Enrichment: It’s Not Just Fun and Games at Animal Friends

By Suzanne Denk, Animal Enrichment Specialist for Animal Friends

I am having a bad day. My shoulders are tense and my neck hurts. I cannot focus and nothing has been crossed off the “to do” list.  I am eating potato chips and thinking about getting chocolate from the vending machine.  I have a headache.  I feel grumpy.  I have no energy.  I am stressed. 

But when I get home at the end of the day, my four beautiful pets greet me.  My son is on the sofa doing homework and my husband has started a fire in the fireplace and opened wine.  I begin to prepare dinner – spicy Pad Thai tonight.  The stress has gone and my family at home helps me cope. 

When we are stressed, our bodies produce the hormone Cortisol.  Once the stress has passed, the Cortisol level drops, and our body relaxes.  This can happen in just a few minutes.  As soon as I start to relax at home, my whole body starts to feel so much better.

Stress is a painful physical sensation for a shelter animal, too. And, they can’t escape tension in the shelter.  This inability to remove themselves from the stressors is dramatic because for an animal, Cortisol takes 5-6 days or months to leave the body. 

Event the best shelter environment is stressful; the animal may be under-stimulated and confined to a small area with no control over its own surroundings.  An animal’s acute senses make it highly aware of its environment.  There is continual noise: barking, cage doors closing or people talking and moving around.  They can smell other animals all around them.  Stress can cause boredom, anxiety, illness and/or behavioral problems.  If there is always Cortisol present in the body, the animal has no opportunity to relax. 

However, animals can be given ways to cope that do not require wine or a spicy noodle dish.  At Animal Friends, we work hard to provide enrichment opportunities to our pets.

Enrichment activities can decrease stress, stimulate the animals physically and mentally, provide a sense of control and prevent undesirable behavior from beginning.  Enrichment means providing our shelter animals with an environment that is varied, interesting and stimulating.  Variety in the environment gives our animals the opportunity to think and to explore their space.  The mental and physical health of the animals is also benefitted from the enrichment activity. 

At Animal Friends, our animals are provided with environmental enrichments: soft bedding for comfort, the largest spaces physically possible, and choices such as perches, cubbies, elevated platforms, tunnels and exercise areas.  Environmental enrichment can also be achieved by focusing on the animal’s senses.  Rabbits, cats and dogs all have highly developed ear function.  They can enjoy soft music, wind chimes, or bird songs.  The animals enjoy being petted; touch is very important for social development and bonding with human companions.  For cats and dogs, their brains are stimulated by pleasant and unusual scents such as lavender or the tiniest pinch of nutmeg.  (A rabbit’s nasal passage is too sensitive for scent enrichment).  Visually, we can try to provide a room with a view or bubbles!  

Reduction of stress levels in the animals can come from behavioral enrichment in addition to providing a pleasant environment.  Behavioral enrichment stimulates the brain and provides opportunities for species-specific behaviors.  Rabbits may enjoy a sandbox, mirrors, tunnels, or an egg carton stuffed with hay.  Cats take pleasure in a scratching board, milk jug rings, or a fringed toilet paper tube.  Dogs relish a good chew toy, a daily stuffed KONG, ice cubes, or bubbles. 

Clicker training for all three species makes their minds work instead of languishing in inactivity.  Touch target games for cats or hiding toys or treats in their space for them to discover benefits their mental health.  Basic manners for dogs provides mental and social stimulation and makes them more appealing to adopters.  Rabbits have daily bun runs to move freely, play with others, and with new toys. 

Try an enrichment strategy to decrease the stress of a shelter animal or try them with your own pet.  Each activity takes only minutes and brings satisfaction to the human, canine, feline, and rabbit!  Finally, please save those gallon jug rings.  The cats love them! 

One of those most enriching things we can provide to our animals is…volunteers! Visit www.ThinkingOutsideTheCage.org to learn more about how you can become a volunteer animal handler.

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