Exercising the mind, as well as the body

We understand the importance of physical exercise to keep our pets healthy. It’s easy to forget the importance of exercising the mind.

Wild animals spend time finding food, avoiding being eaten, finding safe places to rest and looking for mates. For pets, we make life very easy – a comfy bed, tasty meals and even in some cases mates are presented. This under-stimulation can lead to boredom and problem behaviour.

We run the risk that they will find ways to amuse themselves – digging, chewing, barking or howling. Bored pets are also more likely to become overweight and develop health problems.

There is a science devoted to spicing up their lives, known as Environmental Enrichment. It includes all the senses so consider how our homes smell, sound, look, taste and feel for pets.

Social interaction is important and sometimes a companion is good, but think carefully as not every pet craves company. Spend time interacting with your animal and regularly re-visit basic training – all species can learn basic commands and ‘tricks’.

Instead of presenting food in a bowl, scatter it in the grass, on the carpet, or behind the curtain, etc. Hide vegetables among tubes stuffed with hay for rabbits. Cats go wild for a prawn wrapped in greaseproof paper and tied to a fishing-rod toy. There are commercial activity feeders available and an internet search will reveal guides on making your own.

Chewing is important for dogs, providing relief from anxiety and boredom. Provide safe targets, such as nylon bones or edible chews. For dogs who enjoy digging, put a bucket into the ground, drop in a treat and cover with soil. Gradually make it deeper each time. Pack a cardboard box with newspaper and wrap treats in parcels.

Rabbits and other small herbivores need toys that allow them to dig, chew, chin-mark and jump. Mirrors, tunnels, platforms and shredded paper will all be relished in addition to activity feeding.

Cats have a strong motivation to hunt. Provide a variety of toys in different textures. Fishing poles, crinkly, furry, squeaky etc. Keep them interesting by only offering one at a time and hide them in boxes with paw-sized ‘peep-holes’.

Cat trees and hammocks provide 3D interest. Scratching posts are useful, but they must allow the cat to reach at full stretch to be appreciated.

Buy a book, explore the internet or ask your vet for more ideas.

By Carolyn Danbury, Vet.