The Energy of Autumn

“Fall has always been my favorite season.  The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.”
― Lauren DeStefano, Wither

autumn-leaves

Blessings! I hope this find you and yours well.

I am so very, very happy today.  The winds of change are blowing. The Autumn Equinox is finally here!

It. Is. Now. Fall.

Here on the west coast we are enjoying a crisp, cool breeze coming off the ocean, with sunny skies hovering around seventy degrees. Although there are no colorful changing leaves denoting Fall is here, I am in heaven.  Autumn is my season. Fall makes my heart sing and lights a spark inside of me. No matter where we are living I look forward to Autumn all year long.

If you have been following this blog since it began in 2012 then you know my focus usually surrounds nature and animal companions, but every so often I allow the energy of the season inspire me.  The current energy is Autumn, so this is is where we will let the winds blow us today.

Although most of us associate Autumn with cooler weather, dancing fires, cozy snuggles, seasonal drinks, squash, scarecrows, pumpkins, and spice in all slices of life, there is another side to Autumn. -One that permeates the world we live in.  It affects us all; plants, animals, and people.


The Energy of The Equinox Around the World

The Autumnal Equinox arrives precisely at 10:21 a.m. (EST) today (Thursday, September 22).  Unlike an event such as New Year’s midnight, a time that follows the clock around the time zones, equinoxes happen at the same moment everywhere all around the world!

“Equinox” comes from the Latin words “equi” meaning “equal” and “nox” meaning “night.” On the Equinox the hours of light and dark are equal. But because of atmospheric refraction the light is bent which makes it appear as if the sun is rising or setting earlier. Technically September 25 marks “equal day and night” -sunrise will be at 6:47 a.m. EDT and sunset at 6:47 p.m. This day is known as the Equilux  “Lux” is Latin for “light”.  During this time of year the light and dark are now in balance.   This time represents a shift in the seasons, and a time where the energy of the Sun and Moon are in complete balance.

sun-and-moon-in-balance

 

The autumnal equinox happens the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator, which is an imaginary line in the sky that corresponds to Earth’s equator.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac describes it as a plane of Earth’s equator projected out onto the sphere. Every year this occurs on September 22, 23, or 24 in the northern hemisphere.

There are two equinoxes annually; vernal and autumnal, each marking the beginning of spring and fall.  Those in the Northern Hemisphere are now in the season of Autumn.  Those in the Southern Hemisphere are in the season of Spring.  In the Northern Hemisphere, many tree species are getting ready to shed their leaves; letting go of the old and unnecessary parts of themselves in order to prepare for winter.  In the Southern Hemisphere flower buds are beginning to bloom. Greenery is returning after the long winter.  Here in the northern hemisphere, from today onward, the days get shorter until the winter solstice arrives in December.

 


A Bit of Background About Autumn

Long before White Contact spread like wildfire across the “New World” my ancenative-american-autumn-fallstors had a huge celebration for Autumn. Cherokee and other first nations referred to it as Harvest Time.  During the height of harvesting and gathering there were great celebrations of thanks. This included music, song, dance, gifting, and feasting.  The celebrations lasted around a week. Sometimes longer.  The community had drumming sessions where they honored all walks of life:  water, birds, Mother Earth, snakes, wind (willow trees), and rabbits. All of these represent the Equinox.  It was a celebration of the “West” -The “direction” of Autumn.  They tribe would perform a smudging ceremony to cleanse and purify, and then use sweetgrass to bring in the “sweetness” of community and of the new season.

September also held the corn harvest, which was referred to as “Ripe Corn Festival”. It was customarily held in the early part of the Nut Moon (Duliidsdi) to acknowledge Selu, the spirit of the corn.  Selu is thought of as First Woman.   This festival respected Mother Earth and gave thanks for providing all foods during the growing season.  The “Brush Feast Festival” also customarily takes place in this season.  All the fruits and nuts of the bushes and trees of the forest were gathered as this time.  Hunting traditionally began in earnest at this time.   October was a time of traditional “Harvest Festival” (the Nowatequa) when Cherokee people give thanks to all the living things of the fields and earth that helped them live, and to the “Apportioner”, Unethlana.  The Cheno i-equa or “Great Moon” Festival is customarily held at this time.

native american celebrationl.jpg


Autumn Legends

There are many legends surrounding Autumn. I will share just a few with you.  the-spirit-of-the-corn_-selu_first-mother_cherokee_native-american_fall_autumnAs I mentioned above, Selu, the spirit of corn was honored at this time. She represents the harvest, weather, and growth. The legend states that this Native American corn Goddess planted her very heart so people wouldn’t go hungry. The legend tells that her spirit teaches us how to re-fertilize the earth to bring sustenance to all.

