Shiba Inu (dog) in autumn

Environmental enrichment: How COVID-19 is teaching us the importance of choice-rich lives for our pets

Did you read my recent piece on how self-isolation gives us a bit of an insight into what our pets lives are like all the time [spoiler alert: their lives are a bit boring]?  Or maybe you happen to know that giving animals choice is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. (Side note: My first conference presentation on “The Power of Choice” was back in January 2014–how time flies!)

Here are some suggestions for things you can do to give your pets more choice and enrich their lives at the same time–and who doesn’t want to get two for one?

Make every meal an adventure

All of our domestic pets–dogs, cats, rats, parrots, etc.–either are themselves or are closely related to animals who had to find food for themselves.  And yet most of us give our pets food in a bowl.  I mean, the food is just there for the taking.

No work involved.  None.

This might sound great in theory, but animals who are well-fed have actually been shown to prefer working for their food (this is called “contrafreeloading.”

In other words, most pets would enjoy working for their food. 

So why not give your pet the choice of working for their food or not?  To do this, get a food toy, such as a Classic Kong, Kong Wobbler, Buster Cube, Green Feeder, or puzzle bowl, and put half of your pet’s food in there (if your pet is a different species, search out some appropriate toys for that type of pet or contact me for suggestions).  Then put the other half in a regular bowl.  Do this for at least a week and watch what your pet does.  You may be surprised!

Turn snack time into game time!

One problem our pets have is boredom.  There’s just too little to do around the house for many pets, especially natural predators like dogs and cats.  They can’t watch Breaking Bad to stave off the boredom, but they can hunt for their food.

To give them the opportunity to choose to hunt for food, hide toys stuffed with food–one popular option is the Classic Kong toy–in different places in the house (or within your pet’s enclosure).  You can also simply hide small pieces of food in different places.  Most of our pets have remarkable senses of smell, and will even be able to find a hidden piece of sunflower seed  (if they like sunflower seeds, that is).

Provide more than one place to hang out.

You have a couch, and a bed, and an easy chair.  And except when Uncle Joe takes over the easy chair, you can usually decide which seat you prefer.  For many of our pets, though, they only have one “legal” place to hang out.  Let’s change that!  Get extra cat or dog beds.  Put out extra blankets for your pet to lie on.  Expand your gerbil’s enclosure so he has a second or third condo attached! That way, your pet has a choice of where to be.  You may find that he prefers one spot at some times and a different spot at other times.  Now aren’t you glad you gave him the choice?

Make every walk a choice-rich walk

If you have a dog and go on regular walks, let your dog choose which way to go and what pace to go at, at least some of the time.  Sniffing and (let’s call a spade a spade) marking are important activities for most dogs.  So let them sniff that completely boring looking spot for two minutes in a row if they want–there could be a really important message in that pee-mail!

Extra credit: Film your choice-rich walk so you can show your friends where your dog wound up taking you!

Let your pet choose when and whether to be petted

Finally, stop and think before you handle your pet.  Many of our pets put up with being petted even when they don’t particularly want it just then.  Sometimes they may not like how you are touching them, but they’re too polite to let you know.  (We do this too–you know how sometimes you’re talking to someone at a party for WAY longer than you really want?)  I like to use the five-second rule with any animal I’m petting.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, I wait for the pet to come to me.
  • Then, assuming the pet chooses to touch me, I pet the animal gently for five seconds.
  • Then I take my hands off the animal.

At this point, I’m giving the animal a choice.  He can (a) walk away, (b) stay nearby but without touching me, or (c) deliberately reach out and touch me.

I will only start petting the animal again if he (c) deliberately reaches out to touch me.  Otherwise, I give him his space.  And if I start petting again, I take my hands off after five seconds again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Want to know why most animals who don’t love being petted often invite me to pet them?  I am pretty sure it’s because I follow the five-second rule, so they know they have the choice to walk away whenever they want.  I am not forcing them to be petted.  They feel safe and comfortable since they know I will stop petting whenever they ask, so they let me pet them longer.  Interesting, eh?

Adding choice to your pet’s life can transform your home

Animals who have little control over their lives are more stressed.  Animals who have more choices, and therefore more control, are happier and easier to live with.  Try some of the tips above, both now as we all self-isolate, and in the future.  Your pet will love you for it!  Need help figuring out how to do this in your home?  Contact me!


You Also Might Enjoy

Scroll to Top