Enrichment for Senior Pets

By Steve Dale, CABC

Zoos have known about enriching the environments and the lives of captive animals for decades. Many of today’s larger zoos even have a full-time employee dedicated to the task of inspiring lives of their residents, ranging from cheetahs to polar bears, to Savannah monitor lizards. A zoo lizard may arguably enjoy an environment that is more enriched than even the most “spoiled” of pets. Spoiling pets is oftentimes a part of the problem.

Most cats are now indoors only (68 percent, American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey 2021-2022) so being run over by a car or run down by a coyote is not likely. However, despite an indoor-only existence, cats are born with a hard-wired prey drive, and they continue to have the need to chase, pounce and kill – even if it is only a mouse toy (Overall, 2013). If we do not properly enrich their environments and satisfy these primal feline needs, we run the risk of bolstering a nation of fat, brain-dead cats.

According to the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, 61 percent of cats are overweight or obese, and 59 percent of dogs (Association of Pet Obesity Prevention). Many of them only get off the sofa for their meals, which is obviously unhealthy.

In cats, there is a correlation between unenriched environments and interstitial cystitis, often dubbed idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) or “Pandora’s syndrome” (Westropp and Buffington, 2004; Herron and Buffington, 2010; Buffington et al., 2014). This uncomfortable or painful condition combined with anxiety may prompt them to eliminate outside their litter boxes. Having “accidents” is a significant cause for breaking of the human–animal bond, and ultimately owner relinquishment. In general, it turns out that enriching the environment is an effective treatment for FLUTD, and this appears to be true no matter how old a cat may be (Westropp and Buffington, 2004; Herron and Buffington, 2010; Buffington et al., 2014). Of course, in older cats arthritis, feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome and underlying kidney disease, hyperthyroid disease and or/other medical issues may contribute to inappropriate elimination, and require appropriate medical attention.

While cats may not more frequently suffer from FLUTD as they age, urinary tract infections are more common – and anxiety may contribute to both conditions.

By any definition, many of today’s dogs are “livin’ the good life.” After all, millennials barely even know what a doghouse is, and today, approximately 46 percent of dogs share our beds (American Pet Products Association). It seems wonderful – and in many ways it is. However, few dogs were bred to live their lives on beds and do little else. Most dogs were bred for a purpose, from retrieving waterfowl to herding sheep to guarding property. And having a purpose in life seems to be healthful in dogs, as it may be in people(Boyle et al., 2012). This purpose in dogs and prey drive in cats doesn’t diminish with age.

Before examining enrichment for pets, it may be helpful to better understand enrichment by offering examples of enrichment at zoos. Zoo enrichment might include PVC piping filled with food, which a giant anteater uses its long sticky tongue to probe for goodies. Cheetahs are inspired to chase and catch a dead chicken pulled across the exhibit on a pulley at a high speed. Talk about your ultimate fish ‘n chips, a polar bear may chip away at a giant ice cube floating in an exhibit with a fish frozen inside it (Steve Ross, personal communication; Shepherdson, 1989, 1998; Schulz, 2004; Baker, n.d; Markowitz, 1982).

Enrichment does not need to be only about food. For example, zoo animals can be offered old rags or burlap sacks infused with different odors. Enriching an environment may also mean offering different textures, and/or varying items to investigate. Orangutans enjoy investigating and methodically taking items apart (Dale and Briere, 1992; Baker, n.d; Markowitz, 1982).

Myriad studies demonstrate that zoo animals benefit physically and mentally from the stimulation provided by an enriched environment. Numerous studies of zoo animals demonstrate that living in unenriched and uninteresting environments is unhealthy; potentially leading to various abnormal behaviors and can play a role in weight gain and general ill health (Dale and Briere, 1992; Shepherdson, 1989, 1998; Baker, n.d; Markowitz, 1982). Also, with less anxiety, there is generally less stress on immune systems, which may contribute to preventing disease onset.

Offering food or treats from toys and food puzzles is one example of enriching companion animals’ lives(Overall, 2013). It turns out that the eagerness to work for food and a preference to problem-solve has been studied in lab animals and many captive zoo animals. This phenomenon, of preferring to work for food rather than eat what is freely available, is called contra-freeloading. (McGowan et al., 2014; Inglis et al., 1997). While there is limited data regarding contra-freeloading in dogs and cats, much less in senior pets, it appears to be a very real phenomenon for many individual companion animals.

