Enrichment for the Kenneled Pet
By Colleen Koch, DVM and Valarie V. Tynes DVM, DACVB
Changes in routine and being away from home can be stressful, even for the seasoned traveler. When a pet is away from home, they must adjust not only to a new bed, new routine, and different caretakers but also to the smells of unfamiliar animals making noises that they may find distressing. Some pets are placed in very “sterile” cages because of their chewing habits and the concern that they may ingest their bedding or toys. How can we make them feel at home or at least make them feel more comfortable while they are in our care?
All pets need food; why not combine their food with a way to encourage them to play and give them something that is constructive to do? If a pet is busy eating, it is less likely to be howling, meowing, squawking, or grunting, which may result in more stress for the rest of the guests. Part of the intake process should include inquiring about and documenting any food allergies or sensitivities that the pet may have. All clients should be encouraged to provide a supply of their pets’ favorite food and treats.
Providing toys that are safe helps each pet pass the time in productive ways and keeps them mentally stimulated when their environment may limit physical exercise. If your pet palace allows the animals to run together for exercise or play, a quick and easy way to get them back into their evening space is to use a food puzzle. Not all dogs enjoy interacting with other dogs; for these animals and other species that cannot safely interact, food puzzles are an excellent source of entertainment for the kenneled animal.
Food puzzles do not have to be expensive or elaborate. Some of the best food puzzles are homemade and disposable, making them perfect for the pet hospitality industry. Cardboard rolls from toilet paper, paper towels, and wrapping paper can be filled with food and served fresh or frozen. The “tubes of fun food” are useful for a variety of pets including dogs, cats, ferrets, pigs, birds, and rodents. The tubes can be made ahead of time and frozen. When you are ready to feed them to the pet, add a small dab of fresh food on the ends to encourage the pets to shred, eat, or forage for the food. Many cats, dogs, rodents, and birds enjoy tearing up paper—why not use those empty rolls and recycle them for fun?
All types of cardboard boxes can be used for enrichment. Cereal boxes are easy to recycle into food puzzles. For cats, add a little shredded paper inside and mix with their kibble and bits of shredded meat or other appropriate cat treats. Cutting a few small holes in the box may help the cats figure out the puzzle more quickly. The cats will love digging about in the box and pulling the shredded paper and food out. For dogs, simply put the food inside and close the lid. The pup will have a great time destroying the box to get the food on the inside. Birds and rodents also enjoy foraging for food; use either the dog or cat technique, and they will skillfully destroy the box and have a great time doing it. Of course there is bound to be a mess from all of this box shredding. The bigger the mess, the more fun the pet had getting to the buried treasure. Sweeping up pieces of cardboard is likely to be less work than dealing with animals exhibiting high levels of stress-related behaviors such as excessive vocalization and possibly even diarrhea.
If you would rather avoid the mess, there are more durable, washable food dispensing options. PVC pipe* is inexpensive and easily cleaned in the dishwasher. “T” or “Y” joints can be used the same way you would fill a Kong with soft food. Take a PVC pipe, drill holes in the sides, and add end caps to create a rolling kibble or pellet dispenser. Attached to the top or side of the cage with zip ties, these devices can create long-lasting treats that can be refilled on the fly. The great thing about PVC pipe is that the tube and fittings can be adjusted to make it an easy dispenser or more difficult by adding a racquetball, golf whiffle ball, or other object in the pipe so the animal has to work harder to get the food out.
Kong toys are another durable option. These can be stuffed and frozen with a variety of treats or food. Kong Wobblers and PetSafe’s Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble can be used for feeding a variety of species. While many of the food puzzles are marketed for dogs and cats, pigs and rodents enjoy these feeders as well! In addition, Kongs are also dishwasher safe!
Water bottles and milk jugs also work well as inexpensive and disposable food puzzles or toys. Simply fill a clean plastic bottle with kibble and cut a few holes in the side. If the pet has never used a food puzzle before, please make sure there are a lot of holes so that any interaction with the “toy” will result in a jackpot of food. It is important to make sure the plastic rings on the top of the bottles are removed and to watch all new pets to make sure they play with the puzzle and do not chew through it, consuming the plastic in their efforts to get to the food.*
Muffin tins and egg cartons are also easy to convert into food puzzles. Simply fill the “cups” with kibble and place a ball on top of each “cup.” The ball will need to be an appropriate size and type for that particular species (dogs, cats, pigs, rodents) so there is no concern that they will accidentally choke on the ball.
Filling food-dispensing toys can be a time-consuming endeavor. To facilitate the filling of Kongs, toilet paper rolls, and PVC toys, sausage guns make the job a lot easier. Multiple guns filled with a variety of different “toppings” such as canned food, Braunschweiger (liverwurst), chicken paste, peanut butter, cottage cheese, applesauce, yogurt, fruit, or any other species-appropriate treats add another element to the enrichment. Funnels make short work of filling water bottles, milk jugs, and boxes with kibble.
For most pets, simply using their regular ration to fill the food puzzles can be very enriching. Some pets may initially need to have a higher value food placed in the food puzzles in order to get them interested in “playing” this new game. Unfortunately not all pets have had the opportunity to play with food puzzles, while others who may be very skilled at using food puzzles may be too distressed about being in a strange place to work even the simplest puzzle. Adding a high value treat will encourage them to work the puzzle and should help decrease their stress.
Spending time away from the family can be stressful, but thanks to a few simple inexpensive toys, we can help boarded or kenneled pets pass the time in a safe and stress-free manner. Your clients will be impressed and will remember the facility that makes the extra effort to ensure that their pet’s boarding experience is as pleasant as possible.
*Cardboard should be safe for all species. Plastic bottles, milk jugs, and PVC are generally safe unless a pet ingests pieces of the plastic. If they are small pieces, they should pass without harm. Large pieces could be problematic. It is important to remove empty food puzzles as soon as possible and limit the time all of these items are left with unattended animals.
Dr. Colleen Koch graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. In the fall of 2013, she began her Behavior Residency under the mentorship of Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Valarie Tynes of Sweetwater, Texas. Her goal is to provide owners with the best care possible for their pet’s behavioral problems in a humane and respectful manner. The restoration of the human animal bond through education of the public, pet professionals, and veterinary professionals about the causes and treatment of behavior problems is equally important. Dr. Colleen practices general and behavioral medicine in Central Illinois.
Dr. Valarie Tynes attended Texas A&M University and received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1987. She completed her residency in Clinical Animal Behavior at the University of California at Davis in 2003. She is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a frequent speaker at professional meetings around the world. She currently provides consulting services for zoos, pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians, and pet owners.