of the few animals with a very poor sense of smell. That is, unless you
happen to own a vulture. For the majority of birds, however, you want to avoid strong
smells. Birds are particularly susceptible to respiratory diseases, given their
physiology, so be careful especially to avoid strong-smelling irritants, such as bleach, in
Flowers (they may eat these, so be sure they're not toxic)
For some of these things, obviously you'll want to use them under supervision, so the
animal doesn't ingest something it shouldn't. Basically, you can offer anything that
smells like anything to your animal to smell it. It may not be enriching for long, but it will
add to their lexicon of scents. It doesn't necessarily matter if it's something they'd have
found interesting in the wild, such as charcoal and sheep, but the important thing is to
give them the opportunity to investigate it.
Sight is another primary sense. Every bit of enrichment has a sight component to it, but
let's try to find some that are particularly interesting to the eye. Once again, some of
these may have other sensory components, such as Smell; this only adds to the
dimension of interest.
Balls, especially the thrown kind
Flashing lights, be it on a rescue vehicle or in a toy
Walk (even the leash, with its promise of a walk, is enriching)
Anything they can see through a window (the outdoors, leaves moving, birds or other
Shopping results. My cats are always investigating everything in my shopping bags
when I come home, sticking their whole heads in the bags to look and smell.
Remote control toy like a mouse or a car
Any new toy
Disco ball or other multifaceted reflective surface
Leaves blowing about
New tree or bush
Don't underestimate this one. It isn't what they typically use to find their food, but it's a
very important sense for all animals, especially human ones.
A swimming pool
The lawn: changing or offering different types of substrates can be fun for the animal.
Try grass, Astroturf, pea gravel, cement, rubber, dirt, or even mud.
A nylon playpen or obstacle course
Clay litter or other powdery substrate, either for using as a bathroom or for rolling in
Cardboard. My cats love sitting on cardboard, or inside a cardboard box.
Different types of perching, such as some smooth wood, some wood with bark, some
wood wrapped in Astroturf, some flat perches
Spray bottle full of water, or a mister
Heat lamp (for birds kept outdoors)
Provide stiff-bristle brushes attached to the pen so they can lean against it and scratch
Logs or other rough wood for rubbing on
Wooden hurdles for exercise (the touch comes from knowing when and how high to
step or jump over, although this is supplemented by Sight)
This one is very important to most animals, as well. Many cats hunt more by sound
than by smell. Birds, especially the larger parrots, love to make noise. They love being
around it, as well!
Whistle (either the dog kind or the regular kind)
Clicker (especially when used in training)
Children (laughing, playing, crying)
Wolf or coyote howls
A squeaky toy
The rustle of a plastic bag
The can opener (if they've had tuna before, that is)
Scratching noise somewhere hidden from the cat's view
The hum of an electric water filter or anything that generates white noise (my cats are
fascinated with the sound their electric water fountain makes)
A magazine, flipping the pages yourself or letting them flip in the wind
You talking, singing, yelling, or screaming to him
The radio, television or computer
Sound effects (I have some on my phone for when I do bird visits)
A tape recording of other sheep
Shaking the food bin
The sound of chopping wood
The rustling of leaves
You don't have to use these ideas. There are many more where they came from. You
can use any store-bought toys (using common sense, of course -- you don't want a toy
that's too easy for your pet to destroy, or that can be ingested but isn't meant to be).
You can make your own toys, too. For example, to encourage foraging, you can take a
cardboard box from a microwave meal, fill it with a few pieces of kibble and a whole lot
of shredded paper, seal it up as best you can, and let your pet find a way to break it
open and search through it for the treats. Or you put a small bin filled with hay and
some seeds in the bottom of your bird's cage, and let him sort through it to find the
goodies. Or you can make a puzzle box out of wood or PVC, put treats inside, and let
your pet work out some way to get the treats out. It doesn't have to be easy. In fact, it
should be hard enough to hold their attention for a long time, yet rewarding enough
that they go back to it time and again. How much an enrichment item is used is the best
way to directly measure its success.
Don't forget that everything in your animal's enclosure has the potential to be enriching.
