Disco, Dart Frogs, Cats, and Canines!

Disco_cats_dogs_pet tips_conscious companion

Hello gorgeous!

Considering the current state of affairs around the world, I thought we could all use some levity.  We all need a break from the fear, hate, insanity, and the seemingly never-ending drama.

This post serves to give you just that.

As promised, I will be swaying between science and spiritual stuff U.F.N. 😉  Since my last post swung to the spiritual side, I thought we could dance to a different beat today!

And once again, I am grateful you are here.

I have to mention; the grammar nerd in me got a kick out of playing around with the comma placement in the title of this post.  If you were confused, this post isn’t about disco frogs, disco cats, or disco dogs, but it does involve these species, with a touch of the genre of music I just adore: disco!

disco shoes dancing retro

I appreciate that this genre of music isn’t everyone’s preferred choice.  But since I am a child of the 70’s I have a super positive association with DISCO that stems way back to childhood and well into high school.  From rocking out to The Bee Gees in the backseat, to breakin’ it down until the break of dawn with my girlfriends; Disco was my dope.

It was a natural high for me.  Even to this day, if I am in a funk, I play F U N K!  Disco can get me movin’ and groovin’ unlike no other music!  Play me some Soundgarden or Bob Marley and I am ready to rock-n-roll or love everything around me.  Put on “Super disco, disco breakin” by The Beastie boys, and I am amped!  But when real old school Disco starts to play … watch out world … my sass emerges and I am ready to shake-that-aaaaaa … !!!

Ok, you get it. 😀  The right kind of music can totally shift me out of a funk.  And as someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain for more than half of my life, music is my medicine.

But I am not unique in this way.

We are all moved by the right kind of tune.  Music shifts our mood.  Chemical reactions occur.  Endorphins are released.  Music promotes positive movement,  and dare I say, healing?

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

 

Movement Shifts Energy.  When we physically move the body, it supports and facilitates the movement of Life Force Energy.  When the physical body moves, the energy shifts within.  This is not woo; it’s legit.  Science has yet to prove this fact, but Eastern cultures have known this for centuries.  Our western world is just catching onto this fact.  But this fact is not limited to humans.  Because physical movement shifts energy, physical movement supports the chakras of all living beings.  Animals of all shapes, sizes and species benefit from positive movement and motivation.

But are we, as animal guardians, providing this opportunity enough?

The body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.” ~ Dr. Candice Pert

 


Back in another life, during my Audubon Zoo Dayz, I was an Enrichment Coordinator. Providing species-specific enrichment for everything from parrots to poison dart frogs was my passion!  So now, providing this necessary, science-based enrichment for companion animals is second nature to me.  My hope, is that once you learn how, this will come naturally to you, too!  Knowing how to do this is vital if we want to provide a healthy environment for our animal companions to thrive in captivity.

blue poison dart frog enrichment _
blue poison dart frogs (Dendrobates) enjoying novel multi-sensory enrichment (hunting for fruit flies out of a seasonal pumpkin)  Seriously. How adorable are they?

 


So what do poison dart frogs have to do with disco, cats, and dogs?  A lot, actually.

We now know that offering a coconut foraging feeder to captive Dendrobates (poison dart frogs) produces new behaviors.  This particular kind of enrichment feeder produces the greatest increase in frog activity in both traditional and new exhibits.  The increase in mobility is most likely due to a coconut feeder’s complicated nature, which randomizes the release of insects into the exhibit.  The complexity of the enrichment increases both mental and physical aspects of the frogs.

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Now think about how we can create something like this at home or in shelters, and why it’s so important.  If something as simple as placing prey (fruit flies) in a coconut feeder for frogs to foraging and hunt from, creates more desirable behaviors and healthy mental stimulation, what can we offer to our companion animals??

The possibilities are endless!

They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.  Create choice, offer control, and add complexity.   The goal is to elicit species-specific behaviors and to stimulate their natural abilities, senses, and enhance cognition.   This is what proper enrichment offers.   Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs.  The scientific principles in which structured enrichment programs are created are not reserved for lions, tigers, bears, and sea lions in zoos and aquariums.

