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Pet Toys and Treats As Environmental Enrichment Options

Updated on November 17, 2016
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All Captive Animals Need Environmental Enrichment

If you’re like most dog and cat owners you don’t give it a second thought when you buy toys and treats as an expression of your love.

It rewards good behavior and, oh yes, it neutralizes your guilt over having left him home again, or because you closed the door on his tail.

But, unbeknownst to most pet owners, toys and treats are so much more.

They are, in vetspeak, environmental enrichment. That's a term used more commonly in zoos and aquariums.

Captive animals are mostly deprived of the mind-sharpening decision-making and challenges that they face regularly in the wild. They don't have to defend a territory, hunt or browse for food, compete for a mate, or avoid danger or predation themselves. And because they're so well provided for, they become bored.

Bored animals often engage in stereotypical behavior such as pacing, circling, tail chasing, self-mutilation and environmental destruction.

Birds may pluck their feathers, dogs may gnaw at their paws or the base of their tails, cats may over-groom.

And it's not only the dogs that engage in environmental destruction.

Cats, too, may damage furniture and carpets as well as door and window casings.

And even though your cat or dog isn’t confined to a cage 24/7, they’re still captive animals, with all of their needs provided for.

What a fantastic life, right? Perhaps not so much.

While you or I could perhaps get used to being waited on hand and foot and actually enjoy just “vegging out,” animals need things to keep them mentally stimulated, and that’s where environmental enrichment comes in.

Zoos and aquariums have come up with some pretty clever enrichment options. My own local zoo is no exception.

"Well, not quite as stimulating as a fishsicle, I suppose, but I'll sure take it."
"Well, not quite as stimulating as a fishsicle, I suppose, but I'll sure take it." | Source

Here are some examples of options zookeepers have offered our collection:

  • They prepare “fishsicles” for the river otters by embedding small fish in blocks of ice. The otters seem to very much enjoy working at the ice to get to the fish.
  • While the keepers are cleaning the big cats’ outdoor habitats they’ll hide various herbs behind rocks, under bushes, rub them on tree trunks, etc. and the cats will spend a great deal of time exploring those scents.

Sometimes they react the way some domestic cats react to catnip, other times they’ll just lick them, and there are times where they don’t show any interest in a particular herb.

  • To provide foraging opportunities for the primates, keepers will hide morsels of food under the shavings, and release meal worms and crickets throughout their indoor habitat.
  • Also for primates, and other arboreal animals, keepers provide climbing fixtures, balls, and other toys in both their outdoor and indoor areas.

Environmental enrichment is a major factor in animal husbandry, whether you're dealing with wild animals, farm animals or pets. All need to be mentally stimulated for optimum health.

Pet owners can find an amazing array of interesting, fun and challenging enrichment options at any pet supply store or feed and grain store, and also at department stores, drugstores and even convenience stores. You'll find them under the signs that say "toys" and "treats."

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