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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

A Fear-Free 4th?

“Fear is a stranger to the ways of love.

 – A Course In Miracles

Sunset_california_Fourth of July_pets_fear-free
A Peaceful Sunset Near Our Home

Happy July!

Wow.  How are we already past the midway point of 2017!?

Hello Summer! And hello to you!

It’s been 3 months since I shared here.  So much has happened since the last post .  After our beloved King Albert transitioned into Spirit, life has been a roller coaster of sorts.  Saying goodbye to him was a heartbreaking and familiar path, but this time the path was paved with life-changing insights and experiences.  So much love, learning, healing, and growth has happened in the process.

But that’s not what I am sharing with you today.

As I discussed in an earlier post, my life and work is now a blend of science, metaphysics, and spirituality.  My last post was a bit of both, and rather lengthy.  Today’s post is science-based and short-n-sweet to save us all time. 😉

Let’s get to it!

The fourth of July (and Canada Day) are almost here.  If you have been following this blog since the get-go ,  you know that I write about this dreaded day at great length.  The 4th of July is a favorite day of celebration for many people, but let’s be honest:  It’s a day of terror for many animals.  The Fourth of July might as well be renamed “4th of July Fright Night”.

If your cat is cool with the cacophony of clangs, I commend him.  If your dog digs having strangers over with a symphony of explosions, and scary sights and scents, I bow down to her.  If your parrot, ferret, pig, or horse is unphased by the big bad booms around their dojo, they are the minority.

Most animal companions are not cool with the Fourth of July.

If you have worked with or lived with an animal, you know that most are frightened of loud or startling noises.  Even the ones who enjoy being around new people can be pushed to their limit.  Strangers in your home during the holiday can stress out even the most subdued souls.

Even if your animal companion has not displayed fear around these family events before, the sights, scents, and sounds on The Fourth of July could easily bring out their most intense fears.  And these fears don’t pass after the festivities are over; they can manifest as physical issues well after the event.

It can be a living nightmare for many.

💥 So, what’s a devoted animal guardian to do?!?
–> BE AWARE.
–> PLAN.
–> PREPARE.
💥


Here’s the Good News: Family festivities on the 4th of July don’t have to become Fright Night to our animal companions!  There are many things that you can do to help your animal family members successfully cope with the Big Bad Booms and Bangs!💥

Let’s Get to Sharing!

Below are resources that I have been sharing like wildfire for weeks on our Instagram Twitter, and Facebook pages. Check em out!  And if you have friends, family, or colleagues that would benefit from this information, by all means, share it!

“For it is in giving that we receive.” ― Francis of Assisi

Last weekend,  a gifted colleague and I gathered forces to create a live call-in event for families.  The intent was to empower people and their pets by sharing tools, tips, and techniques, and also to dispel myths.  This event was created to help animal guardians across the country to prepare for the Night of Assault on the Senses.

It was a huge success.

Countless people had NO CLUE that it’s really OK to comfort the animal when they are afraid; how and why food can and should be used as a tool to modify fear;  why medication is often very helpful;  holistic tools that actually work; how to identify and create safe hide outs; why play is powerful.

All of these topics were new to many.

People were so relieved to learn that they do have the power to help their pets!  People learned how and why these tools are vital to having a night that’s fear-free on the 4th of July.  During the live event we discussed:

  • Sight, Scent, Sound, and Tactile senses 101
  • How & Why we should desensitize them to loud noises NOW
  • Signs of Stress in parrots, cats, and dogs
  • How to properly use FOOD to modify fear 🥓
  • Why cats behave certain ways when they feel threatened
  • What you can provide to help them feel safe and secure
  • Why “bolt holes” are critical for dogs and cats
  • Holistic Tools to use
  • Why you might want to consider contacting your vet now
  • How your energy affects your animal companions
  • Why Acepromazine should NOT be used
  • Why we SHOULD comfort the animal when they are afraid
  • How enrichment activities calm the mind
  • Why we want to Dial UP the Dopamine
  • How to prepare your home for safety & security
  • Why we need to create an “Energy Hangover” environment  after the 4th to prevent trigger stacking

 

Pets_cats_Senior cats-4th of july_pets fireworks_fear free_Conscious Companion
Identifying AND providing “safe places” and “bolt holes” is essential!