For birds, think about their perching. For all animals, think about their substrate. For
cats, a cat tree is a frequently used piece of furniture. For cats and dogs, some sort of
pillow. If you have an animal that stays in the yard, trees and plants are part of the
enrichment, as are leaves, seeds and fruit. You want to make sure they are safe as
well as interesting. Adding a new tree will suddenly add an interesting component.
Putting a window in your fence will add to your pet's enrichment.
What other ideas can you think of? Please e-mail us if you'd like to see your idea
posted here. Alternatively, if you don't like any of these ideas, or if they won't work for
you for some reason, contact us and we'll send you some more ideas.
The point of enrichment is to give the animal choices in their environment. Think back
to what I said before about being stuck in the same cage all day, with everything the
same, for always. Giving the animal some measure of control over its environment is
providing it enrichment. Just because you offer the enrichment, doesn't mean they
have to use it, so don't be disappointed if they don't. The point is, however, that you
have offered it. It would be better if they did use it, of course, but they have the choice
to not play with that toy you gave them today.
This brings me to a most important point about enrichment. You may have noticed a
theme in some of the above examples. Offering a new type of food, planting a new
tree, etc. Newness is an important factor in enrichment. If you give the dog the same
toy day after day after day, he will eventually find it boring, just as you might. Suddenly,
though, you decide to give him a new toy. It's exactly like the old one in the way it
looks, its color, its size, etc., but...it's new. It smells a little bit different. It's not as
beat-up. The dog seems really interested in this toy! Because it is new. Now, he'll
probably get bored with it sooner than he wood a completely different new toy, but
because it is new, there is something different to investigate about it.
Something similar will happen if you take away an old, boring toy, but reintroduce it
some time later. Do you remember when you were a kid, and you loved this one toy for
a long time, but finally you got bored with it, and it got lost in the back of your closet?
And then one day, months later, when you were cleaning out the closet, you found this
once beloved toy? You remembered the joy of playing with it, and so you played with it
again. Maybe for not as long as the first time, but still, it was interesting. You can do
the same trick with your pets' toys. You don't have to break the bank and get them a
new toy every week. But if you get them four toys, and you rotate them out every week,
those toys will retain their enriching properties for much, much longer than if you just
left them out for them to play with all the time. You can make a toy that might have
lasted weeks instead last a year or more.
New toys, however, will always be intrinsically more interesting than old ones. For
example, let's say you had a book. You read it, and it was a great book, filling you with
fond memories of its story. You put it away or you lost it. A year later, someone comes
to you and offers you either that book or a new book you'd never read, which one do
you think you would choose (assuming both subjects interested you at least a little bit)?
The new one, of course! Because even though you loved the old book, well, you had
already read it. As simple as that. The same is true for pets and other animals, so it's
always good to give pets something truly new (even if you made it yourself) every so
Another component of enrichment that I haven't talked about is exercise. Exercise is
healthy, so be sure to offer enrichment that promotes exercise in your pets. For
example, a climbing station for your parrot, chase-play with cat toys or a laser pointer
for your cat, daily walks for your dog, and hurdles or walks for your sheep.
Never underestimate training as enrichment. Training is one of the most enriching
things you can do with and for your pet. Not only does it strengthen the bond between
you and your pet, but the pet will look forward to the challenges required in order to
earn its food. If you ever see a zoo with small enclosures and very little physical
enrichment, ask them about their training practices before you judge them. Training is
far and away the most effective enrichment any zoo (or pet-owner!) can offer their
animals. It provides companionship, a bond with keepers, learning opportunities, a
means for the animal to engage with its environment, and food, all wrapped up into one.
Lastly, I have a couple of links for you. You can purchase many interesting enrichment
items for wild and domestic animals from your pet stores, but Boomer Ball, supports a
lot of zoos and other non-profits, so if you feel like spending your money at a small,
family-owned business that does a lot of good, consider buying some enrichment items
One of the best sources of enrichment I've ever found is this publication, The Shape of
Enrichment. Their items are exclusively geared towards zoo animals, but are easily
adaptable to pets. If you're truly interested in enriching your pets lives to the fullest, the
If you have any other good resources for enrichment that you'd like to share, please
contact us and we will post it here.