Another legend tells the story of how leaves turned red. A battle was fought by the Deer and the Bear in the land of the sky. The colors in the leaves are a result of the blood of the Bear thrown down from the sky upon the trees in the autumn.  You can read the fascinating Wyandot (Huron) Legend: “Why the Leaves Have Many Colors in Autumn” here.   Another legend of why the leaves turn red in Autumn can be found in the story, “Chasing the Great Bear.”

legend_leavescolor

According to Greek legend, autumn beings when Persephone returns to Hades in the underworld. Heartbroken, her mother, the goddess of grain and harvest, allows the crops on Earth to die until her daughter returns in the spring.  The word “harvest” comes from the Old Norse word haust, which means “to gather or pluck.” As people moved to the cities, “harvest” fell out of use and city dwellers began to use “fall of the leaf,” which was shortened to “fall.”

persephone
Persephone, the goddess queen of the underworld, wife of the god Hades. She was worshiped alongside her mother Demeter, goddess of autumn harvest.

 


celtic-seasonsEtymologists are unsure of the origin of the word “autumn,” though they believe it comes from the ancient Etruscan root autu, which implies a change of season. In this scenario, the Romans then appropriated the term and formed the Latin word autumnus. Americans typically use the word “fall”. The British use the word “autumn”. Both terms date around the 16th century.  Before these terms this period was called “harvest.”

The Autumnal Equinox is also called the Fall Equinox, the Second Harvest Festival, Festival of Dionysus, Wine Harvest, Cornucopia, and Winter Finding.  Ancient people celebrated each change of the seasons, knowing that nature’s changes outside correspond to inner changes as well. Autumn is now associated with Halloween – a day greatly influenced by Samhain, a sacred Celtic autumn festival.

samhain_celtic.jpg

 


 

Autumn’s Effects on Plants and Animals

Humans are not the only ones affected as we shift from Summer to Autumn.  Animals and plants respond to the changes in light surrounding the season of autumn.  At this time, in response to cooler temperatures and less available light, leaves stop producing chlorophyll. This green pigment assists with  capturing sunlight to power photosynthesis. As the green fades the other pigments of the leaves shine through. This why we see orange and yellow carotenoids and vibrant red anthocyanin.

Plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.  The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. Even the amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

To the untrained eye Autumn appears to solely represent a season of leaves changing, but there is much more happening now.  In addition to the energy shift of the season, there are massive ecological changes occurring.  Thankfully, attention and enthusiasm for examining the ecological effects of climate change on autumn is rapidly increasing.

Each autumn, many animals experience gonadal recrudescence, or behavior in response to environmental cues (e.g., daylight). Specifically, in early fall, the amount of available daylight, or photoperiod, matches the photoperiod in spring, which triggers mating instincts in animals.

autumn-animals-fall-quote.jpg

Each autumn, monarch butterflies migrate from the U.S. to Mexico and some parts of Southern California.  Monarch butterflies are the only insect that migrates to a warmer climate that is 2,500 miles away. Thanks to the milkweed I brought into our yard we have dozens of Monarchs hatching out of their chrysalises! You can view them in action here.

In autumn the male Siberian hamster’s testes swell up to 17 times bigger than normal to prepare for mating.  And every Fall the black-capped chickadee’s tiny hippocampus enlarges by 30%, which enables it to remember where it collected seeds in different spots in trees and on the ground.  How cool is that?!?

There is evidence that song birds living near sources of artificial light begin singing to attract mates, as well as laying eggs, earlier in the spring than their counterparts in places that remain dark at night.   Migratory birds are a great example.  Dark-eyed Junco nesting in northern Canada respond to the shortened days of summer with a series of physical changes: their reproductive organs become inactive. They shrink in size, and hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers (non-breeding plumage), and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead. So amazing!

Some even say that levels of testosterone in both men and women are at their highest in the fall.  Scientists speculate the surge may be a result of ancient mating instincts -the fall “rutting season” or that decreasing daylight somehow triggers it.  Who knows.  I am not sure we need any more testosterone in the world right now.  ;)

Regardless of whether you are a lover of nature, science, energy, or animals, we all have the opportunity to learn so much from Mother Nature as she is beautifully in sync with the natural rhythm of the energetic shifts of the changing seasons.


Autumn Energy

5element_webAncient Chinese medicine teaches the importance of elements within each season. The season of autumn is associated with the element of Metal, which governs organization, order, communication, the mind, setting limits, and protecting boundaries.  This time is a great time to finish projects you began in spring and summer – harvesting the bounty of your hard work!  Fall is a time of organizing your life for the winter season ahead and coming more inside your body and mind to reflect on your life.

