A Shelter Shares Enrichment Tips For Pets At Home

Recently I volunteered with my husband and two nieces at a special place: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. It’s the largest no-kill animal refuge in the United States, spanning nearly 3,700 acres of red rock canyon near Kanab, Utah. Hundreds of employees care for roughly 1,600 dogs, cats, horses, pigs, bunnies, parrots, and “wild friends.” Most are being readied for adoption.

Feeding and cleaning for that many animals every day is a huge undertaking. But Best Friends doesn’t just keep animals alive – providing enrichment to boost quality of life is also a top priority. That means volunteers get to do fun things such as take cats for walks in strollers (or on leash), read books to bunnies, create whimsical perches for parrots, and stuff Kong toys with wet food and peanut butter to freeze for dogs.

“Enrichment for pet animals is super important,” says BFAS behavior consultant Melissa Pezzuto, CPDT-KA. “It keeps them healthy both physically and mentally.”

I noticed a few enrichment techniques during our first shift at Puppy Preschool. The “onomatopoeia litter” of 12-week-old mastiff mixes had just been neutered, so their caregivers played classical piano music to provide a calming environment. After cleaning their enclosures, a caregiver suggested we take Hum and Swish for a walk, and to take the pups out a different door than they expected to vary their routine.

Later that day, we helped out during mealtime for older dogs, scooping kibble into puzzle feeders to make meals a game for many of them. In one enclosure, instead of feeding a Lab mix named Jarvis his food in a bowl or puzzle, I fed him a few bits of kibble as a reward for obeying cues such as “Sit,” “Wait,” “Down,” “Place,” and “High Five.” It reminded me of Dr. Marty Becker telling me he hasn’t used food bowls in years, preferring to offer puzzle feeders, training, or kibble scattered in the yard to provide enrichment for his pets.

At Piggy Paradise, we scattered romaine leaves and mixed vegetables in different parts of each enclosure so the pigs could root for their food while we filled their mud baths with water. After they ate, we scratched them behind their armpits, and when we’d find the perfect spot, they’d flop onto their sides in bliss. Giving love to animals, of course, is a win/win enrichment activity!

I asked Pezzuto for more Best Friends enrichment techniques that we can try at home with our pets. In addition to puzzle feeders and training (bestfriends.org/resources/dogs) for dogs, she suggests the following:

  • Car rides and outings: “Giving him the chance to see and explore the world is a wonderful form of enrichment. Can you take him to the local pet store to sniff around? Can you take him on a car ride to a new place? At the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary we like to take our dogs on car rides down to other animal areas, so they can see the horses or pigs. Just experiencing new smells gets their brain working.”
  • Nose work games and snuffle mats: “Check out snuffle mats! These are mats with rows of fleece or other fabric that are different lengths. You can hide food or treats in the mat for your dog to find. These are a fun and easy do-it-yourself option.”
  • Walks: “Many people think of walks as physical exercise and want to keep their dogs continuously moving. Dogs see the world through their nose, and sniffing things engages their brain. So on your next walk let them go slow and sniff as much as possible. Take them to a new place to explore novel smells and sights.”

Because cats are natural hunters and enjoy searching for their prey, Pezzuto says the easiest way to enrich their lives is to stop feeding them in bowls and instead allow them to “hunt” for their meals using food puzzles. In addition to training cats or gradually introducing them to stroller or harness walks (safety tips available at bestfriends.org/resources/cats/walking-cat), she shares these enrichment ideas:

  • Interactive toys: “These toys help strengthen the bond between you and your cat by letting you share fun and positive experiences. Both you and your cat can have a great time playing with wand-type toys with strings, feathers, and fabric strips attached. Low-cost (or no-cost) items are often a cat’s preferred toys. Some suggestions are wadded-up paper, foil balls, and plastic rings from milk jugs. Toss a variety of objects for your cat to see which ones she’s most interested in chasing.”
  • Climbing and vertical enrichment: “Upright structures and elevated perches will serve your cat’s climbing and clawing needs. To let your cat experience a bit of the outdoors while indoors, place perches, cat furniture (such as cat trees) or resting areas by the windows in your home. Cat furniture can be purchased, or you can easily make your own.”

Pezzuto notes that something as easy as clearing the back of a couch near a window can expand a cat’s horizons. Placing a birdbath or bird feeder within sight of the window will increase her enjoyment even more. When it comes to enrichment, a little goes a long way toward creating a happy home for everyone inside.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.