Eating Can Be Fun! Using Food as Enrichment for Your Pet

Did you know that keeping your pet active, motivated and mentally stimulated can be easily accomplished when feeding becomes an activity and not just a routine?

Environmental Enrichment isn’t just for zoo animals anymore.  The benefits of using food as behavioral enrichment have long been recognized by Veterinarians and Animal Husbandry experts.  For example, many zoos feed captive wild animals in ways that allow them to express natural behaviors of hunting and foraging. Zoos also use behavioral enrichment to prevent animals from getting bored.

Our household pets are highly adapted to living in a variety of environments but they still have many of the same instincts as their wild ancestors.  Prey acquisition and consumption (“hunting”) is one of the most universal behaviors to predators of all species. There are several effective and easy ways you can make feeding your pet both interesting and rewarding so let’s get started!!!

Before you begin, keep in mind that providing your pet with a complete and balanced diet is the cornerstone to a healthy, happy animal.  If you are unsure of the best food type for your pet, ask one of your Veterinary Health Care Team
members for advice.  Does your pet require a special, prescription food for management of chronic disease conditions?  Don’t worry – even pets with special nutritional needs can have their meals enhanced by enrichment activities.

Let’s start thinking “outside of the food bowl.” Animals in the wild can spend up to 80% of their day searching for, acquiring, and eating their food.  Time spent doing these activities means that an animal will maintain a healthy body condition while it’s mind stays very busy, burning a lot of physical and mental energy in the process. Compared to wild animals, the average pet dog and cat spends less than 1% of their day searching for food. Feeding from a bowl encourages concentrated
eating and can often result in over-eating or other problems associated with
rapid consumption of food (such as GDV or “Bloat”). Although your pet is not
a wild animal, it still needs appropriate outlets for expending energy. Most of our domestic dogs and cats have some level of “prey drive” and if that drive is not channeled appropriately, it could lead to behavioral problems.

So, what do you do with the food is it isn’t in a bowl?!?!?!?  The main goals of enrichment feeding are to increase the time it takes for your pet to eat it’s food, and to encourage mental stimulation and physical activity. Many pet product companies make “Activity Toys” that are designed specifically for play and foraging behavior.  Toys such as the “Kibble Nibble” (from Premier Pet Products), “Slim Cat” or the “Buster Cube Dog Toy” are only a few of the many products available that will encourage problem solving activities by your pet.  Toys such as these are designed to work with the typical kibble-style (“dry”) pet foods. Other products, such as “KONG” brand toys are more suited to moist or canned foods that can be stuffed (and even frozen) into the toys.  These products force your pet to spend more time working on eating. Using different types of toys and
alternating how and when you use them, can help prevent your pet from getting
bored.  Just as with food bowls, enrichment toys should be kept clean with warm, soapy water….then rinsed and dried well.

Feeding for enrichment is possible on any budget.  For example, two or more paper towel rolls could be filled with snacks and hidden around the house.  Making a game out of meal-time can also be done if you have stairs in your home or a climbing tree for your cat.  All you need to do is take a few kibbles of food and place them on the stairs or cat tree and “hide” them under a paper Dixie Cup.
Really, you are only limited by your imagination!

Is your pet overweight (like_____% of the pet population)?  Unfortunately, obesity is responsible for numerous illnesses faced by our pets today.  But good news! One of the benefits of enrichment feeding protocols is weight loss!Controlling food intake and increasing your pet’s metabolic rate through regular daily activity are the keys to preventing and treating obesity. Just as with people, eating at a more controlled pace helps your pet feel full and satisfied, slower eating can help that hungry pet of your’s who needs to lose weight.

Is your pet testing your patience by directing it’s extra energy into activities you would rather not deal with?  If so, using and enrichment feeding protocol can help to prevent some common behavioral problems such as:  Separation Anxiety, Inter-pet Aggression or Destructive Actions Due to Boredom.

The great news is that there is no “wrong” way to provide enrichment.  Finding what works best for you and your pet is the key to success.  Here are a few tips to help with the transition.

*Start by choosing one meal per day as an “Enrichment Meal”.  Gradually you
can build up the amount of time and number of activities offered each day (or
each week).  Remember:  “Slow and steady wins the race!”
*Find activities and toys that are easy to work into your own routine and that your pet enjoys.  Enrichment feeding shouldn’t be “work,” it should be fun
for both you and your pet!
*Having several different activities and planning ahead of time helps keep the process simple for you and will help to keep your pet on their toes.
*Be persistent and let creativity be your guide.  It is important to experiment and to know that not everything you try will work.  But don’t give up… Let the excitement of trying new and different things drive your efforts to bring more enrichment to your pet’s life.  And who knows, maybe in the process the ever-important bond between you and your beloved pet may grow even stronger and stronger!

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