Cats and Claws Belong Together!

 

cat paw black cat

The title of this post was a declaration made by a brilliant and highly respected behaviorist at Positive Cattitudes.

She was referring to cats who have been forced to have their digits removed.

Yes, you read that correctly.   It’s 2016, yet house cats, exotic cats, and other animals are still being forced to have their claws removed.   Take heed my friends:  the claw is only part of the picture.  The word “declawing”  is actually a fancy name for “de-toeing.”

declaw_what-happens-when-cats-are-declawed_the-truth-about-declawing_amputation

This medical procedure is still practiced by veterinarians! And it’s legal!

Declawing (or deknuckling) is thankfully, banned in many countries, including Switzerland, Israel,  Australia, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom.  Yet only ten cities in the United States have banned the barbaric practice.  But thanks to informed animal guardians, and advances in behavioral and medical science, this barbaric and outdated procedure may come to an end in other, progressive areas of our nation.

New York could be the first state to make it illegal to declaw cats and other animals.

Last year Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill (A.1297) which would make New York the first state in the nation to ban declawing.  The New York declawing bill would ban the procedure unless it is done to remove a tumor or for other medical reasons. The bill is now being reviewed in committee hearings.

State veterinarians have opposed the bill, insisting that decision on declawing should be left to the owners and medical professionals.

But we believe otherwise.

Cats need their claws.  They have a right to keep their claws.  And as animal guardians, we need to understand why.


 

What’s The Big Fuss About?

Cats’ claws play important roles in various aspects of their lives.  I have written about this topic at length before.   I invite you to learn why so many concerned cat-loving citizens are taking a stand to ensure that cats keep their claws.   The facts cannot be ignored:  there are countless  medical, physical, and behavioral complications of declawing.

A.1297 explains the justification for the bill: 

Cats use their claws to assist in climbing and maintaining balance, to help them fully stretch, to relieve stress through kneading, and to escape danger. When a person has its animal declawed, usually in an attempt to protect furniture, they do fundamental damage to that animal both physically and in behavioral ways. There are harmless ways to manage undesirable behavior through simple training and other established methods.

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, involves the removal of all or most of the last bone of each of the toes of the front feet, and tendons, nerves and ligaments that allow for normal function of the paw are severed, resulting in intense and chronic pain and other serious medical issues. Flexor tendonectomy, in which cats’ toes are cut so that claws cannot be extended also imperils their health and safety. Abscess-
es often develop as the area comes into contact with dirt or litter, and sometimes regrowth can occur spontaneously resulting in sharp pain or  infection.

After the claws are removed, the animal tends to shift its gait and where it places most of its weight, causing strain on its leg joints and spine, which can lead to early onset arthritis and prolonged back and joint pain. Declawed cats often develop behavioral problems that lead to their being surrendered to animal shelters where they are, for the most part, not adoptable.

 


Become An Informed Animal Guardian.

The article,  The War Over DeClawing Moves to New York ,  will change they way you think of cats and their right to keep their much-needed claws.   Some of the professional comments at the end of the article are insightful as well.   In fact, there is one comment in particular that I agree whole hardheadedly about.  It was written by my friend and colleague, Jacqueline Munera.   I invite you to read what she recently shared about this very important discussion:

I am a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and a large percent of my cases involve declawed cats. 100% of my clients did not recognize the signs that their cat was in pain until I pointed it out to them. These are wonderful owners who love their cats very much and they had no idea how much pain their cats were suffering. Most are heartbroken that they didn’t realize their cats are in pain. Some had the cats declawed, others adopted or rescued them and they were already declawed. Additionally, many of these cats had recently been given the medical “all clear” by their vets before they saw me for the behavior issue. This means that the vet also either didn’t recognize the signs of problems related to declawing or decided that the signs were not important enough to raise red flags.

