It’s a sad fact: Zoos do a better job with enrichment for captive wildlife than most pet owners do with our companion dogs and cats. Fetch dvm360 conference speaker Steve Dale, CABC, a nationally syndicated radio host, recommends taking a page from zoo medicine to educate pet owners about how to enrich their pets’ lives. Start with these 10 tips.
1. Spread the love with the right resources. Every house should have the number-of-cats-plus-one ratio of these resources: scratching posts, elevated spots where the cats can go and litterboxes.
2. Share cheap DIY toy enrichment ideas.
Toys don’t need to be expensive. Here are a few suggestions you can offer to get pet parents started on the right paw:
• Get paper bags instead of plastic at the grocery store. Cut the bottoms out, tape them together and you have a cat tunnel.
• Before you recycle the Amazon Prime box, leave it out for a couple of days for your cat to hide in and bat around, or hide a tasty treat in the box and let your dog or cat figure out how to get the treat out of the box.
3. Encourage pet owners to think outside the bowl when feeding pets. Dale points to contrafreeloading, an observed behavior in many species. The premise: If given a choice, an animal prefers the food that requires effort.
Dale suggests that cats could benefit from something like Doc & Phoebe's Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder (previously sold as the No Bowl Feeding system), an indoor hunting feeder, where clients fill the feeder, hide it and cats hunt for it. You can accomplish the same concept with a toilet tube roll: fill it with kibble, twist the ends, cut a couple of holes in it and let the cat hunt.
4. Explain to clients that cats need enrichment to prevent behavioral problems and obesity. Clients are under the impression that cats don’t need enrichment, especially in comparison to dogs. It helps if you mention that bored cats are stressed cats, and stressed cats pee on beds.
In my experience, clients are usually more motivated to prevent inappropriate elimination than obesity. Kitten visits, adoption visits and wellness visits are a great time to start this conversation.
5. Remind clients to only leave a few toys out at a time, and rotate toys every couple of days. Pets get bored with the same old toys. (Looking for toy recommendations? Check these out.)
6. Look for outdoor enrichment opportunities. Clients who are interested in outdoor enrichment for house cats might be interested in building a catio. You can also recommend Cat Fence-In, a fence accessory that is designed to keep your cats inside your fence, and other cats out.
7. Make enrichment a fun game for pet parents too. People enjoy the dopamine boost of playing just as much as cats and dogs do, so share a list of your favorite ways to up the ‘play’ factor through enrichment with your clients.
8. Remind clients to walk that dog! The most overlooked enrichment for dogs is a walk. Letting the dog out into the yard isn’t the same as going for a walk. Dogs in yards get bored and can develop reactive behavioral problems. Everyone’s encountered the dogs that rush the fence and give you a heart attack every time you walk by.
Remind clients to go for a walk, and if they’re on a walk for the dog’s benefit, give the dog some time to be a dog. Loose the choke hold on the leash and let them sniff.
9. Teach your clients to feed out of enrichment toys. Not only can you be more hands on with nutrition, but you can demonstrate knowledge about behavior—something that’s important to a lot of clients—and show that you care about more than just vaccines, heartworm tests and parasite control. You care about the pet’s feelings, and that will translate to a great Yelp review.
10. Stop using the term fractious to describe pet behavior. Most of our patients aren’t fractious. They’re afraid they’re going to die.
If we as veterinary professionals are intentional about the terms used to describe fearful pet behavior, we can raise clients’ awareness of their pets' behavior. Once our clients are aware, they can modify the pet’s behavior so veterinary visits are less stressful for everyone.