During the holiday rush, owner distraction and plummeting temps can leave your fur-friend feeling bored. And boredom can spell trouble. If you don’t want your pup to redecorate the house, or your senior pet to withdraw, consider pet enrichment tips to make your fur-friend’s season “merry and bright.”
What Is Canine Enrichment?
With an increasing population of senior pets, research has focused on ways to stave off cognitive decline through play and engagement. Evidence now suggests that mentally-engaging activities help reduce the clinical incidence of canine cognitive dysfunction.
“Creating an enriching environment with enriching activities is one of the greatest gifts you can give your senior pet,” says Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice.“It vastly improves a senior pet’s quality of life.”
More Than Fun for Fido
In one study, older dogs receiving environmental enrichment plus an antioxidant diet showed the most improved cognitive scores, while environmental enrichment alone improved scores more than the group given the dietary treatment without enrichment. Increased perfusion to brain tissue, decreased bodyweight, upregulation of growth factors and improved synaptic plasticity may all be molecular mechanisms underlying the benefits of enrichment and activity therapies. Providing low-stress and predictable social interactions, play, outlets for other natural behaviors, and sensory-stimulating opportunities all serve to create an enriched environment.
Dogs Love Novelty
Researchers who were trying to uncover why dogs tire of toys have discovered that dogs possess “Neophilia” – the love of new things. (WE could have told them that!) You can make an old toy seem new again by changing its scent, or you can restrict access to toys and offer them in rotation to re-pique your pet’s interest. Otherwise, be sure that Fido’s on Santa’s list if you want to keep him busy throughout the long winter ahead.
Food Puzzles – A Win-Win
“Sniff and Nudge” type toys are engaging for pets of any age. Think Busy Buddy or Westpaw toys where you hide treats for Fido to find. For senior dogs who are experiencing cognitive decline, puppy versions of these toys work well if you make sure you show your pet how to get the treats.
From snuffle mats (shaggy mats in which you hide treats) to jaunts BEYOND your back yard, new smells stimulate the mind of your fur-friend like nothing else can. That’s because the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.
Training & Playing Don’t End in Puppyhood
Spending a few minutes each day on reward-based basic obedience or simple trick training is a great method for mental stimulation and appropriate social interaction, especially in less mobile animals. Likewise, encouraging play even in older animals offers opportunities for engagement. A play partner should support the appropriate level activity and not pester or distress the older animal. Toys can also be a good outlet for older animals but daily rotation, food and owner facilitation may be necessary.
For the pup who has everything, Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center has created Dognition.com – a science-based website you can join for assessment tools and monthly enrichment games. Dognition is dedicated to enriching the relationships between dogs and their owners through cognitive science. By tailoring fun, science-based games to subscribers and by offering everyday “citizen scientists” a chance to contribute to research that furthers the study of dog cognition, The Dognition Experience helps owners discover what is extraordinary about their dogs, while contributing to the greater good of all dogs. Annual membership is currently $79; a one-time assessment is $29.
Give your fur-friend a December to Remember with the gift of enrichment!
Feline Enrichment: Kitties Need Enrichment Too!
Similar to dogs, senior cats can also suffer cognitive decline and benefit from enrichment. However, while there is some overlap in strategy, feline enrichment caters to the unique makeup of cats. As a result, activities that cater to visual stimulation, hunting instincts and spatial awareness prevail. Here are some ways to keep your aging kitty engaged:
Provide safe outdoor time for cats with bungee harnesses or cat-specific fencing. Screened porches or outdoor enclosures do not encourage as much activity as walks or large fenced areas, but will help present new sights and sounds.
- Access to windows, preferably with perches, provides mental stimulation as your cat looks out the window. Regularly move beds and perches. This mimics a changing outdoor environment and encourages cats to explore.
Ensure there is vertical space for cats both indoors and outdoors to help foster activity and provide safe places in a multicat household. Cats like to be up high, physical condition permitting. Providing access to elevated places makes cats happy. Provide your cat with a carpeted tree or condo, preferably with hiding spots, cat perches and shelves. Single perches with room for only one cat at a time are a good way to help your cat escape from any other household animals.
- Cats will get bored with a toy after a while, so it is important to provide only a few toys at a time on a rotating basis to keep your cat’s interest. Social activities with humans can be the single most effective way to enrich your indoor cat’s environment. Schedule playtime a few times each day, and rotate toys and games you use each time.