If you missed the live event, you can listen to the replay:

✳  via Dropbox
✳ via Free Conference call

 

 

After the call,  I complied a list of Positive Resources for Animal Guardians.  The intent was to provide free resources to help families across the country to have a Fear-Free 4th. If you are interested, you are welcome to  download the PDF and share it with others.

Conscious_Companion_Giving quotes_parrot Training_parrot behavior_Giving tuesday


So that’s some of what’s been on my mind the past couple of weeks, which is why I was motivated to share with you today.   I hope this is helpful.   And I hope you know that it is possible to have a Fear-Free Fourth of July.

You can do this!

If you have questions or concerns, shoot me an email, or comment below. 🙂

Good Vibes Only_Conscious Companion


For those of you who are new to this blog, welcome! I am so grateful you are here! For those of you who have been here since the beginning, and for those who are interested, here are some other exciting projects in the works:

  • I am closer to completing my first children’s book (gah!)
  • A video series on how to positively leash train cats of all ages & stages via force-free techniques (with an emphasis on senior and geriatric cats!)
  • Kids-In-Cali Animal Communication workshops
  • Dog and Kid Safety workshops for our Marines at Camp Pendelton
  • A video series on assisting aging cats with force-free medical care at home
  • Connecting with Animals on the Other Side – a complimentary program for pet parents who are struggling with death, loss, and grief
  • Empaths with Pets: how highly sensitive people can learn from their animal companions

As I am guided I will be sharing more about each of these with you here in the future.  In the meantime, check out these free resources so you and your beloveds can have a Fear-Free 4th of July together! 🎉

With infinite Love and Gratitude,

Amy and the animal menagerie🐾


Knowledge is power.  Information is liberating.  Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. -Kofi Annan

ocean waves
Carlsbad Beach

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

Sunday Funday for Everyone!

She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. ― Zelda Fitzgerald

conscious companion
I AM BORED! Give me something FUN to do, mom!

What are you up to this Sunday afternoon?  We are experiencing record heat temps and orange air alerts here in our nation’s capital, so we are laying low today.

When I want to lay low, the animals in our home often have other plans, so I have to be prepared. 

Our dog and cats get bored easily. They also have a lot of energy, despite their ages, so, If I want to relax, and not worry about them resorting to attention seeking behaviors, I need to invest my time in providing plenty of mental and physical exercise for them throughout the day.

cat walks_senior cats
Albert, the senior cat, enjoying a few minutes outside with me to stretch his muscles and help his arthritis.

Often Hocus and I go for adventures in the forest near our home, or I take the cats on a “walkabout” around the perimeter of our house.  These activities allow us to get out of the house, have individual time together, and maintain our powerful bond. They also come with an added bonus: They are all happily content and healthfully tired afterward.

dog parks_Conscious Companion_off leash dog
Adventuring “off-road” in the forest near our house

However, when the weather isn’t safe or comfortable to venture out in, I have to provide plenty of mental and physical enrichment activities inside. This is where I get creative. 

Give Them a Job. 

There are way too many “unemployed” dogs in homes all around the world. Unemployed dogs get into trouble.  Dogs need to be doing something positive and fun (with you) to occupy their time, to channel their energy, and to stay mentally and physically healthy.  One of the ways that we give our dog a job to do is by having Hocus forage for treats!  This helps to mentally challenge her, and to also channel her energy into something positive.  Rather than just offering a special treat like a pig ear, trachea, or bully stick, she has to work for it!

How We Do This

I gather a few safe, nontoxic, cardboard and paper recycling  items and get to work.  It only takes me a couple minutes to hide the treat, but the time it takes her to work for the treat is time well spent! You can see the video here.

By the time she’s finished, she’s ready for a short nap, and I can have some down time for myself!

The result is Life with my animal companion, improved.


So the next time your pets are driving you nuts, think about how you can help them, (and yourself).

