Wild at Heart: Why Enrichment is Essential for Your Pet's Well-Being

You've probably heard of the term "environmental enrichment". Most people associate environmental enrichment with captive animals, such as those living in zoos and aquariums, but did you know that environmental enrichment is important for your pet's well-being and welfare too?

A body of research from ethology, animal science and veterinary science has clearly demonstrated that animals have behavioural needs and that certain innate behaviours, such as nest building in birds, are highly motivated. In addition, neuroscience shows us that animal brains have complex emotional systems that serve as motivators for behaviour. The core emotional systems include seeking (novelty), fear, panic (e.g. separation stress), rage, lust, caring (e.g. nurturing young) and play (Morris et al 2014).

Chew toys are a great form of enrichment for dogs

What is Environmental Enrichment?

Broadly speaking, environmental enrichment involves the practice of increasing the physical, social and temporal complexity of captive environments (Carlsbad & Stepherdson, 2000).

Wild at Heart

Our modern day companion animals are relatives of wild species and, more recently, breeds originally developed to perform work such as herding, hunting guarding and retrieving. Despite this fact, when choosing their next animal companion, many people do not consider the breed or species-specific behaviour of the animal, rather their choice is made on the basis of appearance or the perceived status the pet will bring them (Whelan, 2010).

What are "species-specific behaviours?" Species-specific behaviours are actions and behaviours that animals have evolved to perform or carry out. They include things like foraging or hunting for food, establishing and maintaining a territory and protecting their territory from intruders. To provide appropriate environmental enrichment it's crucial that the natural history and behaviour of the breed or species is well understood. Cats and dogs are both members of the order Carnivora and they share species-specific behaviours similar to their wild counterparts. Similarly, companion parrots also share the same species-specific behaviours as their wild living relatives.
Many wild-living cat species are arboreal (live in trees)

As with captive exotic animals, laboratory animals and livestock, our pets are also captive animals living by the constraints we place on them. Even though we provide them with everything they need to survive (i.e. food, water, shelter, vet care etc) we often don't realise they retain the instincts and desires to perform, and need outlets for the expression of, these behaviours in order to thrive. When we fail to provide ample opportunities for our pets to express natural behaviours or exercise as they normally would, unwanted negative behaviours can result (Whelan, 2010).

When considering the natural history of dogs, it's important to recognise breed differences. With over 150 different breeds in existence, originally developed to perform specific jobs, genetic differences in the strength of the core emotional systems are likely. For example, one dog may be a high seeker, constantly motivated to chase a ball, compared to another which is a low seeker, happy to live a more sedentary life. These days pet dogs are not required to perform the jobs they were originally bred for however those selected behavioural traits still remain. For example, the Border Collie that herds small children or the Doberman that barks at people walking past the home. These are normal behaviours for these breeds but are often considered problematic by dog owners (Morris et al, 2014).

This dog is highly motivated to fetch the ball

Increasingly, pet cats are confined to the home with many not having regular access to the outdoors. Although this keeps them safe from cars and other animals, many can spend long periods of time in isolation unable to exhibit hunting or social behaviours. Consequently, these cats often develop problem behaviours.

Species-specific behaviours of the cat are very similar to that of it's relatives, the African wildcat and to free-roaming cats, and include social family rankings, elimination and feeding behaviours (Overall et al, 2005). When owners understand these normal behaviours and provide appropriate outlets for them, the behaviours are less likely to be expressed in a problematic way.

Behavioural issues are a common reason for relinquishment of companion animals to shelters. As such, we must recognise the core emotional systems affecting behaviour and do our best to provide appropriate outlets for these systems through enrichment. This will help to reduce problem behaviour and the subsequent relinquishment of pets to animal shelters.

Benefits of Environmental Enrichment

Much of the research on the benefits of environmental enrichment to date has been performed on mice in a laboratory setting. These studies show that an enriched environment can provide numerous benefits including improved learning and memory, increased brain weight and size and enhanced activity of the opioid systems in the brain (van Praag et al, 2000). Research on captive exotic animals shows that enrichment can decrease aggression, increase activity, reduce the expression of abnormal behaviour and improve health and reproduction (Carlsbad & Stepherdson, 2000).

Enjoying some environmental enrichment!

As our pet's guardians it is our responsibility to maintain not only their physical health, but their emotional health as well. Adequately providing for the mental health of our companion animals through environmental enrichment before the development of behaviour problems is key. Furthermore, the concept of environmental enrichment should be considered an essential component of pet husbandry rather than an optional addition.

Good enrichment should provide pets with opportunities to express behaviours driven by positive emotional systems of seeking, caring and play. Some examples include foraging, play, positive social interactions and grooming. Enrichment should aim to increase positive emotions and reduce the time animals experience negative emotions such as fear and panic (Morris et al, 2014). When applied correctly, environmental enrichment promotes optimal animal welfare.

Stay tuned for my next few blog posts which will focus on the most effective ways you can provide environmental enrichment for your dog, cat and companion parrot!


Carlstead, K. and D. Shepherdson. "Alleviating stress in zoo animals with environmental enrichment." The biology of animal stress: Basic principles and implications for animal welfare (2000): 337-354.

Morris, C. L., T. Grandin and N. A. Irlbeck. "Companion Animals Symposium: Environmental Enrichment for companion, exotic and laboratory animals". Journal of Animal Science 89.12 (2011): 4227-4238.

Overall, K. and D. Dyer. "Enrichment strategies for laboratory animals from the viewpoint of clinical veterinary behavioural medicine: Emphasis on cats and dogs." Ilar Journal 46.2 (2005): 202-216.

Van Praag, H., Kemperman, G. and Gage, F. H. "Neural consequences of environmental enrichment." Nature reviews. Neuroscience 1.3 (2000): 191.

Whelan, F. "Environmental enrichment for pets." Veterinary Nursing Journal 25.3 (2010): 27-28.

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