Obviously, I also work with some fantastic vets that notice the issue and treat it as best as they can. This is VERY expensive and can include further surgery to remove nail re-growth under the skin, clean out infected pus pockets, possibly cutting more tendons in order to free up frozen joints, etc. It can also involve physical therapy and laser treatments. At minimum, these cats require appropriate pain medicines and adjuncts like Adequan, usually for the rest of their life. They also often require more expensive litters or materials that are softer on their paws. Many times the environment needs to modified as well to prevent as much jumping force as possible (e.g. cat stairs, ramps, mats and padded materials).

This procedure is listed as a “procedure of last resort”, however it is well known that this is not how it is actually provided. Therefore, vets (some of them) have proven that they are incapable of self-monitoring. Admittedly, there are many psychological and false logic reasonings for this. Most vets do believe they are saving that cat’s life. Unfortunately, data from animal shelters and related facilities prove that this is not the case. They believe that if they don’t do it, someone else will and won’t do as good a job. That may certainly be true in some cases, however, that excuse just doesn’t work when you are dealing with something that is so potentially harmful. Almost all of my clients state that they would not have had the procedure done if they had the information that I provided them, which their vets did not. This is certainly a skewed population (people that care enough and have enough patience and money to pay for an expert to help solve their cat behavior challenge), however, if these people would have changed their minds, then that argues for the case that there is a population out there that would do the same if given the opportunity by their vet.

And lastly, for those who state “It should be decided by the pet owner” and “keep government out of our lives, blah blah blah”… In many cases, we don’t leave abusive activities up to the individual to decide to do and we will stay out of it. This is particularly true when the individual has a responsibility to care for another individual that is incapable of caring for themselves (e.g. senior, child, PET). Sure you can decide to lock your child in a closet and starve them, but if you get caught, that means the old government is going to step in and punish you (hopefully). Too many pet owners and veterinarians have proven incapable of making the correct choice to the benefit of the cats. Therefore, someone else has to step in and help them make the right choice by taking away the possibility of utilizing the harmful choice of mutilating a living creature’s feet.

P.S. I’m adding a thank you to all of the wonderful owners, veterinary professionals and humans of all types that agree that cats and claws belong together! Purrrs to you!


 

Complications Hidden In Plain Sight

As a behavior consultant who works closely with families who are concerned with frustrating animal behavioral issues in their home, I see the all too common connection between what pet owners decide to do for convenience sake, or “as a last resort”, but they fail to see the larger picture; medical issues and behavioral issues are often intertwined.  A quick fix is never the solution.  And a “simple” medical procedure such as declawing often later becomes a complicated mess in the home, hidden behind a myriad of behavioral issues.  As Jacqueline explains, there are times when we need legal oversight to ensure that our animal family members are protected.  I agree.  My hope is that the bill will be passed and this will be the last time we talk about this outdated, risky, and inhumane procedure.

 

Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them.    ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine

dennis
Dr. Dennis Turner from the Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology is fighting to help all felines keep their claws.

Don’t Give Up on Your Cat and His/Her Claws!

Do you feel like declawing is “your last resort”?  Please don’t give in to the justification for declawing, and don’t give up on your feline family member.  There are many other humane options!   The four cats that we have shared a home with all have their claws intact.   Have we had any issues in the past with undesirable scratching in our home?  Sure.  It’s what cats need to do.   But I didn’t chop off their toes because of it.  We compromised.  And I taught my cats where and what to scratch on.  I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences, and their individual thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch inappropriately.  It’s humane.  It’s fun.  It works.  And you can do this too!  Don’t give up.  Find a qualified feline behaviorist to help guide you and your feline family members.   You can create a harmonious home.

declaw-my-cat_why-not-to-declaw-your-cat


Recommended Reading

Why Cats Scratch:

Physical Consequences of Declawing

Alternatives to Declawing

Alternatives to declawing (2nd article)

Does your scratching post measure up?

ANTI-DECLAWING LEGISLATION

Let Us Do No Harm From This Day On

“Cats are sentient beings who deserve to be respected. “

Save The Paw!