Enrichment Is For Everyone.

And considering the high number of unhealthy pets in homes, increasing behavioral problems, and animals surrendered to shelters every week, I say we aren’t doing enough enrichment.  But we can change this.  And when we do it will shift everything.  Not only will we shift the energy within the animal, which will result in healthier bodies and minds, but we will create a more empowered way of living for each animal within the home.  We will also shift the energy between guardians and the animals.

We create a total shift for everyone on every level.


“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” ― Frank Zappa


 

There is enough craziness and fear unfolding around the globe.  Why don’t we bring some joy and humor into our home?  Why don’t we pull our focus from that insanity and consciously create really fun but safe ways to shift the energy with our animals?  There are amazing souls right under our nose!  Let’s engage with them more!  Let’s focus on the joy and love that’s waiting for us!

That is where we can choose to focus our energy.


Creating fun games that are tailored for the individual animal/group are one way that we can pull away from the drama and fear in the world and create harmony at home.  We can create our own music that moves us all!  Music moves us and gets us groovin, but what can we offer our animal companions to get their bodies and minds movin’ and groovin??

Enrichment.

I have talked about enrichment at great length before. But if you haven’t read those posts, here’s a quick run down on enrichment:

  • promotes naturalistic behaviors
  • stimulates the mind
  • increases physical activity
  • reduces stress
  • promotes overall health
  • increases an animal’s perception of control over their environment
  • empowers the animal with more choices
  • provides constructive ways to occupy their time

animal enrichment_zoos

Enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.

All of that is so important, but one of my favorite by-products of proper enrichment is the bonds it strengthens. – both between animals of the same species and between different species.  This has been a powerful tool in our home.  One of our favorite ways to shift the energy of our group while building bonds that last is by providing species-specific enrichment every day.

For the 3.0 cats (3 males) and 0.1 dog (female) in our family, this was not only a way to shift stagnant energy in their body, but it was a tool to build a bridge between them. We created conditions to create a fun, harmonious, and happy home.  Hocus Pocus and King Albert once had a very combative relationship, but these kind of enrichment activities (and other tools) have dramatically changed their relationship to one based on trust. Physical challenges in older animals were addressed and healing occurred.  Minds were stimulated and stagnation faded.

Behavioral enrichment is the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.

Now to the disco.

In the short video below, “Wake-and-Hunt” (not to be confused with Wake-and-Bake)  😉 you will see one example of how we do this.


“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone


Of course the cats and dog aren’t dancing to disco while they do these foraging activities, but you can see how excited they are to participate!  Seeing their energy shift from stagnation to determination, and boredom to curiosity, is similar to shifting our energy via the right kind of music!  We just need to find the right tune and melody, so to speak, for each individual.

Seniors, in particular, really need to be encouraged to behave, explore, and be stimulated in constructive ways that mimic the experiences they had when they were younger. Nose work is one way that we can do that.


casey bdaty (2)
Casey, the critically endangered lowland gorilla enjoying his birthday carrot cake

For 18 years I have been creating I.E.P.s (Individualized Enrichment Programs) for animals of all shapes, sizes, and species, so it’s now second nature to me.  I often forget that this kind of program isn’t in everyone’s go-to-tool box.  But it should be!  I believe that proper, individualized, species-specific enrichment can be more powerful than basic training.

Choice, control and complexity are key.

Providing conditions in a captive animal’s environment (home, shelter, zoo) that parallels a life were they would normally have endless choices is empowering.  It’s life changing!  Science and experience have proven that by providing this for all species of animals living in captivity, we have the power to reduce and eliminate a myriad of medical and behavioral issues.  When we create conditions that enhance cognition, encourage movement, and improve overall well-being through resources that tap into the individual species’ senses, we can change lives!

With the right kind of movement and music to match the soul, we shift out of pain and suffering into bliss and joy.  – Conscious Companion

You don’t have to be a professional in this area.  You can learn how to provide safe and species-appropriate enrichment to the animals with whom you care for, in your shelter or home!  It does require some planning and creativity, but the effort pays off in the long run.  I will be creating a free E-Book that discusses this in greater detail, but for now:

You can View one example of how we created an I.E.P for one of our geriatric cats here. 