What can you create that’s safe, fun, and mentally challenging?

Need some more ideas? Check out the links below.

Boredom comes from a boring mind. ― Metallica


Related Links

DIY Puzzle Feeder for Dogs

Enrichment Activities for Cats

Sunday Night Kong Stuffing!

Bone Stuffing: Egg Salad Jamboree!

Why Training Is Essential

Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.

Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with "Flat Stanley" at the Audubon Zoo
Zazous, the rescued Moluccan cockatoo with “Flat Stanley” at the Audubon Zoo

There are many reasons people choose to train an animal.  Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them.  Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal.  Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.

Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.

I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together!  I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship.  I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win!   I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them.  I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process.  Training became one of my favorite forms of communication.  Training became an essential part of my life.  Training was an essential part of their life.

Something else I learned while training animals:  If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.

I am not special.  I merely took the time to learn the techniques.  I practiced the skills.  I learned patience.  I made mistakes.  And I tried again and again.

That’s why I want to talk with you about training.  You can train animals the force-free way, too!  But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.


What Is Training?

 

Training is “teaching”.

When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal.  However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them.  We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.

That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.

Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns.  You are their teacher.  As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day!  Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?

ALL ZOO PICS FROM WORK PC 026
When Menari, the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) was born, we made sure that every interaction she had with us was a positive one. She was gradually exposed to people, places, and things that would help her to feel safe and secure in our human world.

Training is all about associations.

The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being.   Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day.   As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).

ALL ZOO PICS FROM WORK PC 307
Dedicated animal trainers teaching one of our giraffe that people = only Good Things!

Training is about building a relationship.

When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust.  Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon.   Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime.  Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime!  Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.

 

Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!
Reward-Based Training is how you gain the trust of animals, like our handsome Tapir, named Melon!

Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan.  What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.

 


Why Training Is Essential

Training is a key component to an animal’s well being.  Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes!  A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful.  Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan.  From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.

This Rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our zoo guests to interact with her.
This rhino learned through positive training that people are safe, which allowed our guests to interact with her on a daily basis. She could choose if she wanted to interact with them, or not. These same methods of learning can be used on your pets at home!

 

Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care.  Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez

 


Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field.  Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training.  Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!

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CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO WATCH the VIDEO!

We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible.  When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible.  Of course, there are limits to what we can train.  But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.  

~Ken Ramirez, Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Animal Training at the world-renowned Shedd Aquarium; Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT)


Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!

In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity!  He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets.  Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting.  See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:

My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.  Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact.  Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets.  It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick.  Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely.  ~Ken Ramirez

 

hocus pocus
Positive, reward-based training has transformed my relationship with Hocus Pocus, and it has helped her to live in our human more safely and securely.

 

Animal training should be about mutual respect.  The goal is to build a relationship based on trust.  When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human.  The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion

Coming Up Next:  How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!


Recommended Reading:

Thinking Beyond the Cue: Ken Ramirez Takes Animal Training to a New Level

Shedd Aquarium Participates in Beluga Conservation Research Program

Tortoises Teaching Us Through Touch-Screen Technology!

The old assumption that animals acted exclusively by instinct, while man had a monopoly of reason, is, we think, maintained by few people nowadays who have any knowledge at all about animals.  We can only wonder that so absurd a theory could have been held for so long a time as it was, when on all sides the evidence if animals’ power of reasoning is crushing.  ~Ernest Bell 

"Don't judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize." ~ The nearly 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma
“Don’t judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize.” ~ The 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma

I am beyond excited to share this post with you!  Huge breakthroughs have been happening for tortoises and turtles behind the scenes for decades, but most of the world has no idea what we have accomplished and learned from these complicated reptiles.  Thankfully, a new study has proven what reptile trainers, zoo, aquarium and nature center educators, and reptile enthusiasts all over the world already knew; turtles and tortoises are not simple, mindless creatures.

Thanks to scientists who are thinking outside the box, and who are willing to share their results, the world will finally know that turtles and tortoises are capable of decision making and complex cognitive behavior.  Yes, you read that correctly; tortoises and turtles make deliberate decisions, and use complex thinking to solve problems, and to gain rewards for themselves.