The lung and large intestine are the internal organs related to Fall  and the element of Metal (or air) in both pets and people.  Lung is associated with the emotion of “letting go.” Sleep is another important aspect of staying healthy in the Fall. The ancients advised that people should retire early at night and rise with the crowing of the rooster during the autumn.  I might have a full-on freak out if I had to rise to the sound of a crowing cock, but you get the idea.  They are suggesting we do as many plants and animals do; rise and rest with the sun.

Now matter where we are, or what species we are, the equinox is symbolic of change.  We are all connected to each other and to Mother Earth. So when seasonal changes occur in nature, many can feel these changes resonating within.  These changes will be reflected in our own vibration and we may find that our energies begin syncing up with that of Mother Earth.


Energy of Autumn

falling-leavesThis Autumn equinox will bring about a number of changes around the world in both people and nature.  This time of year marks the annual beginning of a series of transformations that take place not only in nature, time, and space, but also within each of us, and our animal companions!  We will all experience the autumnal shift in both our conscious and subconscious. For some it will be monumental; for others it will be barely noticeable.

Regardless of how you experience them, the changes are here. libra_balanced-scales_art_equinox

The Equinox comes at a time when the Sun will shift into the energy of Libra. Libra represents a highly creative time where beauty, joy, and aesthetics are highlighted.  Libra is also all about partnerships and being able to balance energies. Libra is the sign of balanced scales. As we experience equal day and night there are “balanced scales in the sky” Heaven and Earth. Equality and Balance on many levels.

This Equinox is a reminder that we all change and that transformation is natural and a normal part of life.  If the trees resisted the shedding process, they would not be prepared for what is to come.  If the flower resisted to bloom, she would never know the fullness of heir own beauty. She would hide from the sun; the light that allows her to grow and bloom.

rose-in-bloom_conscious-companion
a rose in bloom at our home

The Symbolism of Seasons Changing

We have so much to learn from nature, and from the changing of seasons. Animals and nature know how to flow with these winds of change. It’s instinctual. But we humans tend to resist change. But we can learn how to learn from nature.

Release.   Clarity.  Creativity.  Balance.  These are the major themes of Autumn this year. This is a time when we can learn to trust that whatever we release is meant to go.  We will gain clarity.  Whatever we feel called to create will bloom. We are guided to balance all aspects within ourselves and in our lives.   As the light and darkness of  autumn days become in balance we can become attuned to the dark and the light within ourselves. We can create balance in every aspect of our life.

The winds of change are preparing us for what is ahead.  Allow the Autumn winds to lift and carry you forward.  Harvest what you want to reap. Release what no longer serves. -There is much to embrace and much to let go.  As the ancient poet Rumi said, “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.”

This is Autumn.

May this season bring you and yours all that your heart desires. May the changing of the season inspire you.  May you find time to play in nature.  Dance with the wind.  Embrace the energy of autumn.  She has so much to offer us all.🍁🍂
autumn-forest

“Is not this a true autumn day?  Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize.  The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit.  Delicious autumn!  My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”  

[Letter to Miss Eliot, Oct. 1, 1841]”
― George Eliot

 

Dial Up the Dopamine!

feeling-good

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good.

~Nina Simone


 

Backstory: In a recent post I discussed the implications and far reaching effects of fear . This post will be about the first tool that I recommend when helping pets and their people to effectively cope with stress and fear.

 


The Chemical of Feeling Good

Feeling Good is what everyone strives for. Whether it’s that much needed hug, a glass of wine, mediation, a pay raise, play, or the touch of a lover or loved one, we want and need to feel good.  Animals need to feel good too.  And they will behave and respond to their environment in ways that enable them to feel good, or at the very least, feel better.

Thankfully there are chemicals at work that help both people and animals to feel better.

One of these is Dopamine.

“It’s like one of those scenes from a feel-good Hollywood movie. Where everybody is happy and nobody’s hair fizzes in the wind. Where it doesn’t rain, your shoes stay comfortable all day, and everybody’s jokes are funny.” ― Randa Abdel-Fattah


Dopamine is a chemical in the body.  It’s one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in humans and animals. Dopamine helps regulate movement and emotional responses, It also enables one not only to seek out rewards, but to take action to move toward rewards.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses.

The chemical Dopamine helps to regulate:
-movement
-memory
-pleasurable reward
-behavior and cognition
-attention
-inhibition of prolactin production
-sleep
-mood
-learning

A single molecule in the brain can do all of this! Dopamine Is Powerful.

But so is food. 


Needed Nutrients from Food

Animal Behavior  (including people) is regulated by neurotransmitters and hormones. These substances have precursors – chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways.  For example, Tryptophan, is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter).

