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Enriching Your Pet's Life
A Brookfield Zoo Web site Nature Activity
"Mom, Dad, is Rover bored?"

How can we enrich our pet's life--and why should we bother?

Could your dog be bored with its routine? Might your cat be tired of the same old toys? Is it possible to improve the mental health of your bird, hamster, or pet fish? "Yes," says Tim Sullivan, Brookfield Zoošs manager of animal behavior, "it's possible and it's easy!"

Sure, it's important to meet an animal's basic needs of food, water, and shelter. But as Tim says, "to ensure the overall well-being of your pet, it's equally important to create a stimulating environment that challenges the body and mind. There are simple things you can do to improve your pet's quality of life and enjoy your pet even more."

Here are some enrichment ideas zoo staff use at home with their own pets:

  • Tie a cat toy to a fishing line. Cast out the toy and reel it back in.
  • Provide a variety of boxes or paper bags for the cat to investigate.
  • Create a sunning shelf or ledge by a window and hang a bird feeder outside.
  • Use a laser pointer or flashlight to shine a spot on the floor and walls for the cat to chase.
If a bird is an appropriate pet for your family, the zoo recommends cockatiels, zebra finches, parakeets, or canaries.
  • In addition to a balanced diet, offer various foods like cooked or raw pasta, cooked rice, popcorn (hold the butter and salt), and fruits and veggies (offered whole or cut in a variety of shapes).
  • Move the birdšs cage to different rooms and draft-free windows.
  • Hide food in short socks, paper tubes, boxes, or small piles of nontoxic leaves.
  • Vary the route of your daily walk, and drive to a new location once in a while.
  • Hide biscuits or dry dog food around the house or inside a toy.
  • Play fetch with clean, empty two-liter pop bottles. (They crackle and crunch.)
  • Buy sterilized bones at a pet store and fill them with treats.
Snakes and Lizards
If a reptile is an appropriate pet for your family, the zoo recommends corn snakes, rat snakes, bearded dragons, or leopard geckos.
  • Provide branches and ledges for climbing.
  • Hide food in boxes or under paper.
  • If appropriate, provide water for the reptile to swim or soak in.
Rodents and Rabbits
  • Every once in a while, provide a new box, tube, or crate for the pet to hide in.
  • Offer various nesting materials like news-paper, paper towels, grass, and wood chips.
  • Offer pet-store woodblocks and treats for chewing.
  • Provide carrots, lettuce, apples, and raisins. (Ask your pet-store owner about quantities.)
If fish are appropriate pets for your family, the zoo recommends goldfish or freshwater community fish.
  • Move plants and tank "furniture" around, and use different pieces each time you clean the tank. Try this: invite your kids to observe and note any differences in the fishes' behaviors. Do they swim through the new piece?
  • Hang around it? Hide in it?
  • Buy a feeder tube that releases flakes slowly throughout the day.
  • Train your fish to come to a specific spot for food by gently tapping on the glass near where you're going to feed them.

If your pet has followed a routine for a while, add enrichment items slowly, then more frequently. As with children, pets don't need dozens of toys. The important thing is to rotate them-hide them for a few weeks at a time. When you bring them back out, they'll seem brand new to your pet. Have fun experimenting with your own ideas. Enriching your pet's environment can be stimulating for both of you!

Enriching the Lives of Zoo Animals

Ever notice the polar bears chewing through ice blocks to get at fish frozen inside? How about baboons and reindeer investigating fresh branches and logs? Ever see the wolves tossing around clumps of shed camel hair?

Brookfield Zoo, a worldwide leader in the relatively new field of environmental enrichment, has two full-time staff dedicated to implementing this method of improving zoo animals' quality of life. Tim Sullivan manages animal behavior by working with keepers and other staff to develop enrichment and training protocols. Behavioral research manager Sue Margulis works with behaviorists and other staff to study the effects of enrichment on zoo animals.

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