The title of this post is actually true! Tortoises have officially entered the world of touch-screen technology!  Scientists recently discovered that tortoises are capable of learning how to use an electronic device in exchange for strawberries!  The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting.

 


The Tortoise Test Subjects

The tortoises they chose as test subjects for this experiment were Red-footed tortoises. Like most turtles and tortoises, they are very inquisitive and very eager to eat tasty treats.  “This makes them very good test subjects”, Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, England explained.

These tortoises lack a hippocampus.  This is an area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation.   The researchers believe that red-footed tortoises may rely on an area in their brain called the medial cortex.  This is the same area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in humans.

Red-footed tortoises are inquisitive and eager to eat treats, making them good test subjects. ~Wilkinson

What better way to a tortoises heart than through a strawberry??
What better way to a tortoise’s heart than through a strawberry??

“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

 


Learning How Tortoises Learn

First the researchers needed to understand how tortoises learn, so they tested how the reptiles relied on cues to navigate the area.  To do this, they gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached, and then pecked on the screen.   All four red-footed tortoises learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly.

“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it. I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.” ~ Wilkinson

Wilkinson explains that turtles’ and tortoises’ speedy learning is due to the fact that “tortoise hatchlings don’t receive parental care, so they have to learn how to make decisions about food and shelter for themselves from the moment they hatch.”

 


The Main Experiment

The tortoises attempted to bite a red triangle in the center of the touch screen.  When two blue circles flashed, the tortoises had to consistently peck at either the circle on the right, or the one on the left to get a tasty strawberry.

The results:  All four of the tortoises mastered the tortoise touch-screen task! However two of the tortoises eventually stopped cooperating; Wilkinson explains that it’s possibly because these two were too small to reach the screen.  Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, continued to try and applied  their knowledge to a real-life situation.

You can watch part of the experiment below.

Tortoise With A Touchscreen Tests Testudine Perception Video

 


Learning Applied to Real Life

In the next part of the experiment, the remaining two tortoises applied their knowledge to a real-life situation.  The researchers placed the tortoises in an arena with two blue, empty food bowls that were similar to the blue circles on the touch screen.  The tortoises walked over to the bowl on the same side as the red circles that they were trained to bite at on the screen.

The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the opposite blue bowl in the arena to see how flexible they were with learning.  When they were reintroduced to the touch screens three months later, the tortoises immediately began biting at the same side of the screen as before.

 “The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

 


What Does This All Mean?

The experiment reinforces other findings that tortoises are intelligent creatures. ~Professor Vonk, psychology department, Oakland University, Michigan

These new findings will help researchers compare the perceptual and cognitive abilities of tortoises to other animals that can perform the same tasks.

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!
Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!

“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.” -Dr Wilkinson


“If you are taking on a reptile, you must consider their need for cognitive enrichment.” ~ Wilkinson

 

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise
Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise. Educational outreach can be great mental and physical enrichment for reptiles, but we do need to consider that they can get stressed, too. Science is now proving that turtles and tortoises do have complicated cognitive abilities, so we must honor that with how we interact with them and care for them in captivity.

 

“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive.  I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.” ~ Anna Wilkinson, senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, England


This study was published in the July issue of the journal Behavioral Processes.

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Lincoln


Journal Reference:

Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber. Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria). Behavioural Processes, 2014; 106: 187 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.06.003

 

Stimulate Them!

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. 

An Amur tiger cub enjoying bubble enrichment at the zoo. Amur (Siberian) Tigers are critically endangered. Less than 40 exist in the wild. Zoo breeding programs are helping the species to survive.

While working for a decade as an Enrichment Coordinator for various animal sections at the Audubon Zoo, I learned that physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the plant.  Squid, poison dart frogs, mice, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, parrots, ferrets, anteaters, cats, and pigs all need daily mental and physical stimulation!  Think of any animal, and I assure you that it needs daily stimulation.

Life is very stale and very boring without enrichment.  Imagine sitting on the couch in your home. There are no windows. You cannot leave the house.  No one ever visits you.  You have no radio, T.V. iPhone, or internet.  You have to eat and drink the same thing every day.  What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, then a week, then a month?  This kind of mental stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures.  In fact, it’s downright deadly.

All animals need enrichment, which is a fairly simple but important concept.  Enrichment improves or enhances the environment for an individual animal and stimulates the animal to investigate and interact with their surroundings more.  At the Audubon Zoo, I would enrich an animal’s environment by making changes to structures in their enclosures, present novel objects and scents for them to investigate, change how we presented food to them, and much more.

We encouraged them to forage, hunt, and handle their food in ways that are natural to them in the wild. (The Shape of Enrichment has a great sample article of this kind of enrichment.)  These tools were used on a regular basis at our zoo to alleviate boredom.  Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.  Giving animals more choices prevents boredom!

 

animal enrichment_pets_DIY puzzle toys
Offering an animal more CHOICES prevents boredom and other unwanted behaviors!

Coordinating Enrichment for Exotics

As an Enrichment Coordinator, it was my job to ensure that every animal in a particular section had species-appropriate enrichment provided for them every day.  This could be anything from planting geographically appropriate plant species to encourage a critically endangered female Blue Iguana to forage on her native country’s plants to prepare her body for breeding season, to providing a Boomer Ball for our Miniature Donkey in the Children’s Zoo to keep her from becoming bored and harassing the goats, sheep, or visitors!

 

The video below is an excellent example of how we could use a Boomer Ball in a captive zoo environment.  This demonstrates the fun and importance of mental and physical enrichment, with a focus on Choice, Change, and Complexity.

Otters Playing with Boomer Balls at the Philadelphia Zoo

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


What Captive Otters Can Teach Us About Our Pets

Right about now you might be asking, “So what does an otter playing with a ball, underwater, at a zoo, have to do with my pet at home?”  Well, that otter is a perfect example of  what I encourage all of my clients to do with their pets, in their homes, every day: mentally and physically challenge them!   Every one of you has the ability to have this much fun with your pets at home!  I am going to explain how you can do this, why enrichment is so important for your pets, and how it improves your life as well.


How Enrichment Helps

Environmental enrichment, when used properly, can positively address many behavioral issues. This can be anything from “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors that result from the all too common problem in homes: boredom and/or frustration.

In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.


What is Enrichment?

Enrichment can be defined as:

A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history.  It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare .   (Association of  Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] Behavior Scientific Advisory Group 1999, excerpted from Disney’s Animal Programs).

Behavioral enrichment is defined as “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.”

Simply put, enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.

More simply put:  Add a little creativity, fun, and stimulation to an animal’s life!

Environmental enrichment for pets (also called behavioral enrichment) is a means to enhance a companion animal’s surroundings. It serves to enhance their life through means in which the animal is presented with novelty in his/her environment. The animal is given opportunities to learn. And the animal is encouraged to engage in natural, instinctive, species-specific behaviors.


Why Enrichment Is Important

Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs. 

Behavioral enrichment and environmental enrichment are necessary components of life in captivity.  Enrichment improves the welfare of all animals.   All animals in captivity need environmental enrichment whether they live in a zoo, shelter, laboratory, sanctuary, or your home.  It’s one of the 3 Key Elements That My Work Is Based Upon.

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.  This directly relates to your pets at home!  Bored animals are easily frustrated, and frustration can lead to destruction.  You can avoid boredom and destruction by enriching your pets!  Enrichment is one of the keys to enhancing your pet’s life.  It is also one of the easiest tools to implement on a daily basis.

Enrichment at Home Serves To:

  •        Curb boredom and restlessness of an animal
  •         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

 

Types of Enrichment 

Enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories.  All of these can be used at home with your pets:

  • Food based
  • Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
  • Novel objects
  • Social
  • Positive Training
  • Foraging
DIY pet-enrichment-puzzle-feeders_dog_cat_parrot_turtle
Food, sensory, novel objects, and foraging enrichment are all shown in this image of pets in homes. Can you identify each one?

The Key to Successful (and appropriate!) Enrichment 

As I mentioned earlier, enrichment is something that can, and should be, incorporated into your animal companion’s life every day.  The image above is a great example of how easy it is to do!  However, the key to successful (and appropriate) enrichment for an individual animal is doing a bit of research.  Your homework is to understand your pet’s natural history.  This means that you need to learn about the history of their species, or background and history of their breed.

For example, did you know?

  • The Italian Greyhound was bred to  hunt rabbits.
  • The Dachshund was used to hunt badgers.
  • The main reason cats were bred and kept around homes was originally for hunting vermin.
  • The Bengal cat breed originally came from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats.
  • Although cats are carnivores, they still have an occasional craving for live green plants.

All of this matters!  

The breeding history and the natural history of animals affects our pet’s today – even if only on a small level at times.  Your domestic house cat still has a strong predatory instinct, so she needs to hunt every day.  Your cockatoo may live in a metal enclosure in your house, but he/she still has the innate need to chew, fly, and forage.  Your couch potato dog might have a lineage that was bred to swim and retrieve.  We must provide opportunities for animals to do things that are in their DNA.  We can provide simulated hunting, chewing, foraging, and seeking in our homes.  This is what enrichment provides.  It’s important that we take the time to put the pieces of their breed /species puzzle together.


 

Ask yourself:

  • What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
  • Are they nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal?
  • Do they like to climb, hide, or fly?
  • Do they enjoy chewing, foraging or digging?
  • Do they need to soak or bask?
  • Do they hunt, stalk, ambush, or chase?
  • What does this breed of cat do really well, naturally?
  • What does this breed of dog do on his/her own that might be a peek into their genes?
  • What was this breed of dog, cat, horse, etc. originally bred for?
  • What behaviors does this species do naturally in the wild?
  • What kinds of food are found in their country of origin?

Exploring the breed- and species-specific background for each animal in your home is where we should begin thinking about how to provide appropriate enrichment for them.

The video below is an example of how hedgehogs naturally behave in the wild when they have the opportunity to make their own choices.  Why does this matter?  Well, if a hedgehog owner knows how hedgehogs naturally behave, then they can then provide this kind of stimulating environment for their hedgehog in the home!  The same concept is true for your dog, cat, parrot, or turtle!  When we learn about how our animals would behave naturally in the wild, we then have the tools to help them thrive and live long, healthy, happy lives with us in our homes!

Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors


How You Can Provide Enrichment at Home! 

Most people have limited resources available to enrich the lives of their animal companions, which results in a huge lack of appropriate enrichment with most household pets, especially exotic animals.  Making a few changes to their daily routines can greatly enhance the life and longevity of your animal companion! They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.   

 

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your pet’s life!

One thing I learned very quickly while working at the zoo was that funds were limited.  If you wanted to do a lot of enrichment, you had to get creative and do it yourself.  This now carries over into our home, and also when I am working with a family that has a very limited budget.  I teach my clients that anyone can make enrichment toys out of almost anything, and in the process you get to recycle in a super fun way!

Every night we give our dog Hocus Pocus (and the cats) some sort of enrichment challenge to do.  Below is a video demonstrating a very easy one for her, but the point is to not just “give a dog a bone”.  Make them work for it!  Dogs are natural foragers, so allow your dog to utilize his/her natural instincts!  Be as creative as you want to be!  This kind of enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation, and in the process they learn that being alone is a Very Good Thing.  Bonus: it gives you time to do whatever you need to get done while they are having fun!



 

Here’s another suggestion: The old school (“traditional”) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.  Enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors!  The video below is a great example of providing simple mental and physical enrichment for a very smart and energetic dog.

And here’s another easy example that we do with our dog, Hocus Pocus every night!


Below are a few more examples of simple, easy enrichment that we use in our home on a daily basis.  Each of these are examples of natural behaviors that the animal would do in the wild if they were given choices.  Click the links to see each short video:

Make toys, or buy feeders that “feed” your cat’s natural hunting instinct!
The BoomerBall "Herding Ball" is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It's also great for horses when 3.5" holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.
The BoomerBall “Herding Ball” is designed for herding dogs (Shetland Sheep dogs, Australian Cattle dogs, Australian Shepards and Aussies). It’s also great for horses when 3.5″ holes are added so hay can be stuffed into ball.