If we can make these precursors more or less available we can alter behavior.

One example is the presence (or absence) of Tryptophan in canines. Scientists believe that this may affect both aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamines; hormones produced by the adrenal gland. These may also affect aggression and stress resistance.  You can read more about that here.

The nutrition (or lack thereof) that we provide our animal companions affects not only their body, but also their mind, which in turn affects behavior.

The right kind of food can literally change an animal’s brain chemistry. This is an important first step in everything from training basic behaviors to addressing aggression.


Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also to help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. 


Using Food to Feel Better

We all know to feed our pets when they are hungry.  And most people feed their pets in the morning and night. But what if there was another, better, more effective way to feed them?

What if we fed our pets throughout the day (or night) when they need to feel better?

What if we used food to help them feel better in challenging situations?

What if we used food when they were afraid?

What if food could be a tool you could use to reduce their stress?

What if food appeared when that frightening fox dashes past the window?

What if food was present when you took him to the veterinary’s office?

What if it rained food when she is frustrated, confused, scared, or reactive?

What if food you knew that food was this powerful?

What if you knew you could wield this power to help them to FEEL GOOD?!

Food is that powerful. This is how we should use their food.

BOOMER


The Power of Food

Food can increase the level of dopamine in the brain!  This is why we recommended using FOOD when training, modifying behavior, and when we need to minimize an animal’s stress, fear, aggression, and anxiety.  If an animal is offered food before reaching a high stress level, while in the presence of a stimulus that frightens or triggers her, a positive emotional response occurs.

FOOD IS A TOOL.

Food is not a bribe. We are not teasing, luring, or bribing an animal to get them to do what we want. When we are using the right kind food, there are actual chemical reactions taking place in the brain and the body! Here is some of what is happening when food is used as a tool.

  • When you present a highly desirable food option to an animal you turn on the animal’s ‘seeker system.’  This dials down the emotion of fear.
  • Instead of feeling fear the brain begins to be overcome with the pleasurable feelings that food provides to an animal.
  • It also allows the animal to have a greater ability to focus on the good-feeling sensation and less on the negative emotion (fear, frustration, stress, anxiety, etc.)
  • This enhances an animals positive, focused attentiveness
  • In turn, it allows the animals to shift into a calmer state in their mind and body.
  • In this calmer, more relaxed state, learning and behavior modification can occur.

 

conscious companion_food in training_dopamine


When To Use Food

Visits to the vet. Walks in the park. Unexpected Visitors. Using the vacuum. Bringing a new baby into the home. New people in your apartment. Getting into the cat carrier. Moving. Staying in a hotel.  You name it; there needs to be high value food involved.

I honestly cannot think of when food would not be appropriate to use when working with an animal of any species. Whether you are working with a crocodile to station politely and practice self-restraint, or you are asking a cat to station on her cat tower instead of the counter, food is at the heart of it all.  One of my favorite opportunities to use food is at the vet’s office.  Whether we are at the cat specialist for King Albert’s acupuncture, or we are at the veterinarian waiting room for Hocus’ annual exam, you can bet that I have food on me.

Food should be used during any kind of family transition, or any situation that your animal companion finds challenging.  Food should be used in any situation where your pet might experience anxiety, stress, fear, and even aggression. Yes, you read that correctly. Food can (and should) be used to help a pig, parrot, cat, rat, horse, dog if they are struggling with a variety of behavioral issues.

Anxiety, aggression, frustration, and fear can be managed safely and positively by using food as a tool. Food can increase one’s focus, their attention, their mood, and more!  Food can change a crazed canine into a cool canine. Food can change a fearful feline into a confident kitty. Food can help a bird to not be so bashful.  Food is powerful. And we are not using it enough.

 

Food and Fear_cats


Food to Use

When use are choosing what food to use, think High-Value and practical.  If you are feeding your pet a high-grade pet food, sometimes this can be used as a behavior modification tool. We feed Hocus Pocus the Cadillac of canine food, so she goes bonkers for her kibble! The cats never get dry food these days, so when I break out the grain-free cat kibble they lose their minds!  These are the kind of food responses you want from your pet when you are using food.  If you aren’t sure if your dog or cat’s dry food will make the cut, you will need to experiment with foods that your pet will go nuts for. Some good foods to begin with are turkey, bacon, cheese, hot dogs, fish. etc. -anything they don’t normally receive, or anything they are super psyched to get!

One of my favorite on-the-go-food-treats is Stella and Chewies. These don’t crumble, and are not greasy. And the end goal is met: they are irresistible to the animals.


Pay me in food, human!

Studies have shown that dogs don’t want petting or soothing words as much as they prefer a primary reinforcer (food).  They prefer petting over soothing words, and they prefer food over petting!  I have found this to be true for cats as well. And for parrots and reptiles as well.