The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” ― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

declaw my cat_why not to declaw your cat

Have you had an experience that changed the way you once viewed something? Have you ever known in your gut that something you were watching unfold or helping with seemed ”so right” to everyone else, but it felt so wrong to you?  I’ve had this experience more than once, and I would like to talk to you about it today.

This is not a feel-good story, but it’s one that needs to be shared.

From the age of 14 to 17, I worked and volunteered at local veterinary clinics in Orlando Florida, where my family lived at the time.   I worked closely with pets that people brought in for boarding, minor procedures, and major surgeries.  Even though I was young, the staff let me work alongside of them for many of the procedures.  This was in the 90s, so veterinary staff were much more lax about safety procedures than now.  Some of the procedures were fascinating.  Some were bloody and heart wrenching.

As a teenager, and later as an adult, I had an all inclusive pass and a front row seat to participate in tail and ear dockings and amputations.  Tail and ear docking was considered “minor” surgery, but what I witnessed as a post-op staff was not “minor.”  The harmless-sounding term “declawing” was used to hide what amounted to an amputation procedure.   You might raise an eyebrow reading that because these procedures are something we hear about often, so they seem rather innocuous.  I am here to tell you from first hand experience: declawing is not a minor, harmless procedure.  Onychectomies (declawing of cats) is quite controversial, and quite complicated.

declawing cats procedure

Experience Changes Perception

During my teenage veterinary life chapter and my post college veterinary school chapter I witnessed and participated in many things involving or resulting from decalwing.  It always felt wrong to me, despite the docs who quickly dismissed my questions and concerns.  None of what I saw was positive.  I saw cats in pain, cats sick from the procedure, cats later euthanized due to major complications post-surgery, and I saw cat owners devastated because of the uninformed decision they made for their cats.  I have even known cougars who had been declawed out of safety for humans, but ended up living a life dominated by physical pain and discomfort.  Fast forward to today.  Now I help people who made the decision to declaw their cats (either out of convenience or because of a veterinarian’s recommendation to solve undesirable scratching behavior), but now they have more issues because of declawing their cats.  I share this with you today because tomorrow is Declaw Awareness Day.  This is your chance to spread the word and become involved.   

Educations spreads Awareness. Awareness breeds compassion


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DECLAWING

 Declawing is NOT a “Kitty Manicure” 

People often are often misled to believe that declawing is a harmless procedure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Declawing is the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges (toe bones) and the attached claws.  If this surgery was done on a human, it would be like cutting off each finger or toe at the last knuckle.

declawed cat claws

Onychectomy is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery. ~ AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

cat declaw like human amputation

Feline Fact:  Cats claws are NOT like our fingernails.

Cat-Declawing

How Declawing Is Performed 

The standard method of declawing is amputating with a scalpel or guillotine clipper.  The wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue, and the feet are bandaged.  I had the job of doing the “kitty super glue” when I assisted veterinarian staff as a teenager.  Laser surgery is another way this procedure is done.  I helped during the post-op procedures for this technique at the Louisiana State University Veterinary Teaching School.  A beam of light cuts through tissue by heating and vaporizing it.  This procedure still amputates the last toe bone of the cat and carries the same long-term risks as the other method.

declaw_what happens when cats are declawed_the truth about declawing_amputation

 Feline Fact:  At least 22 countries have banned declawing.


A Cat’s Anatomy Matters

Did you know that cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes?  As a cat walks or runs, he/she will usually retract their claws into sheaths, leaving behind just the smooth, small toes and footpad.  Humans and bears are plantigrade mammals.  We walk on the soles of our feet, with the toes only touching the ground briefly toward the end of each step.

Declawing Complications

Once a cat is declawed, it changes the way a cat can move.  There can also be a regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage, and bone spurs.  A cat’s leg muscles and back muscles can weaken over time. This can lead to back and joint pain.

