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Enriching your pet’s environment with Courtneay Whitt

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Is your pet prone to tantrums like a bored toddler or moody teenager? This article is for you!

Mobile Vet Nurse (and local animal behaviour guru) Courtneay Whitt talks us through how our relationship with pets shape behaviour, and how we can improve their lives through the concept of Environment Enrichment. Sounds fancy!

The impact of domestication on animals

Have you ever wondered what the impact has been on animals that have become domesticated? Humans have changed the natural behaviours of cats and dogs so dramatically through domestication that we have pretty much removed their ability to choose for themselves – especially for dogs.

Imagine what life would be like if someone else decided for you:

  • What you ate, and when
  • What, where and when you exercised (and what about the day’s when its raining and you don’t get out at all)
  • If and how you socialise with other members of your species
  • Being patted or touched, even though you may not want it
  • How long you are left on your own

Doesn’t sound great. If your life was being micromanaged in this way, a natural reaction would be to start ‘acting-out’, withdraw inwardly, and become depressed. 

Should we be surprised if our pets start doing the same? Common behaviours in your cat or dog may include:

  • Digging holes 
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Incessant barking
  • Clawing and ruining furniture, curtains, carpets
  • Spray or mark indoors

What is Environment Enrichment?

When we talk about ‘Environment Enrichment’, we are basically using a fancy term that means doing anything in an animal’s environment that stimulates the brain! This can be anything from objects, food to social interactions.

How to create a stimulating environment!

There are many opportunities for making your pets’ world an interesting, challenging place to allow their instincts to shine and create fun for them! To help you with some practical ideas on what you can do, I’ve split them into categories.

Food

Firstly, food is probably the most simple and easy opportunity, and not just for dogs! Here are some easy ones to try:

Social

Secondly, social interaction is invaluable for combating loneliness and behavioural problems.

For Dogs

  • Playdates with friends and their dogs and rewards good behaviour
  • Spending quality, meaningful time with you! Go for a walk, play games or train. Or simply have a cuddle or just sleeping in the same room as you

For Cats

  • Pats, cuddles and lap time. Physical interactions will need to be on their terms as they are not inherently social creatures!
  • Games and training

Cognitive

Cats and dogs are intelligent animals, and love to be challenged and problem-solve:

  • Puzzle feeders
  • Obedience training
  • Agility, scent work, flyball, trails
  • Tricks and games like hide & seek or tug of war!
  • Scratching posts for cats with different textures, shapes and heights

Exercise

Lastly, we all need to burn calories to keep fit and healthy, and this is just as important for dogs AND cats. Any exercise will depend on breed, age, fitness level and temperament so keep that in mind before you jump straight into a 10k bush trail with your pooch!

  • Dogs with poor recall, try using a long line to maintain control but still providing freedom of choice
  • Elderly dogs who cannot walk far, change things up from the usual route by taking them on a short drive and letting them having a sniff and potter around to keep it interesting
  • Athletic breeds will love tramping, mountain walks or running with you
  • Anxious or fearful dogs who are not fun of daily walks, try games at home, driving with the windows down, visiting friends who are calm so they learn they are safe and rewarded
  • Cat wands with a feather, mice, birds on the end are often popular
  • Wind-up or battery-operated mice for your cat to chase
  • Catnip toys
  • Cat kickers

However, these are just a few ideas, the possibilities are endless! The key is to promote independent choice and decision making for your pet. If you want to learn more or want to share your ideas – we’d love to hear from you!

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