Environmental Enrichment

There are days when I just want to cuddle up in my warm bed or laze on the couch watching Netflix. There are enough things to keep me occupied for days, maybe even a couple weeks, if I didnt leave my house. But after a weekend, I get stir crazy. Getting outside in the fresh air, seeing new things while driving, meeting and talking to people, and even grocery shopping help alleviate my boredom. Humans are lucky that waymost of the time we are able to do what we want and go where we want. Unfortunately, our pets cannot.

My collie loves to go for rides in the truck, but we dont let him drive (hed be a rather distracted driver, sticking his nose out the window). My four cats are on the heated waterbed when I leave in the morning and are often there when I return at night. A life of leisure? It may seem that way, but they also get bored, even with the box of toys sitting in the middle of the floor.

I dont advocate leaving your dog and cat outside all day, but it would be a more entertaining life. Taking in the wonderful smells, investigating trash cans, chasing squirrels, catching mice, watching butterflies, and exploring wide-open spaces is equivalent to us going out for dinner and a movie then meeting up with friends for a drink and dancing. Our pets are much safer inside away from cars, parasites, and other animals, but they need stimulation. They can develop behavioral and medical problems directly related to the stress of not doing anything. If you were not allowed to leave your house and couldnt do anything but sleep, eat, and watch television, you might also start noticing ill effects. Bored, stressed cats may develop inflammation in their bladder, causing them to urinate outside the litter box. Bored, stressed dogs may lick excessively on their lower legs, causing a nonhealing wound. Bored pets are more likely to get into the trash, chew up furniture, bark or meow excessively, and become aggressive.

The good news is that there are many things you can do to improve and enrich your pets environment to decrease boredom and improve their health and well-being. For dogs, getting outside for a walk or playtime every day is very important. The sights and smells stimulate their brains, and exercise is important for their bodies. Dog parks are a wonderful place for most dogs. They get to meet and sniff other dogs, run, play, and just have fun being a dog. You benefit, too, from talking with other dog lovers. There are enough off-leash dog parks in Dane County that most residents can get to one within 15 minutes. Dogs also enjoy playing hide-and-seek in the house. My son will hide behind a door then call our dog, Scout, to find him. Scout loves it.

Cats are more solitary and dont usually enjoy being around unknown cats, which is probably why there arent any cat parks around. You can train a cat to go outside on a leash, but having perches by windows is almost as good. Cats like to be up high and look down on things. They like chattering at the birds outside and watching leaves move. Tall cat trees are ideal, with the perches wide enough so the cat can stretch. If you have more than one cat, try to play with each cat separately and have toys in different locations. Cats dont usually like to share their playtime with other cats, just with you.

Playing with a pet is a great stress reliever for both pet and owner. Get that laser pointer out and run your cat up and down the stairs (some dogs develop obsessive-compulsive disorder with laser pointers, so its best not to use them with dogs). Wave the feather toy over your cat so he can bat at it. The Cat Dancer toy has a piece of cardboard on the end of a thick piano wire. Cats love how it moves randomly and have fun jumping for it. For low-cost playtime, set a newspaper on the floor with the creased edge sticking up. Move a string through the paper and watch your cat dive to get the string.

Use feeding time as a way to interact with your pet. Cats prefer small meals throughout the day. You can throw kibble for them to chase or hide small amounts of food around the house for them to find. When you are gone, puzzle feeders are great for engaging your pet. The Slim Cat ball can be filled with food, which drops out as the cat pushes the ball around the floor. There are puzzles you can buy for your dog that require them to push or move doors to find the treat. You can make puzzles at home too. Put your pets food in small jars or shoeboxes that require him to reach a paw inside. Hide small treats in a muffin tin and then cover the holes with tennis balls that your dog needs to knock off in order to eat the treat.

If youve not taken your dog to an obedience class, try to fit one into your schedule. Dogs like to have a job, and learning tricks fits that bill. Getting out with other people and dogs gives you a new appreciation for your own dog, and you will learn a lot about dog behavior. Practicing the things you learn for even five minutes a day with your dog will keep their mind sharp and improve interactions with you. Agility training and flyball competitions are fun activities, if you have the time. Cats can also be trained to do tricks. You can use a clicker and treats to teach them to sit, come, and maybe push a ball with their nose. If you havent seen the AcroCats show, I highly recommend it!

We all live busy lives that provide us with opportunities to interact with other people, get outside, and then appreciate our down time. Our pets are just the opposite. They have lots of down time and depend on us to provide the stimulation, exercise, and entertainment they need to live a happy, healthy life. Before you move on to reading the next article, please take a moment to throw a toy for your pet and tell them what a great companion they are.

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .