How Can Environmental Enrichment Benefit Pets?

Whichever type of pet you own, they will undoubtedly hold a special place in both our home and our hearts. We naturally want for them to be healthy and happy.

With certain species, this can be more difficult to achieve. However, once you learn and understand the principle of environmental enrichment, it provides an opportunity to significantly enhance the life of your chosen pet. It all comes down to doing whatever is possible to stimulate their natural behaviour and provides a chance to think creatively about how you care for your pet.

What is Environmental Enrichment?

The term ‘environment enrichment’ is best associated with zoos and animal parks. Yet, any caged or kept animal can be affected by a lack of environment enrichment.

Put simply, the term encompasses the need for animals of any kind to exhibit their natural behaviours and be mentally stimulated. This is particularly the case with many caged animals where the environment is far from what they would be exposed to in the wild.

Pets without Enrichment

Animals left for long periods in baron cages, with no mental stimulation and environmental enrichment’, eventually begin to exhibit what’s referred to as ‘stereotypical behaviours’. These behaviours tend to be repetitive in nature and can include head bobby, swaying from side to side, self-mutilation and destructive behaviours, such as chewing, gnawing etc.

Moreover, the animal will look and act stressed, depressed, anxious, nervous, and sad and can even become aggressive – depending on the species.

Often there is a misconception that a captive bred animal does not need such mental stimulation as they know no better. Yet, they still have a brain capacity and natural instincts which drive their needs.  As an example, a captive bred or domesticated animal with an ancestry of living in social groups in the wild will show significant mental deterioration when kept in isolation. For their both their physical and mental wellbeing, it is essential for them to live with another of the same species.

In some more common examples, a lack of enrichment might be for a pet dog might include not taking them for regular walks, keeping them locked in a pen without toys or interaction for long periods etc. For a caged rabbit or hamster, an important aspect will be the suitability of the cage environment and how much time is spent outside of the cage.

A lack of environmental enrichment in most common pets, often leads to boredom, stress, anxiety, depression and destructive behaviours.

Best Environments for Pets

With any pet, it’s possible to apply effective environmental enrichment. The first step is to understand the natural behaviours and ancestry of your chosen pet.  Some dog breeds have been bred for a specific purpose, which means they have instinctive behaviours that need to be expressed – i.e. herding, chasing, retrieving etc.

Once you understand this, you can get really creative about how you can best ensure your pet gets to express those behaviours.

Taking a hamster as an example – in the wild they would live in underground burrows, ensure lots of tubes and hides are provided. Scatter the food around the cage, so they can use their senses to find it. You can also do this outside of the cage and provide an obstacle course of a variety of items – sticks, rocks, tubes, boxes and other natural materials.

Variety is the Key

Another aspect to bear in mind is that what was once fun will become boring if it remains the same. Therefore, to provide truly effective enrichment, the aim is to keep changing things up, introducing something new occasionally to break the routine and provide essential stimulation.

This can be as simple as taking your dog on a new walk once a week, giving a new treat or toy, putting a new object in your rabbits run or making a sandpit for chickens to forage in.

There are so many possibilities to explore and the best part is it’s as much fun for you as it is for your pet. It is so enjoyable to watch them have fun, engage, play and be curious. Just keep things fresh and new as often as possible and you and your pet will enjoy a happy life together.