You can view another IEP for our younger cat here.

You can download an overview of our Guidelines for planning an Individualized Enrichment Program here.

Dog and cat foraging enrichment

You too, can create and provide this kind of fun but carefully created mental and physical stimulation for your animal companions every day.  Heck, even once or twice a week could completely shift so much energy in your home!  But before you do, please remember to ask these questions:

Creating enrichment program for CATS_What's the Goal_Questions to ask_Conscious Companion

 

We need to ask important questions BEFORE providing this kind of food enrichment.
A successful food enrichment program is goal-oriented and considers The Big Picture.

  • Do we have a goal in mind?
  • Is the enrichment for one cat? Multiple cats? A cat and another species?
  • What behaviors of each do we want to encourage?
  • How will these behaviors be encouraged?
  • Will the foraging enrichment be created (or purchased)?
  • Is it safe? (see unsafe/failed enrichment here)
  • How will we implemented it?
  • How will we evaluate the response and the effect?
  • Are there any diet restrictions?
  • Health issues?
  • Is there any oversight that should involve a feline nutritionist or a feline health practitioner?
  • Are we utilizing the 5 categories of enrichment? – If not, why?


“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer


You might have noticed that I am highlighting cats in this post.  I am because the majority of people believe that cat’s don’t need as much mental and physical stimulation as dogs.  But this is untrue and very harmful.  Another misconception is that senior and geriatric cats don’t need to get moving daily.   Friend, they DO!

Some Cat Stats at a Glance:

• Cats are currently the most commonly kept pet in the United States
• Cats far outnumber dogs in homes (96 million cats vs. 83 million dogs).
• Cats are mislabeled as low-maintenance pets.
• This leads to cats housed in suboptimal environments.

• Cats are the number one animal euthanized at shelters due to “behavioral issues”.
• 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.)

When the environment of house cats don’t match the conditions they need in order to thrive, medical and behavioral issues arise.  Medical issues lead to behavioral issues which leads to a stressful household.  It can be a vicious cycle.  All of this can lead to a weakening of the human-animal bond, which often results in the owners surrendering the cat to a shelter, tossing the cat onto the streets, or euthanizing the cat.

Sub-optimal conditions are associated with increases in dozens of health and behavioral issues. Aggression, attention-seeking behaviors, and stress-related behaviors can be results of suboptimal conditions of captivity.  In fact, House-soiling is the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats, followed by aggression toward people. Below are just a few common conditions created by sub-optimal conditions for house cats:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus
  • Joint problems
  • Chronic lower urinary tract issues
  • Behavioral and mental health problems

 

The Reality is that house cats and their conditions don’t match.

The conditions house cats are kept in are often the least natural to their species. Our feline companions are very similar to their closest ancestor, the African wildcat, in terms of their behavioral needs and instincts.  Therefore, the conditions of house cats should parallel those of their closest wild ancestor, the African wildcat.

Scent is another biggie that’s overlooked in companion cats.  A cat’s sense of smell is 40x stronger than ours.   Scent is crucial when it comes to social situations, locating prey, and  maintaining safety.  Scent is also crucial when it comes to evaluation of food.  If more cat guardians gain a better understanding of the vital role that scent plays in a pussycat’s life, they can use this tool to enhance their feline friend’s life!

“Importantly, a better understanding of cat chemical signals has critical applied implications, as scent (and marking) plays an important role in many species-typical cat behaviors, problem behaviors, and can also serve as enrichment if properly understood and applied.” – Vitale Shreve and Udell

Providing various scents for cats to find is very enriching to cats. We can use everything from catnip to canned food.  Some other great options are  silver vine, honey suckle, local bird feathers, potting soil, beach sand, etc.  Encouraging cats to harness these innate abilities and natural instincts is necessary.

