How to Think Like a Zookeeper About Your Pet’s Welfare

Pets are so much part of our families that it’s easy to forget they’re different from us in many ways. To give them a good life, sometimes we need to get outside our human heads and understand what’s important to another species with different senses, needs, and instincts. Zookeepers are experts at this, and we can learn a lot from them about how to enrich life for the animals in our homes.

How Zookeepers Think About Enrichment

Zookeepers know there’s more to good animal welfare than feeding, cleaning, and medical care. “Animals, regardless of their species, have both psychological and physical needs, and they interact with their environment to fulfill those needs,” says Tim Sullivan, curator of behavioral husbandry at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.

Those interactions are important for more than just the end goal – the animal has a need to perform the behavior itself. Think of one of the most important requirements for any living being: food. In nature, many animals spend a large amount of time looking to satisfy this need.

“A lowland gorilla will spend a dozen hours a day foraging for food,” he says. “At a zoo, where we’re really smart and try to get overly efficient, we can give them all their calories in pellet form that they can ingest in 20 minutes. That’s great from a nutrition standpoint – it meets their physiological need – but it doesn’t help their behavioral need.”

So rather than hand a gorilla food on a silver platter, keepers encourage foraging behavior. Scattering or hiding food around an exhibit is one simple way to do this.

Pets also need opportunities to perform natural food-related behaviors. That’s one reason dog trainers recommend feeding out of food toys and puzzles, something zookeepers do as well. If this is new to your pet, though, you need to start slowly. “We’ve put these animals on meal plans and created a bunch of couch potatoes,” Sullivan says. “You can’t expect them to work for food right off the bat, so you don’t want to go straight from two meals a day to working for every kibble.”

Something as simple as putting their bowl in a different place every day and having the pet look for it is an easy way to start adding challenge to mealtime. And don’t forget that this goes for cats too, although it may take more patience and tiny steps. “Cats know they can win the staredown,” he says. “But if you can make the changes small enough, you start to build up their openness to change.”

Toys

Although we don’t usually think of it this way, toys draw out natural behaviors. That’s why animals find them fun. Chasing a ball and disemboweling a stuffed toy use the same behaviors as hunting food. So toys can be great enrichment – if we do it right.

Sullivan thinks people have a tendency to rely too much on toys. “It’s like a push-button way for us to feel good about what we did,” he says. The result, though, is wondering why our cat or dog is bored when they’re surrounded by all the toys we bought them.

But even if a toy looks fun to a human, if the pet is not using it, it’s not doing its job. “It’s only enrichment if it encourages behavior,” says Emily Insalaco, general curator at the Denver Zoo.

Think more strategically. That doesn’t have to mean buying new toys constantly.

It’s important to provide variety and to understand what variety means to the animal. “For cats, people buy a lot of catnip toys,” she says. “They might not always want catnip. They might want a ball.”

So don’t buy five more colors and shapes of the same type of toy: instead, offer a range of objects animals interact with in different ways. “Provide choices so they can mix things up and not always be performing the same kinds of behaviors,” Insalaco says.

Make use of household items, including some you’d otherwise throw away. “We all have all this toilet paper now in our houses. Think about creating toys with toilet paper rolls,” she says. Put a few treats in the roll, fold in the edges, poke some holes, and you have a new food puzzle.

Provide Choice and Control

Another principle zookeepers think about is allowing animals to have choices and some control over what happens, which is important for mental health. “Choice is about having options,” says Insalaco. “Control is about allowing the animal to have a voice in what is important to them.”

This is another reason it’s important to offer variety. You might buy one cat tree, see the cat ignore it, and decide he doesn’t like cat trees. But provide more than one and you’ll begin to see what’s matters to the cat. “They might be making choices based on whether they want to be elevated, or whether they want to be in the sun or not, or whether their favorite blanket is on the cat tree, or whether it’s closed or an open platform,” she says.

Another way to let a pet make choices and have some control is to give her a way to ask for things. Sullivan’s dog has a bell to ring to go outside and several other noisemaking devices she uses to ask for a new toy, food, or water. “Associate a need with some stimulus, and bam, you’ve got a communicating dog,” he says. If you pay attention, you may realize your pets are already trying to ask you for something by sitting at a door or staring at the fridge – you just need to ‘listen.’

Their Point of View

Meeting an animal’s behavioral needs means remembering that some of those needs are going to be foreign to us – like the importance of smell. Dogs try hard to remind us of this when we’re on walks, but it’s true of cats as well; that’s why they do things like rub their heads on us. “They’re laying down their own scents and picking up other scent pretty frequently when we think they’re just being cute,” says Insalaco.

Zookeepers have found that big cats are extremely interested in certain perfumes – Calvin Klein Obsession is one that’s often mentioned. But it’s probably not the only one, so you can try what you’ve got around the house or those samples in magazines before you go out and buy your cat some cologne. (Don’t spray it on your cat; it’s to add interest to his environment, not his body.)

The smells of other animals also make great scent enrichment. “At the zoo one of the really fun things that we do is give them things that smell like or have been part of another animal, like fur or nail clippings or hoof trims,” says Insalaco.  “You could try trading toys with dogs that you would have played with at the dog park, if you’re not going to the dog park right now.”

Scent-based activities can be hard for us to get our minds around, because they don’t mean much to us. But they’re one of the best reminders that we need to think of enrichment from the animal’s point of view.

“We get frustrated, because why would you spend a minute at the same spot sniffing the same thing? But if the animal is going to spend time and energy doing something, it has meaning,” says Sullivan. “There’s a reason they do things. If you accept that, you can learn from that, and apply it other places.”

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

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.