Clawed-vs-Declawed-Toes _cats Declawing

Removing claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to that which humans experience when wearing a very uncomfortable pair of shoes

Medical Complications of Declawing:

  • pain in the paw
  • infection
  • tissue necrosis (tissue death)
  • lameness
  • nerve damage
  • bone chips that prevent healing
  • postoperative hemorrhage
  • regrowth of the claws inside the paw pads.

Behavioral and Physical Complications of Declawing:

  • Many cats are less likely to use the litter box due to pain after being declawed.
  • Most cats are more likely to bite because they no longer have their claws for defense.
  • There are long lasting physical problems for your cat.

 Feline Fact: Declawing changes the way the cat’s paws function, and this creates stress on the joints of the paw, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and spine.


Why Cats NEED Their Claws

1. Offense and Defense – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her arsenal for offense and defense. Did you know:

  • Cats use their claws to capture prey (toys or real prey)
  • Cats use their claws to settle disputes among themselves, other animals, and with people who are hurting, threatening, or annoying them.
  • Cats who need to climb to safe place use their claws to grip onto the surface and pull themselves up to safety.

2. Health and Habits – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her daily rituals.  Cats instinctually pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer resistance (trees, logs, rugs, scratching posts, etc.) They do this to mark territory, exercise and stretch muscles, relieve stress, and to remove worn sheaths from the nails.

declaw_why cats need their claws

Scratching Serves Many Purposes.

Despite what you may believe, cats don’t’ scratch your furniture or other personal items to “get back at you”.  Cats have a biological (physical and emotional) need to do this behavior!  Scratching is a very normal and healthy behavior.   There is another popular misconception that cats scratch to sharpen their nails.  This is not true.   Cats scratch for a variety of very important reasons:

 Why Cats Scratch:kitten-with-scratchpost

  • To communicate; scratching on surfaces deposits pheromones that send messages to other cats.
  • To condition the claws by removing aged cuticles
  • To serve as a visual territorial marker
  • To defend themselves
  • To stretches the muscles of the limbs, thorax, and back
  • To express joy, excitement, frustration, stress, and as a displacement behavior

Experts Weigh-In on Declawing

Read what the respected feline veterinarians and animal welfare organizations have to say about this declawing:

The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their guardians. The only circumstance in which the procedure could be condoned would be if the health and safety of the guardian would be put at risk, as in the case of individuals with compromised immune systems or illnesses that cause them to be unusually susceptible to serious infections.

 The Humane Society of the United States opposes declawing except for the rare cases when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumors.


Feline expert Dr. Margie Scherk shares her experience and thoughts on the issue:


Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them. ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine

The American Association of Feline Practitioners statement on declawing (PDF) 

The AVMA’s Policy on Cat Declawing and what’s actually Involved (video)



Is declawing bad for cats AND YOU?  You bet.  Jackson Galaxy sets the record straight:



Alternatives to Declawing

Sometimes, people feel like there is no other option but to remove a cat’s claws.  Thankfully, many progressive and humane veterinarians are now teaching their clients about other humane and respectful methods for managing destructive clawing and to prevent injury from cat scratches.  Here are just a few alternatives to declawing:


Facts Aren’t Enough

I was going to simply share the facts about declawing along with the humane alternatives and just keep it at that, but as I write this I am moved to share more.  I have three cats laying around me right now.  All of them have their claws intact.  Have we had issues with scratching in the home before?  Sure. It’s what cats need to do.  But I didn’t chop off their toes because of unwanted scratching.  I taught my cats where and what to scratch on.  I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences and thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch me, our house guests, each other, or the dog.  I teach my clients, family, and friends how to do this as well.  It’s humane. It’s fun. And it works.

The Bigger Picture

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time know that I steer on the positive side of things.  I do my best to not judge, and I focus on compassionate education.  But I have to ask: Who do we think we are to do this to cats?  Why do we think it’s perfectly acceptable to amputate an animal’s body part because it makes our lives easier?  How did we get to this point with the animals we invited into our lives?  Will we continue to do this procedure without exploring other options?  How did the disconnect happen between caring for our cats and fully honoring them for who they are?  When did we choose to overlook their emotional and physical needs?  Who are we to decide that this procedure is justifiable? We would never consider doing this to a child if there was a behavioral issue; we would look into every other option available. Are cats considered less than deserving of the same treatment?

