June is now upon us.
If you are in the mood to celebrate, feel free to commemorate these upcoming festive occasions:
June 1st marks the anniversary of the publication of Dr. Heimlich’s first article detailing his technique of using abdominal thrusts to remove an airway obstruction, hence – National Heimlich Maneuver Day. Upsy Daisy Day on the 8th is meant to encourage you to face the day positively, like a flower looking skyward to greet the sun. Kitchen Klutzes of America Day (June 13) is a good excuse to go out to dinner instead of setting the kitchen on fire again. The 17th is Global Garbage Man Day and devoted to the glorification of the hard-working, chronically underappreciated, essential sanitation workers (not Trashcan Man).
There are also some holidays that will merit modified observances this year. For example, National Handshake Day (June 25) should be replaced by Shake, Senora Day because Harry Belafonte songs are infinitely more fun than wondering where someone else’s hands have been. On June 28, you may also have trouble participating in festivities related to National Paul Bunyan Day. If you happen to be in the vicinity of Bemidji (MN), Bangor (ME), Akeley (MN), Portland (OR) or Klamath (CA) you can visit one of his statues. If, however, you were hoping to visit the amusement park at Paul Bunyan Land, your trip to Brainerd (MN) will have to be postponed.
Depending on your locale, you may or may not be resuming some of the activities in which you participated prior to the present pandemic. Most likely your summer plans have been impacted and you will probably continue to spend more time at your residence than you did a year ago.
You may feel you have already spent too much time within the confines of your home and you may be starting to feel like a caged animal. If so, you can take some solace in knowing that conditions for many captive animals have improved since the Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966. One such enhancement is the addition of environmental enrichment which contributes to the physical and mental well-being of zoo, lab, farm and companion animals.
Enrichment (per dictionary.cambridge.org) is “the act or process of improving the quality or power of something by adding something else”. This applies to a variety of conditions, not just corporate CEOs raking in multi-million- dollar bonuses (regardless of the economic strife being experienced by the masses). Other forms of enrichment include adding nutrients to cereal, enhancing the gas breathed by scuba divers and, of course, increasing the amount of the fissile isotope in your uranium. (Please note – if you are reading this in the hopes of obtaining nuclear secrets, your agency has been led horribly astray. Feel free to keep reading, however, for entertainment value and some pet care tips.) Inpopulation ecology, the term ‘paradox of enrichment’ refers to a situation where increasing the food available to one species destabilizes the population of the predators that feed upon the well-fed species. This BLOG blog, however, shall be limited to the concept of adding some activities to make your house pet’s life more interesting.
A few months ago, the life of a house pet seemed enjoyably effortless. This apparently low-stress existence consists of spending most of the day lounging on the couch, having someone bring food to you and occasionally venturing out for a walk or a car ride. You may now have a slightly different perspective.
The human-animal relationship has changed over time. Dogs have long provided companionship and emotional support; for many, it is now their primary occupation instead of hunting, herding or hauling. Cats are no longer kept primarily for their mousing skills; they are expected to provide comfort and internet entertainment. In return, we provide food, water, shelter and, of course, love.
We also need to provide them with a sense of safety. This is very important for their peace of mind. Ideally, this is accomplished by providing a predictable routine. Pets (particularly cats) also need a ‘safe place’ where they can go to escape from loud noises, other pets, small children and other noxious stimuli.
Animals in the wild devote a lot of their time to meeting their basic needs. So, it stands to reason that pampered pets have a lot of extra time. How can we humans help them spend their time in a fulfilling way?
In genral, enrichment should provide opportunities for the animal to perform actions normal for their species. While the specific measures preferred will vary between species and between individuals, there are some general guidelines.
Sensory enrichment provides a variety of novel stimuli for your pet to safely experience. To make their world more interesting visually, you can add a window seat, or, in some cases, turn on pet-friendly TV shows. If your pet is prone to stress, soothing sounds like classical or reggae music may have a calming effect. Olfactory enrichment for cats can be accomplished via catnip. For dogs, it involves taking them for a leisurely walk and allowing sufficient time for every single blade of grass on the block to be thoroughly sniffed. Although this can be rather tiresome for the human on the other end of the leash, dogs are quite scent oriented and gather a lot of information about their surroundings and its inhabitants in this fashion.
Short daily (or twice daily) training sessions provide exercise for the mind and body as well as interaction with humans, all of which are important to your pet’s health. Training should be based on positive reinforcement, and tailored to your pet’s abilities. It is also not just for dogs. Cats can learn basic commands and tricks. There are also instances of rats who run through mazes, horses that dive off a pier, chickens that play Tic-Tac-Toe and at least one frog that sings and dances (but never in public).
Now it is time for some more species-specific suggestions. Please note that many of the following activities involve food. The amount fed in these situations should be deducted from the daily ration, not in addition to it.
The ever-present food bowl is a construct of captivity. Wild canids spend a lot of time foraging for food. There are several methods of providing an at-home scavenging experience that don’t involve the raiding of your rubbish bin.