Senior and geriatric cats, in particular, really need to be encouraged to behave, explore, and be stimulated in constructive ways that mimic the experiences they had when they were younger.  Nose work (like you saw in the video above) is one way that we can do that every day.   When we set the scene for a cat to use his/her exquisite senses we are helping our house cats to live a life worthy of their ancestors. We are allowing house cats to THRIVE.

That is why we provide these kind of fun enriching activities every day!

Albert foraging yard

The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors

Animal guardians can learn about who their pet is as a species. We can learn their individual hunting styles, personal preferences, and dislikes /fears.  Guardians can provide proper species-specific conditions inside their home that parallel the animal’s natural life in the wild.  People can learn how to help their companions to thrive inside!

We can change lackluster homes into thriving environments!
We can enhance the lives and longevity of our animal family members!
We can enhance the bond between animals and their guardians!
We can build bonds between every species in the home!
We can keep animals in homes.
We can Build Bonds That Last!


My challenge to you is to allow yourself to let go of the drama and stress of life by creating a peaceful kingdom at home.  Let laughter and joy become the centerpiece of your home.  Create memories that last, well after your beloved moves on.  Create harmony by enriching their environment … and yours.

There doesn’t need to be any pressure.  There is enough pressure in this crazy world; we need not add any to our life.  The idea is to create therapeutic, enriching, and fun activity time together every day.  We all need more fun!  Funk it up!  Help them get their groove back! And yours! Create the time to add in more playtime, more ways to bond, and to release the stress of life.  Together.

 


You know you ought to slow down

You been working too hard and that’s a fact
Sit back and relax a while
Take some time to laugh and smile

Lay your heavy load down
So we can stop and kick back
It seems we never take the time to do
All the things we want to do

The S.O.S Band (video)


 

I am curious.  What kind of fun mental and physical games do you play with your animal companions?  What has worked well?  What kinds of exciting enrichment opportunities will you create this week together?

My hope is that you will choose to create moments of joy together and memories that last forever.  My hope is that you will create your own musical masterpiece together and dance to your own tune.  My hope is that you will turn to your beloveds when the world is too much with you.  My hope is that you can find peace within your animal kingdom at home.

Be well.

Be at peace.

Let your heart be light.

Let your animals be your greatest teachers.

Let go and remember to laugh with the ones you love!

Abstract background blue,yellow and orange


 

Recommended Videos and Links:

 

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
― Arthur O’Shaughnessy

 

Lions, Tigers, Tabbies, and Pumpkins, Oh My!

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

jae-jae-a-sumatran-tiger

I am so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

And in a world where there is food enrichment for felines 😉

I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are enjoying October. And I hope you are faring well, despite hurricanes, fires, and crazy politicians. OH MY.  On a much more uplifting note, I wanted to share something fun with you while I had a couple minutes.

It involves cats and pumpkins.

I am a HUGE fan of October. I mean, like a total dork about October and Halloween.  I was married on Halloween. All of our cats are the colors of Halloween, and our dog’s name is Hocus Pocus. We absolutely Adore Fall and Halloween.  One of the best parts about Halloween is the plethora of beautiful gourds and pumpkins.  I also adore felines of all species. So what’s better than a cat or a pumpkin?

….. Cats AND pumpkins together!!!

pumpkins-and-cats

 

Now that October has arrived, I took advantage of the readily available gourds that were ready to be adored … and gored.

Our cats enjoyed them as well!  (Be sure your sound is ON.)

 


On a related note, I wanted to let you know that tomorrow I will be doing an online webinar, “Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.” I will discuss some common myths about companion cats and how dietary enrichment can be one of the most powerful tools you use with your feline family members every day! I will be discussing the importance, science, and methods behind novel enrichment that you saw in that video.

Here are some common House Cat MYTHS we will be discussing tomorrow in our webinar:

  • Cats are nocturnal.
  •  Cats are aloof.
  •  Cats are lazy.
  •  Cats hunt in groups.
  •  Cats are unsocial.
  •  Cats are at the top of the “food chain”.
  •  Cats are fully domesticated.
  •  Cats are herbivores or omnivores.
  •  Cats are a lot like dogs.
  • Senior cats won’t play with food puzzles or hunt for food.