I understand these are tough questions, but they need to be asked, and we need to take an honest look at all of this.

Before you make the decision to amputate your cat’s toes, try humane alternatives.  There are too many available to ignore.  Choose wisely.  My cats are family.  Are yours?

Declaw awareness_why not to declaw cats
Me and Knox

 When we understand that all animals are our relatives, perhaps then we will treat them as our brothers and sisters. ~ A.D. Williams


Recommended Reading

Read This Before Declawing Your Cat

Think Twice Before You Declaw

Declawing: Another Veterinarian’s Perspective

Physical Consequences of Declawing

Declawing Cats Required to Rent?

Paw Project Movie on Netflix

Relief for Declawed Cats

Chronic Pain of Declawing

The Paw Project

Welfare Implications of Declawing of Domestic Cats

don't declaw_save the paw_Conscious Companion_Declaw awareness day

Clicking with Cats!

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.  Isaac Asimov

how to train a cat

Who says you can’t train cats??
… A lot of people.

Most people I meet (even my cat and dog clients) believe you can’t train cats to do a darn thang.   Here’s the truth: Folks who believe this are not properly communicating with the cat, they’re not listening to the cat, and they’re not reinforcing the right behaviors.  Also, they have yet to learn that cats are crazy cool, wicked smart, and very easy to train.  But I have hope for the nonbelievers.

One of my clients is a believer; she is seeing the proof in action.  She also has an advantage because she is very familiar with the world of felines.  She works at one of the best cat veterinary practices, Just Cats Clinic.  Taking into account the needs of my client, the cats’ needs, and what I see possible, my client and I have been working together to create consistency, health, harmony, and a lot of fun in her life … and the life of three of her cats, Coco, Brighton and Disco.

Brighton and Teri_Cat Clicker Training
This clever kitty and their dedicated person say You Can train cats!

Coco and Brighton are two of three cats in my client’s home who are learning various behaviors, all with the help of clicker training and target training.  Coco is 9 years of age and Brighton is 8 years of age.  They are a breed of cat called the Cornish Rex.  If you haven’t heard of the Cornish Rex, they are very cool cats. They’re incredibly affectionate and very clever. –Check ’em out here.

Coco has a book out right now, so she and her person travel a lot for book signings, and meet and greets.  This training program is geared toward helping Coco to feel safe, secure and content, while creating a better connection with the people who come to see her.  This training process is also teaching Coco’s person to recognize when Coco has had enough during her public appearances.  Brighton and Disco (the male cats) don’t have a book deal, but they are just as eager to learn new behaviors.  Clicker training and target training are allowing all of this to happen!

clicker training for cats_how to train your cat
Coco and her person learning together

Cats of Any Age Can Learn

Do you have an older cat?  Do your friends or family members live with an older cat?  Please share this with them: If you believe that an older cat cannot be trained, have fun in his/her senior years or learn new behaviors, think again.  Cats of all ages are capable of learning.  Just ask our senior cats Beaux and Albert, or Brighton and Coco!

Ok, so you can’t ask them, but I am here to tell you that older/mature cats are easily trained, enjoy learning new behaviors, and they need this kind of mental and physical stimulation.  This kind of training changes your life and their life, far beyond what you thought was possible.


Feline Fact:  Older cats (7-10 years) are considered “mature” or “middle age”. “Senior” cats are 11-14 years of age.


senior cats_how to train my cat
My client working on new behaviors with Brighton before she heads off to work for the day

There is more to come about what we are training these clever cats, what they are teaching us, how we do it, and how you can do it, too!  Be sure to stay tuned!


Time spent with a cat is never wasted. ― Colette


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!

 

More Please! … Please Stop!