So where’s the beef ?  It needs to be used.

Food is a primary reinforcer for our pets! Primary reinforcers are biological.  Food, drink, and pleasure are the principal examples of primary reinforcers. We can use food as a tool with regards to its importance to an animal.

Using food as a tool is not hard, people.  It can be very easy.  Rather than dumping all the food in a boring bowl (ahem, we have talked about this before), it’s better to keep high-value treats (and food that they LOVE) handy.  This food should be hand around the home, convenient in your car, and easily pluck-able from your purse or pocket.

Here’s  Why:  You never know when fear might strike.

Here’s How:  Make it Rain Treats!  Rain those goodies down when and wherever something frightening, startling, or scary happens. (Even if you don’t think the person, place, or event was scary, your pet does), so make it rain, baby.  Rain down the treats!

If you are unfamiliar with food as a tool, you can see how we use food in these videos:

 

Hocus food_conscious Companion_food as a tool_dopamine
Preparing to go for a walk!  We always have food as a tool.

The Dope Rewards

Let’s get back to Dopeamine for a minute.  Dopamine is considered a “reward” chemical. When we are using food, we are able to increase the level of dopamine in the animal’s brain.   What we as humans, call rewards, are often things that are unexpectedly good. Let’s say for example, you run into an old, favorite pal, or your boss surprises you with a pay raise. Or maybe your spouse takes you on a romantic vacation.  These unexpected events lead to positive prediction errors, and increases in dopamine.

As cool as that is, there is more to the dope, hip chemical called Dopamine. More and more studies are showing that this neurotransmitter is not responsible for pleasure per say, but it has more to do with motivation.


Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself. – Salamone, a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor,

Dopamine-and-addiction-relapse22

Researchers have found that in animals, dopamine levels can actually spike after stress! This could be something such as losing a fight with another animal, or seeing a predator outside the window.  Humans also experience a spike in dopamine after stressful encounters.  Soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder also show activity in dopamine-rich parts of the brain when hearing recorded gunshots and other combat sounds.

So what’s with dopeamine coming out during negative experiences?

One researcher believes he has found the reason.  A scientist was able to artificially raise (or lower) dopamine levels in animals. Then he gave them a choice between two rewards with a different value, which could be obtained through different amounts of work.  For example, he wanted to see what a rat would do when given an easy or difficult choice. On one end of a corridor he place a pile of food. On the other end there was a pile of food twice as big, but this end has a small fence that the rat had to jump over to get the food.

The results are fascinating!

Animals with lowered levels of dopamine almost always choose the easier, low-value reward. But the animals with normal levels of dopamine didn’t mind exerting more energy and effort to jump the fence to receive the high-value reward.  (I know many species of animals and people who behave the same way!)  Other studies in depressed human patients have corroborated these results.

The scientist who did the study believes, “This lack of perceived energy is maladaptive, because it reduces the tendency to interact with the environment. But, it could also reflect the body’s attempt to save energy in a crisis.”

I found that study fascinating and helpful.  If motivation is directly related to dopeamine, and food can increase the level of dopeamine, then why are we not using food more often?  Why is food not front and center and at the heart of any training or behavior modification program? Why are we as animal guardians not using food as a tool with our pets?

Maybe today you will.  Maybe one day we all will.

I have hope for us all!

 


 More To Come!

This is part three of a four part series about how to help you and your pets cope with grace and ease during times of stress or Big Family Changes.  Stay tuned for the next post.

But in the meantime, Get Some High High-Value Food … And Don’t Leave Home Without It! 


 

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good

Nina Simone

Foraging Felines!

“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food. That’s living.”—Ursula Andress 

cat enrichment
What do these lions and this bloodsicle have in common with your cats? Find out below.

It’s Caturday! Let’s get our Cat-Care-Chat on!  (OK I am a little stoked about this post.)

I had some down time today, and had a lot of fun with our cats this morning so I was inspired to share one of the tools we have been using. This particular tool helps our feline family members to feel safe, confident, and at ease with each other, and their environment, no matter where life takes them.

Today we are talkin’ bout puzzles.


Did you play with puzzles as a child?  I didn’t. They were boring and frustrated me.  But my younger brother did.  He loved doing puzzles.  Even at the age of 7 he was playing with 1,000 piece puzzles.  I couldn’t believe that someone would want to sit still for that long, for days on end.  I would have died of sheer boredom!  But puzzles were anything but boring to my brother.  In fact, he lived for them.

So what does my brother and his fascination with puzzles have to do with our animal companions?

A lot actually.


Lackluster or Enriched Lives?

