Zoo Animal Enrichment Activities Can Work for Your Pets

I'm training Brewner to be a service dog.
I’m training Brewner to be my service dog. Here he is during his first training session at the Zoo.  You may see him here in the future.

Many households in America cannot imagine their home without the four-legged member of their family.  In a lot of cases, that member happens to be a dog.  And while most dog owners take wonderful care of their dogs, many would be surprised to hear that their dogs would still benefit from and appreciate additional mental stimulation.  If fun challenges are not provided for a dog, most will decide to create their own.  And unfortunately, owners and dogs tend to disagree on what is classified “fun.”  Many dogs want to naturally use their senses to hunt and forage for food and this simple instinct is commonly taken away from them because most pets tend to be fed out of bowls.

Contrary to popular belief, I personally think that no dog should be fed out of bowl (unless medically necessary).

How on earth do you feed your dog if you can’t use a bowl???

Here at the Cincinnati Zoo the amazing keepers spend much of their time trying to find creative ways of keeping our animals mentally and physically satisfied, through enrichment.  This can be a very difficult task with some of our extremely intelligent animals, however, it’s also one of the most entertaining and satisfying parts of a keeper’s job.

Daily feeding time is one of the easiest ways to enrich our animals.  Some animals will get their breakfast scattered or hidden throughout their enclosure, while others are given toys that they have to play with to get their breakfast to fall out.  That being said, enrichment is not just for zoo animals – many people forget that they can enrich their pet’s life too!

Chester the spectacled bear enjoys a watermelon
Chester the spectacled bear enjoys a watermelon

“Chester”, our Andean spectacled bear, is a wonderful example of an animal that loves his puzzle feeder.  Several days a week Chester’s favorite treats and breakfast items are given to him from inside a simple feeder toy.  Solving the puzzle feeder can sometimes take him 45 minutes of constantly moving and thinking to get his breakfast.  Chester uses his natural instincts to hunt and forage and this satisfies many of his desires  – simply through taking one additional step to feed him.

When it comes to your pets at home you can do the same thing we do with Chester.  You can feed your dog or cat from a puzzle toy.  There are many that are wonderful, such as all of the Premier Pet Products, Starmark, and Kong to name a few.  Place your pet’s dry kibble into the feeding toy and place the toy in whichever room you prefer them to eat in.  I prefer it to be on a hard surface, so they don’t get kibble and saliva on the carpet.  But, it is up to you.

Some toys can be difficult so it’s important that you start with a fairly easy toy, so your dog is rewarded (with food!) more often. Gradually, you can work up to a more difficult toy.  This activity should take your dog 20-40 minutes of constantly moving and thinking before it is complete.  If it’s easier than that, you should probably look at other toys or more unique ways to feed your dog (some ideas will be covered later on this blog).

If you need more ideas please feel free to comment and tell me about your issues/concerns. I hope you enjoy spending time with your pet and choosing to more thoroughly enrich their lives.