Petting: to stroke, caress, fondle, or pat an animal affectionately

I can certainly do without that “F word”, but you get the idea of what petting is. We all love to pet our animals. It makes us feel good. It relaxes us, and it increases our mood. But what exactly is it doing to, or for, our animals?

Anyone that has ever met a cat knows that felines can be particularly sensitive to petting. It matters to the cat who’s doing the petting, how they are petting, and for how long the petting lasts. If you are unsure when to stop petting, a cat will tell you when you are done, usually well before you are ready to stop petting him or her.

CAT:  You failed to notice that I wanted you to stop petting me, so here is how I tell you that you can stop petting me NOW.
CAT: You failed to notice that I wanted you to stop petting me, so this is how I tell you that you can stop petting me NOW.

If you really think about it, humans (especially those of us who know what they like) are not that different from cats.  I don’t like to be manhandled. I don’t enjoy being touched by strangers without being asked first. I like my personal space. If I don’t like the way someone is massaging my back or neck, you can bet that I will ask him or her to stop. Usually I don’t bite. Cats know what they like and don’t like, and they have no problem telling us. I adore them for that very reason.

Last week there was a lot of discussion around this very subject.  It centered around a study published recently in the journal “Physiology & Behavior” suggesting that petting cats in general can actually stress them out!  The study was conducted by animal behavior experts from Brazil, Austria and Britain. They examined whether cats living in multi-cat households are more stressed than cats housed singly. The researchers found that cats release hormones linked to anxiety when handled by humans.  Many media outlets responded to the study with an interpretation of the results and published articles titled “Cats Hate to be Stroked”.

I was a bit surprised, believing this scientific article to be true, but I kept rolling it over and over in my head. I kept trying to correlate the article to all four of our cats, and it didn’t seem to add up.  Only two of the four cats in our home have ever shown that they are stressed from being petted, and that was usually when “the “petter” was not aware that the cat was already wound tightly, or stressed from other stimuli in the home.  The other two love to be petted 24/7, no matter what is happening in their environment. So what gives?

To the relief of conscious cat guardians everywhere, who thought they would have to keep their hands off their felines, one of the study’s authors quickly issued a release retracting her conclusion.  The co-author, Rupert Palme of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, explains: “As a matter of fact, the majority of the cats enjoyed being stroked. Only those animals that did not actually like to be stroked, but nevertheless allowed it, were stressed.” She explained that the study had been misinterpreted and assured cat guardians that they “can carry on stroking their four-legged friends without worry.”  Good to know.

John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense was recently interviewed by National Geographic and he explained, “I think what they have shown is that there are some kinds of cats that are very anxious about something, and you pick that up from the stress hormones they are excreting as well as the fact that they are very nervous when they are being stroked. They aren’t stressed because they are being stroked; they are stressed because something in their lives is making them very twitchy and very apt to overreact to things. But [the researchers] weren’t able to pinpoint what that was.”

 

“Cats are in no way generally stressed when they are stroked. It depends much more on the situation and the character of the individual animal.” ~ Professor Rupert Palme

The Updated and Corrected Summary of How Petting Affects Felines:

  • Every cat feels and reacts differently
  • The majority of cats like to be stroked

If you are a cat guardian, you probably already know those two facts.

Every cat is unique, so we must interact with them as individuals. Each cat has certain preferences
Every cat is unique, so we must interact with them as individuals. Each cat has preferences.

“It seems that those cats on whom the owner imposes him or herself are the ones we need to be most concerned about.” ~Professor Daniel Mills

Now, I must mention that petting a cat may seem like a fairly simple thing to do, but there is much more to it than you think.  Jackson Galaxy, TV star and cat behaviorist, offers his tips on how to ensure that petting a cat will be enjoyable for everyone involved.  You will see in the video below that there is no mindless full-body petting, and he is aware of where she enjoys to be touched. He also asks permission several ways.

The dog may be wonderful prose, but only the cat is poetry.

~French Proverb