Super Senses

I will also be discussing Cat’s “Super Senses!”  These acute senses are unique to them as a species.  Many of these super senses are not unlike their exotic ancestors; African wildcats, panthers, lions, tigers, jaguars, and cougars.  Unlike their ancestors, companion cats possess extraordinary sensitivity as both a predator and prey.  These feline senses and abilities are evolutionary adaptations that are unique to felines. All of these senses come into play when it comes to providing species-appropriate dietary/foraging enrichment.

cat senses.jpg

House cats retain many of the instincts, traits, behavior, and needs of their wild kin and feline ancestors. Your cat may hang on the couch at home with you, but her mind and body are programmed to hunt, capture, kill and consume just as wild as the African lion on the savannah of sub-Saharan Africa, the Sumatran Tiger in the wetlands of Borneo and Sumatra, and the jaguar in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.  These sensory adaptations are a huge piece of enrichment puzzle. These unique feline traits are at the heart of why we need to be using foraging enrichment for our companion felines.

big-cats-enrichment


Encouraging Cats to Forage

In the dog and cat community there are two very common myths currently circulating about senior and geriatric cats:  They don’t need daily exercise and they won’t play with puzzle feeders!  Both of these beliefs are untrue. Tomorrow our geriatric cats will show you why cats of all ages CAN and should be foraging for their food!

albert-senior-cat-puzzle-feeder

Food Foraging as a TOOL.

I will also talk about who, what, when, where, and why Foraging and Puzzle Feeders can be used a behavior modification tool for multiple species in the home.!  A lack of mental and physical stimulation is linked to a myriad of medical and behavioral issues in cats. But this can be reversed!  When properly utilized, foraging enrichment can enhance the lives of both cats and their guardians. Not only can puzzle feeders be a tool to help your tiny tiger to thrive, but puzzles can help with everything from obesity to fear. Here are some of the ways that Foraging has helped our felines:

  • Transitioning a feral cat indoors
  • Scarfing and barfing
  • Night nudging
  • Aggression
  • Destructive behavior
  • Obesity
  • Attention-seeking behaviors
  • Lethargy
  • Arthritis
  • Boredom
  • Fear
  • Cognitive decline
  • Begging/stealing food
  • Incompatible behavior
  • Emotional eating
  • Food competition /bullying others for their food
  • Boredom
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety

Wildcats and More

We will also look at house cats’ ancestors and how they relate to your modern day couch cat. We will discuss the 5 Categories of enrichment and how puzzle feeders and foraging play into those. We will discuss the Principles of Food Enrichment Planning and Individualized Enrichment Programs and why they are both crucial.  There will also be a special section on foraging enrichment for senior cats. yay!

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I hope you can join me for the webinar tomorrow. It’s going to be FUN and informative! But if you can’t make it, don’t worry; once you sign up you will receive a recording of the webinar after it’s over.  You will also receive links to 18 videos I have created as supplements for the webinar, along with pdfs, referenced papers, and links to where you can purchase some of the puzzles I mention. These will all come to you from the Pet Professional Guild, who is hosting this event. Details here: Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food. 


Happy Foraging with your felines!

October Blessings to you and yours!


hello-october

“October’s Party
October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came –
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.”
― George Cooper

 

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”.

DIY Puzzles

I don’t know what I would do without recycling for enrichment. I have depended on it for nearly 20 years in both a professional and personal setting.  If you love to recycle and if you/someone in your family is creative, there is no end to the puzzle feeders that you can make!

Puzzle feeders can be made of almost anything, as long as it’s safe for the cat. There are mobile devices, stationary, sturdy devices, and even devices that you can hang and they swing. Do It Yourself Puzzle feeders can be used to provide either wet or dry food


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!
If you missed it, you can  sign up here for the replay!

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 and Videos:

Supplemental Videos for PPG Webinar: ” Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental & Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Food”

Senior Cat Enrichment – Scent Work for Senior Felines!

 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