Hiding kibble or providing toys may not be stimulating enough for geriatric pets with a compromised sense of smell and taste (Dodman and Lidner, 2012). Bringing out the “good stuff” may be necessary to entice (such as using yogurt, tuna or favorite manufactured treats). Of course, it is not advisable to force an elderly hungry dog or cat to search for food, or to be fed out of food toys if they’re absolutely uninterested, or physically compromised.

Throughout their lives, many dogs enjoy chewing. However, older dogs may be even more inclined to break teeth and/or items may cause stomach upset. Instead of leaving products like antler ears, hooves, hard bones or even rawhide, there are countless “squishy” treats that require some chewing but are not as likely to break teeth or cause damage to the delicate gums. Other possibilities include apple slices (which can be frozen for a “better chew”), mini-carrot sticks, oral hygiene chews, and similar items.  Of course, veterinary advice of what applies to an individual pet is always suggested.

Cognitive enrichment starting early in life may help to protect against the development of early cognitive decline and dementia in some dogs and in people, and therefore one may assume cats as well (Milgram et al., 2006). Enrichment is important for dogs and cats as puppies and kittens; why would it be any less important as they age? Based on personal observations, many people do seem to take their older pets for granted – although I am not suggesting they are loved any less. Often owners assume, “Well, they’re old – let them be,” or because they’re moving less, motivating these older animals may require more effort.

A zookeeper told me how she often would rotate with various animals when she first joined the zoo, filling in wherever she was needed. She maintains that her old little terrier mix was happy to see her return home before she accepted that job, as nearly all dogs are happy to see their people. But once she began at the zoo, the hello consisted of intense and lengthy sniffing, as if to discover, “So today you worked in the bird house?” She told me her new job seemed to give a new purpose to her old dog.

Since pets live by their noses, and even with failing eyesight their sense of smell remains the primary sense, introducing new scents may be fun, or not. For example, anecdotally some cats enjoy lavender, while others actually appear to be disturbed. It turns out the lavender plant itself may be dangerous, and so are the oils in the potpourri (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2017). For most (not all) cats, catnip and/or silvervine can provide a fun release, and valerian root can have calming effects.

Spritzing odors, such as just a little cologne or perfume, near a cat or dog bed or along a baseboard may be “interesting,” although at least one study suggests that cats in particular do not much care (Wells and Ellis, 2010). For dogs (not cats), you can create a foreign exchange program, where clients can borrow a friend’s soft dog toy. It may be more fun to sniff the toy than it is to play with it.

We have all heard stories about how adding a second pet provides a new spark, and the older pet begins to play like a young one. Beware, because adding another pet to a household may be an example of far too much change for a geriatric pet to deal with. A seriously ill pet or a pet in declining health is unlikely to benefit from having another pet. Also, new cats, in particular, must be introduced very gradually into a home with an existing older cat. Having said that, a second pet may be positively enriching.

There’s increasing evidence that stimulation resulting from an enriched environment may delay or even prevent onset on canine or feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (Overall, 2013). For individually social dogs and for people, there is research that demonstrates that socialization, including exercise derived from walks, may help to delay or even prevent deleterious cognitive changes (Overall, 2013; Johnson et al., 2011).

Aging dogs have been used as model for older people. For example, walking turns out to be just as beneficial for older dogs as it is for older people (Overall, 2013; Johnson et al., 2011; Milgram et al., 2006). In fact, a simple walk, especially exploring new neighborhoods, may be the most enriching activity for any dog (Dodman and Lidner, 2011; Johnson et al., 2011). And social dogs benefit by meeting new people and new dogs. While some older dogs may be too impaired for a walk, the walk doesn’t need to break speed or distance records. Or debilitated dogs may even be pushed in a carrier or wagon (Johnson et al., 2011).

Motor learning (as opposed to mere motor activity) may increase synapse formation in the cerebellar cortex in rats(Milgram et al., 2006). One might assume the same is true for dogs and cats – learning does not need to ever stop.

For years, independent living centers for seniors have encouraged adult continued education, such as learning computer skills or how to play chess, as well as encouraging movement through exercise classes. Studies support that these activities are beneficial for both the mental and physical health of residents (Winsted et al., 2014). Dog and cat brains operate in a similar way to human brains (Landsberg et al., 2013).  New challenges are important. That old axiom from grandpa turns out to be right, when he said, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” No wonder, so many facilities continue to support funding for these activities because of the results they witness. There are numerous studies to support the notion that laughter is, as the old expression goes, the best medicine (Mayo Clinic, 2016). If that is the case in people, might the same be true for dogs or cats? Perhaps an antidote to illnesses associated in aging pets is simply to encourage them to have a good time with a tug toy or squeaky mouse. Fun matters!