Food puzzles are one way to provide nutrition and mental stimulation simultaneously. The basic concept is that the dog has to manipulate an object in some fashion (with paws or snout) to release the tasty tidbits within it. There are many different styles and levels of difficulty available for purchase. If you are so inclined, you can make your own, using things like muffin tins, empty milk jugs or paper towel rolls. Dogs need to be supervised when these are introduced, to make sure they don’t get frustrated and go hungry or destroy the toy and swallow chunks of it. If you have multiple dogs, you will probably need to separate them so they can each enjoy their treat without the threat of it being pilfered. You will also need to change the toys periodically to prevent boredom.
If possible, you should engage your dog in some physical activities. Letting them out into the back yard doesn’t count, unless you are playing fetch or frisbee or your dog is herding your sheep, cows, or children. Walks, with at least a few sniff breaks, are quite rewarding to the captive canine’s mental and physical well- being.
Practicing basic commands or learning new tricks (regardless of the dog’s age) provides beneficial stimulation for mind and body. You can also incorporate some games to liven up the training sessions. For example, teaching your dog to come when called is more fun when you have multiple people in multiple locations with multiple snackeys who take turns calling the dog and rewarding the response. Dogs can also be taught to play hide-and-seek, and they don’t seem to mind that it is always their turn to be the sewer clown.
Enhancing the feline lifestyle starts with making your home as cat-friendly as possible while still being suitable for human habitation. Cats thrive in an environment with minimal stress and maximum opportunities to exhibit normal cat behavior. This usually involves a predictable routine that allows the cat to have at least some control over its activities. They also need outlets for normal feline behaviors like hiding, climbing, hunting and scratching.
Their environment should provide multiple elevated perching spots where your cat can feel safe. Options include cat trees, shelves, and window seats. Some cats like to watch the happenings at a bird/squirrel feeder, others can become frustrated by the presence of unattainable prey.
In some cases, you can safely provide them some limited access to the outside world. This can be accomplished either by teaching them to walk on a leash or constructing an outdoor enclosure (aka a ‘catio’). This allows them to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the world without the dangers of other animals, vehicles and alien abductions.
Cats also need to be able to readily access resources without competition from other animals. This means having food, water and litterboxes in enough locations that any given cat has the ability to use the facilities without encountering resistance from housemates. This would require a significant redecorating budget if you have 16 cats in a studio apartment.
Your cat may find the presence of a food dish reassuring and resent any attempts to alter it in any manner. However, you can leave tasty treats or catnip in other locations for your cat to find throughout the day. Food puzzles designed for cats are also available. Check out foodpuzzlesforcats.com for a wide variety that can be purchased or made at home.
Many cats prefer running water to the stagnant stuff in the bowl. If possible, provide a fountain to pique their interest and encourage fluid intake. The presence of a fountain, however, may not decrease the likelihood that your kitty will materialize every time you turn on a faucet.
Cats need toys that they can stalk, chase, pounce upon and bite. You should devote some time each day to playing with your feline friend, and use toys designed for this purpose. Wand or fishing pole type toys allow you to move the ‘victim’ while keeping you out of range of the claws and teeth. You do not want your hands to be viewed as prey, even in play.
Cat toys can be purchased or improvised. Many cats will gladly play with a bottle cap or a wad of aluminum foil. Boxes and paper bags are also great sources of feline entertainment. Regardless of the toys you provide, they should be rotated frequently (every few days) to create a sense of novelty.
Scratching is normal cat behavior, period. As a cat caretaker (owner doesn’t seem like quite the right word) you need to take this into account and do your best to channel this behavior instead of trying to extinguish it. To do this, you need to find a scratching surface your cat finds desirable. You must then find a location for it that your cat finds desirable but does not cause you undue inconvenience.
Some cats like to chew on plants. Indoor plants and indoor cats can be a bad combination. You may consider keeping some non-toxic plants around for your cat’s enjoyment. Toxic plants (and carnivorous alien plants) should be kept in a secure cat-proof location, such as outside or at someone else’s house. Before completing a floral purchase, please consult the list of toxic and non-toxic plants at aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control.
What about exotic pets? They need enrichment too, just like animals in the zoo. Appropriate activities (as well as optimal diet and environmental conditions) will vary with species, so please, please, please do your homework before purchasing any pet. In general, most cage-bound pets should be provided with a place to hide and feel secure as well as materials for nesting, digging and foraging. Many rodents like an exercise wheel, while most snakes do not. In many cases, some time out of the cage can be therapeutic. For example, your goldfish may enjoy riding in a jar worn around your neck on a bus ride to Lake Winnipesaukee.
Reptilian pets benefit from natural sunlight, provided you can keep them from escaping and running amok until the weather turns cold.
Hopefully you have been inspired to enliven your pet’s lifestyle. For more enrichment suggestions, check out the resources available at the Fear Free website Fearfreehappyhomes.com and the Indoor Pet Initiative (from The Ohio State University College of Vet Med) indoorpet.osu.edu.
Thank you for joining me on another fun-filled literary diversion. Now share your new-found (or pre-existing refreshed) knowledge with your friends, acquaintances and, of course, your beloved pet.
Don’t let the June bugs bug you. Dr. Debbie Appleby