Most people have limited knowledge as to how to successfully enrich the lives of their animal companions.  This results in a lack of species-appropriate enrichment with most household pets.  The lack of mental and physical stimulation is linked to a myriad of medical and behavioral issues in animals.  But we can change that!  But making a few changes to their daily routines, we can greatly enhance the lives and longevity of our animal companions!


 

Feline Facts

You may think your cat is fine just hanging out and lounging around all day while you are away, but I beg to differ.  This is a common cat misconception.  Those unwanted behaviors you are seeing are not random.  Let’s look at some startling feline facts.  Some of these stats might surprise you, but they are very real. These facts are at the heart of why I am so passionate about feline enrichment:

  • Cats far outnumber dogs in homes (96 million cats vs. 83 million dogs).  Yet cats are the number one animal euthanized at shelters due to “behavioral issues”.
  • House-soiling (litter box avoidance) is the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats, followed by aggression toward people.
  • Cats with medical or behavioral issues were the ones most likely to be re-homed to an animal shelter, (instead of being re-homed with friends or family members.)
  • Only 1-5% of house cats have access to food toys.
  • Only 0.5% of owners hide food for their cat to find.
  • House cats are significantly lacking in physical AND mental exercise.

Fact:  Many of these behavioral and medical issues can be prevented! 

Fact:  Food Enrichment can be a tool to prevent and manage many behavioral issues in homes with cats! 


“Cats are captives in these environments, akin to zoo animals, and as with zoo animals, cats’ health and welfare may be affected by their surroundings.  Because of this, they sometimes display undesirable behaviors when deprived of appropriate outlets for their expression.” – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb


 

Puzzles as Mental Enrichment

Now that I am older and more mature, I understand why my brother played with puzzles. It was mentally stimulating for him.  It kept his mind focused and it allowed him to reduce stress.  He was able to accomplish a goal and receive a reward.  Using puzzles for enrichment for our cats are not that different from this practice.

Puzzles are one tool that can be used on a regular basis to encourage an animal’s natural behaviors and alleviate boredom, reduce stress, and increase confidence.  Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.


The Value of Enrichment

Let’s take a look at a few very important reasons why enrichment (in general) should be a tool that we use in our homes on a daily basis.  Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn.

Enrichment can:

  • Curb boredom and restlessness
  •  Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
  •  Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
  •  Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion

Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity.  It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.

animal-enrichment_pets_diy-puzzle-toys
Exotic animals in captivity have acess to enrichemt, so why dont our cats in our homes?

Types of Enrichment 

Don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of using enrichment. You don’t have to be a wild animal expert to do this at home.  And you don’t need to have a lot of time to implement this important enrichment tool.   It really can be incorporated easily!

There are a variety of enrichment options, but today we will be covering food and foraging enrichment for our felines.  Just so you are aware, enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories:

  • Food based
  • Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
  • Novel objects
  • Social
  • Positive Training
  • Foraging

Foraging for Captive Big Cats 

When I was the enrichment coordinator at Audubon, we utilized foraging enrichment as management tools for several species of big cats (exotic cat species).  Offering our jaguars, African wildcats, snow leopards, and lions various types of puzzle feeders helped to reduce common stereotypical stress behaviors often seen in captivity. This could be anything from pacing in an exhibit or hiding.  We also used puzzle feeders and hiding food to improve one’s body condition (keeping them lean), and to increase exploratory behavior (encouraging them to explore their environment to prevent boredom and increase exercise). We also used food and foraging enrichment to decrease aggression, frustration, and fear.

Big cats_exotic cats_conscious Companion_amy martin
My dear feline friends at Audubon: Garth, Ditteaux, and Yaqui

House Cats Need to Forage for Food, Too!

Our fluffy cats are not that far flung from these feline ancestors. The innate desire to explore their environment with confidence, and to hunt for their food is still very alive and well within them!  Fears, frustration, aggression, and boredom are all just as common in our homes as it is for Big Cats in captivity.  A stagnant environment is a breeding ground for medical and behavioral issues.  As cat guardians we need to be encouraging healthy hunting and foraging behaviors. We need to be providing this kind of healthy mental and physical stimulation for our felines.

That’s where enrichment puzzles come into play!


 

The Semi-domesticated House Cat

House cats aren’t that far flung from their feline ancestors and modern day wildcats. But we are treating them as if they are.  Companion dogs are considered fully domesticated. Cats are only “semi-domesticated“.  In fact, the genomes of housecats have changed very little from their wild counterparts. And some house cats still breed with their wild relatives!  Scientists now say there is very little that separates the average house cat (Felis Catus) from its wild brethren (Felis silvestris).  And there is even some debate over whether our house cats fit the definition of “domesticated”.  That’s why I often refer to our cats as wee “house panthers.” Our house cats need just as much enrichment that their wild counterparts receive every day.