What Science Has Shown Us

Results from 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.

Now let that really sink in for a moment …. What does that tell you?

 


 

In the video below, Chopin, the Moluccan cockatoo, is being challenged mentally and physically to utilize his natural foraging and problem solving skills to retrieve a high-value nut from a puzzle feeder.  We used this kind of enrichment for Chopin to reduce aggression, frustration, and boredom.



 

I encourage everyone to learn what their animal enjoys doing.  Discover their natural behaviors. Learn the history of the breed, and the natural history of the species.  Once you understand these things, you can challenge the animal to move out of their stale comfort zone and step into the space of Who The Animal Really Is.   Enrichment allows us to bring out the inner “House Panther” in a lazy cat.  Enrichment transforms destructive dogs into mentally healthy canine companions.  It changes frustrated parrots into relaxed, feathered friends.

Daily enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming, but the more creative you get, the more fun your animals will have!  Make it a FUN challenge for you and them!

TIP: Be there with them as they discover their new toy.  Encourage them every time they make a small success!  Don’t just leave them 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 animal companions.  Encourage them.  Praise them when they make small progress, and even when they are just trying to figure it out!

enrichment

What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals?  Please share in the comments below!

 

Cat Agility Is Here To Stay!

The only difference between your abilities and others is the ability to put yourself in their shoes and actually try. ― Leonardo Ruiz

The world is full of crazy people doing crazy cool things, so it takes a lot to impress me these days, but a young girl from the Czech Republic has trained her cat, Suki, to do agility.  So have many others.  Yes, you read that right: Cats are now doing agility.  The sport no longer belongs to just dogs.

If you haven’t heard about dog agility, then you are missing out on some pretty amazing dog and handler skills.  My dog Hocus Pocus and I absolutely love to do agility together!  Nothing has strengthened our bond more.  We are not experts by any means, but we do have a blast, and I discovered that she is incredibly skilled at this sport.  Dog agility competitions are so much fun! Dogs soar through the complex obstacle courses with determination and speed.  Now, just imagine a cat doing that.

Well, they can and they DO!  Most people (even the most loving cat guardians) don’t realize that cats are easily trainable.  If you have a cat that is willing to follow a dancing feather toy, or favorite food treat anywhere, then you have the tools to begin cat agility!

cat tricks cat agility training

The videos below show cat agility in action.  It’s amazing not only because cats are doing agility – quite well I must say – but it’s so inspiring to clearly see the bond that the cat and the person share together.  This makes my heart sing, because it’s what I strive to teach young people; that they are capable of doing this and more with their feline companion!

Watch the 16 month young Suki’s agility in action, and performing cat “tricks” with her person! What a team!

suki the agility cat

 

Suki the cat at 8 months young and her person run the homemade agility course together:

You can view more of their happiness here.

Young people are practicing and perfecting cat agility in their homes all around the world.  This young man has taught his cat, Cashmere, to rebound off of walls, all through the use of clicker training!  Check out Cashmere and Puff!

cat agility

Feline agility competitions have rapidly grown in popularity all around the world.  The Cat Fancy Association started agility competitions in 2004, and other clubs have “jumped” at agility courses! The International Cat Agility Tournament is another example.  The first agility competition was held in Portland, Oregon as part of the Oregon Cats show.  It was titled, “Let the Cats Entertain You”.  Forty-five cats entered. Some were pedigreed and some were moggies! They ranged from kittens to adults!

You can find upcoming cat agility shows (where you can enter your cat, or just watch the event) on the CFA cat show schedule and here.  You can see a video of a kitten in training for the CFA Feline Agility here.

cat agility

With the insight and right tools, you can train your feline friend to do all of this!  Once you begin training your cat, you will interact in ways you never thought possible.  It’s really quite easy, and it’s FUN for both you and your feline friend!  Clicker training is how you can do it!

cat-training-kit-3

 If you can dream it, you can do it. ― Helen Keller