What Is Enrichment and Why Is It Important?

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Enrichment has become something of a buzzword in the pet world recently, which is fabulous news for all of our animal companions! But not unlike the recent spike in self-care as an integral part of daily life, you might be thinking to yourself "well that ​sounds​ great, but how do I actually do that?" There is no exact formula on how to do enrichment, which can make the concept a little tricker to pin down.

This serval is enjoying some sensory and toy enrichment in their enclosure!
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What is enrichment?

At its core, enrichment is the process through which we arrange the environment to allow an animal to exhibit a wide range of healthy, natural, and species-specific behaviors.​ Enrichment isn't just about providing "extra" entertainment, it's a well-studied science that has been a staple of the zoological world for decades. There are several formal categories of enrichment, which include: habitat, cognitive, sensory, food, and toys. When forming an enrichment plan for an individual animal, a zookeeping team will spend time observing their wild counterparts and record the observed activities. The goal is then to create opportunities for the animal in captivity to exhibit all of those natural behaviors.

Why does enrichment matter?

At the end of the day, providing adequate enrichment is truly an issue of animal welfare. Among the Five Freedoms, which are held as the standard of animal care by many organizations, is "freedom to express normal behavior." Many studies on different types of enrichment demonstrate that enrichment is important for stress reduction. Reducing stress and boredom for our pets means fewer behavior problems, calmer behavior around the home, and a happier companion overall. ​If a behavior is natural for an animal, they're likely going to find a way to do it one way or another.​ We are much better off providing an acceptable and safe outlet. Not to mention, it's super fun to watch your pet having a blast and being their best goofy selves!

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Canine enrichment

The best way to come up with an effective enrichment protocol for your dog is to take a moment to list out their favorite activities. What would your dog do all day, if left to their own devices? Hint: don't discount their "problem" behaviors! Many of those undesirable activities are normal dog behaviors that we can channel into appropriate outlets. Remember that behavior is a study of one, and every dog is an individual, so your particular dog may not partake in every single type of enrichment.

These cat and dog siblings are enjoying a snuffle mat full of treats together.
Image Credit: Elena Grigorovich / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

Sniffing

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If you haven't tried decompression walks with your dog yet, you're in for a treat! All you need is a non-restrictive back clip harness (like the balance harness), a 10-30 foot leash, and a quiet dog-friendly space to let them explore. A recent study shows that dogs are 228% more likely to spend time sniffing on a long leash than a short one. If your dog is more of the indoorsy type, or if the weather just doesn't agree with your decompression walk plans, why not try doing some living room nosework games with your pup, or even join an online nosework class.

Foraging/Scavenging

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We all know our dogs love food, and they're very good at finding it on counters, in the bushes, and more. We can use that love for the greater good and offer them meals and treats in all kinds of interactive food enrichment. Snuffle mats, stuffable rubber toys, and even complex puzzles are all widely available online and in most pet stores. An easy way to build in some daily enrichment is simply ditching the food bowl in favor of these more interactive options. Fun fact, studies show that most species actually prefer working for food over getting it "for free." This concept is called contra-freeloading.

Chewing/Shredding/Destroying

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For those of us with dogs who are serial toy killers, it's worth adding some safe and shreddable enrichment into the day. Rather than drop half your paycheck on toys that won't last more than 5 minutes, why not provide them with an empty cardboard box, some junk mail, or egg cartons to rip up? You can throw some kibble or treats in, lightly seal it up, and watch your dog go to town. As long as your dog isn't ingesting the materials, this activity should be safe with supervision. If your dog does find that cardboard too irresistible, you can opt for edible shreddables like an entire cabbage, carrot, or other pet-safe produce.

Feline enrichment

Cats tend to have the reputation of being independent and self-sufficient pets, but they benefit from enrichment just as much as our dogs.

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This cat gets to safely enjoy the sights, sounds, and scents of nature in their enclosed catio!
Image Credit: RS-photography/iStock/GettyImages

Scratching/Climbing

Scratching is a crucial behavior for your cat's physical and emotional health. In addition to providing multiple types and sizes of cat scratchers, consider adding some extra vertical space into your home! Cats are athletic animals who love to jump and climb. Traditional cat trees are great, but you can get creative and add all kinds of unique climbable furniture and cat shelving into the mix to keep your cat happy and fulfilled.

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Stalking/Chasing

Cats are efficient predators, so it is important we give them safe outlets to chase and stalk "prey." Try hanging some bird feeders by windows to allow your cat to watch and "hunt" critters behind the safety of glass. Instead of laser pointers, which can cause behavior problems, opt for toys like hex bugs and physical wand toys to let your cat stalk, chase, and catch things.

Sensory Stimulation

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You can either bring the outdoors in, or bring the cat to the outdoors! For adventurous kitties, consider leash training for some safe and supervised outdoor exploration. If your cat is more of a homebody, you can give them a taste of the wild by installing a window box or catio. Something as simple as bringing in cat-safe plant trimmings from the yard will provide plenty of novel sensory enrichment for your cat.

The only limit to enrichment is your imagination!

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