“We don’t think cats are truly domesticated.”Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University

cat enrichment

 


Satisfying a Feline’s Innate Need to Forage

The concept of working for food is natural for all hunters. You may see your house cat as a cuddly cat, but beneath sweet exterior is a hunter.  House cats are hardwired to hunt and forage for food just like their feline kin, such as lions, tigers, and jaguars.  All cats, no matter the species,  are hardwired to use their highly developed senses and physical skills to hunt, capture, and kill their prey.

But are we encouraging this in our homes?

Not really.

And if it’s being done, it’s not happening enough, or done properly.

 Although standard diets may adequately satisfy the nutrient needs of domestic cats, their usual presentation may not promote expression of normal hunting (exploratory) behaviors. Meeting nutrient needs in ways that mimic cats’ natural preferences provides additional enrichment. – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb

Make Them Work for Food!

Cats in the wild hunt for their food.  Not only is it in their nature to capture and kill, but they LOVE it.  Your feline family member should be “working” for their food, too.  Even if they are not living in the wild, they still should have access to this wild instinct!  Hunting is a natural feline behavior, and our couch potato cats need this outlet.  

Why make them work for it?!?,  you might ask.  Great question.  A study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more.  These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward.  The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.

I have yet to see any studies that parallel this with cats , but from my professional experience with exotic cats and personal experience with house cats, all of these species get very excited when they have to work for a treat or for their meal!

Cats who are living in the wild will forage and hunt on and off for hours. They will also eat 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day.  But with our house cats, when we provide commercial cat food, we have removed the ability of housecats to hunt for survival.

But that innate desire and need to hunt is STILL present within your feline friend.

Housecats need foraging opportunities!  Most of them spend as much time eating out of a food dish as they would be foraging and eating in the wild!

“This has led to an obesity epidemic in pet cats.  Many of these cats eat out of boredom. But foraging allows cats the activity and the entertainment of ‘the hunt.’” – Ilona Rodan, veterinarian and co-chair of the AAFP’s Feline Behavior Guidelines.


Foraging Felines

One food-based enrichment foraging tool that you can try at home (or at your shelter) is a “puzzle feeder.”   The old school (traditional) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.  Food based and foraging enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors!  These help to satisfy a cat’s natural instinct to search for their food.

I have written about this topic at length, but if you are a cat guardian who’s new to this blog, and new to the idea of food enrichment, consider trying out something simple such as the Maze Bowl.  It’s an interactive slow feed bowl for cats.  In the video below Knox shows us how much he loves using it. (And King Albert peeks in at the end to see if there is any leftover.)

Note: If your cat has a sensitivity to Whisker Stress, this might not be the best enrichment feeding tool.


 

Pick Puzzles That Are Perfect for Your Pussycat.

The Maze Bowl is what I consider the beginner puzzle level.  But it’s not for every cat.  It’s easy and fun for very food-motivated felines. Two of our four cats will use it; the other two would go hungry before they used it. – mainly because of their Whisker Stress. That’s why it’s important to know that there are many other styles of puzzle feeders out there!

Here are a few that our cats, or my client’s cats have had great success with, or I trust the people/companies who make them:Catit senses food puzzle maze - small

Note: We don’t feed dry food to our felines any longer. We rotate between premade raw, canned wet food, and various freeze-dried meats.  But for those of you who are feeding dry food, another option you can explore is this feeder. 

Interactive Puzzle Feeder for Cats
Mr. Beaux, one of our senior cats using an interactive feeder. Beaux is an example of a cat who needs plenty of space to feel safe and secure while he “hunts”.

Puzzle Feeder Feeding Stations

I should mention that each of our four cats have their own puzzle feeder “feeding station.” In the wild cats are solitary hunters.  Cats who are now living indoors are not exempt from this feline fact.  That means at mealtime in your home, they should be solo (away from other cats).  Forcing our feline family members to gobble down in a group can be very stressful to some cats.

In our home Knox is the food-frenzied feline. He used to inhale his food, then race over to the elderly cats, shove them out of the way, then gobble down their meal like a Meal Monster!  Not only is this rude and stressful, but Knox is on a very portion controlled diet, so he is not allowed to have “second breakfasties.”  Secondly, only one of the other cats (King Albert) will disagree with this rude behavior and set Knox straight.  Mr. Beaux, the more meek and gentle senior cat, will wander off and let Mr. Eats a Lot devour his dinner.

Not cool.

And it’s really not cool for us as cat guardians to allow this behavior to occur.  That’s why I love using Maze Bowls for the food frenzied feline. And that’s also why I give the senior boys their own quiet places to eat in peace.

And speaking of dining alone, any puzzle feeders that you use with your cats should be placed accordingly and safely around your home.  We want these to be novel areas, and novel enrichment items, not new feeding stations that encourage competition for a highly valued primary resource (food).


 Preference and Choice Matters!

 It’s very important to be aware that whenever we are considering changing a high value resource (food), or how it’s offered to the animal, we must offer the new resource adjacent to the familiar resource.  So if you want to try out a new puzzle feeder, such as the Maze Bowl, offer it in close proximity to where your cat’s current feeding platform or feeding bowl is currently.  This allows the cat to display his/her preference for one feeding mechanism or the other.  We don’t want to force our felines to use “this or that”. Cats need choices.  Choice encourages confidence!  When you offer your feline family member a choice, you will quickly see which one your cat prefers, and which one he/she wants to use (or ignore).

Imposing unfamiliar, undesirable resources on a cat may create an additional stressor in the cat’s environment.  –Herron, DVM, DACVB and Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN


Encourage your Cat!

 Be there with your feline family member as he discovers his new foraging toy or feeder.  Encourage your cat every time she makes a small success!  Don’t just leave her alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder.  You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.”  You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress!  The same is true for our feline friends.  Encourage them.  Praise them when they make small progress, and reward them even when they are just trying to figure it out!

Note:  Many cat guardians perceive their cats to be “finicky eaters,” recent evidence suggests that food refusal is a common feline response to environmental threat.  So it’s important to look at the big picture. See what could be causing your cat to refuse to even explore a new feeding option. Remember to encourage your cat by making changes gradually.

senior cat enrichment_DIY cats
Senior cats like King Albert the Grey need gentle foraging options. This glue-free paper towel roll makes a fun feeder tube at one of his mealtimes during the day. Albert needs a lot of encouragement while foraging.

Keeping Peace with Puzzles

Food puzzles have been an excellent facilitator for making friends among felines. A couple of our cats would rather hang with us, or the dog, when given the choice. -Having another cat all up in their space is less than desirable.  But puzzle feeders have bridged the gap between cats who could care less about each other.

Puzzle feeders have also been a saving grace at times when we want to keep the peace in close kitty quarters.  One example of this is when we were moving.  As I talked about before, all of us were confined to various hotels across the country for nearly a month.  Puzzle feeders (and feeding stations) helped to keep the peace and increase kitty (and canine) confidence.

Since they Kitty Boys (and Hocus Pocus) were already acclimated to various puzzle feeders and their own feeding mats (stations) prior to the move, we were able to easily encourage each of them to focus their minds and energy onto something positive and highly rewarding while we were all crammed together.  Rather than focusing on what might be a very stressful situation to them (new sights, sounds, and smells) they were so excited to forage for their food!  Rather than becoming aggressive to one another, or having a full-on-feline-freak-out-fear-fest every time we had to relocate into a new hotel every day, each animal knew that once we got settled in, play time (puzzles time) was coming their way.

Puzzle feeders saved the day. And night.

Every dang day.

Cat DIY puzzle feeder_conscious Companion_hotel with cats
Thanks to a cough medicine box, King Albert the Grey was able to eat in peace, and Knox overcame his fear of the hotel room door. It was a quick and easy DIY puzzle feeder during our move.

 


Positive Side to Food Puzzles

Not only do feline food puzzles encourage cats to engage in (part of) their natural predation sequence of stalking, capturing, and consuming their prey, but there are other benefits as well.  If your feline is a tubby tabby like ours was, food puzzle toys can encourage cats to lose weight!  And in some instances, the successful introduction of food puzzle toys has helped to resolve litter box issues. (Yes, you read that correctly; mental and physical enrichment can help with other behavioral issues in your home!).

When a cat is actively engaged in getting their food (rather than having it served to them in a boring bowl) this foraging activity encourages cats to be more active. This kind of activity increases confidence, helps to reduce stress levels, and … here’s my favorite part: cats become less demanding of their owners.

Hallelujah!

DIY puzzle feeder for cats.jpg
Knox having a field day with some foraging enrichment

More to Come for Cats!

On October 10th I will be hosting a free member webinar on this topic. It is entitled, “Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.”  I would love for you to join us! You can sign up here!

For now offer your felines some food foraging fun!

cat enrichment _big Cats
Someone is enjoying a post-foraging-fun nap.

Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them. – Jim Davis


Recommended Reading:

 What’s Environmental Enrichment and Why your Cat NEEDS it.

 Environmental Enrichment for Cats

 Puzzle Feeders for Cats

Food Puzzles for Cats

 Your Cat Would Like Food Puzzle Toys

 Ask Smithsonian: Are Cats Domesticated?

 More cat resources