By Dr. Cayla Iske, PhD and Dianne Cook, LVT
In a wild setting, animals have a seemingly endless array of opportunities to express complex natural behaviors. These behaviors can be triggered by a huge diversity of objects and events in their environment that necessitate or stimulate the animal to respond. Domesticated animals are often protected from the negative and threatening aspects of a wild environment, such as predation, but this also limits opportunities to express some positive, natural behaviors. In a significantly more protected and controlled environment, if environmental complexity is not provided, animals can become bored. Think about the last time you attended a meeting that lacked excitement or engagement. Did your knee start to bounce? Did you find yourself chewing your nails? Were you annoyed by the person next to you mindlessly clicking their pen? These behaviors may have stemmed from boredom, and you may have been expressing these behaviors without realizing it. If you apply this concept to your fur baby, the idea of boredom-based behaviors becomes a little clearer.
As the complexity of an animal’s enclosure increases, the number of activities and behaviors an animal can perform also increases, and vice versa. In a relatively barren enclosure, an animal is limited to behaviors it can perform alone (laying, standing, grooming, locomoting, etc.) and those interacting with its cage (chewing, scratching, etc.). When an animal gets bored or frustrated with their environment, it can manifest in the form of abnormal, repetitive, or stereotypic (activities performed repetitively and unvaryingly with no obvious goal or function) behaviors. These behaviors are essentially performed to occupy an animal’s time in an unstimulating environment. In certain situations, these behaviors may also be performed out of frustration or in an attempt to accomplish a biologically inherent activity that is not allowed by the animal’s environment, such as foraging or dust bathing. Abnormal behaviors may also indicate an animal’s inability to adapt or adjust to its environment (Garner, 2005).
These undesirable behaviors can be combated through enrichment which increases complexity, provides the animal added control over their environment, and allows for a more diverse array of behaviors. There are five categories of enrichment that have been well defined (Young, 2003):
- Social: contact or non-contact interaction with another living being.
- Occupational: exercising of the mind or body (such as puzzles or mechanical devices).
- Physical: enclosure enrichment (size, complexity) with items such as toys or furniture.
- Sensory: visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, taste.
- Nutritional: novelty or variation in delivery or type of food.
All five types of enrichment, when implemented, are aimed at improving animal welfare. While social enrichment can happen inherently through interactions with you or other animals in the home, a conscious and planned effort to implement occupational, physical, and nutritional enrichment should be taken, by incorporation of sensory enrichment. For years, Oxbow has recommended nutritional enrichment through offering of various types of hay and diversity of greens/veggie offerings. Nutritional enrichment can also come in the form of varying the way in which foods are delivered. Techniques such as scattering and hiding food, or providing an obstacle or puzzle fChor an animal to access food, are great examples of nutritional enrichment. Physical and occupational enrichment often go hand in hand and can be achieved by providing new items in your pet’s habitat to simulate new, appropriate behaviors.
Not One Size Fits All
It is an important point that any kind of enrichment should be biologically relevant to the intended species. Some have even adapted their definition to focus on the animal rather than the environment, with a definition of enrichment as, “an improvement in the biological functioning of captive animals resulting from modifications to their environment.” (Newberry, 1995). With this definition, it is clear the intention of enrichment should be to stimulate natural, species specific behaviors not simply because a preferred object evokes inherent behaviors (Sambrook and Buchanan-Smith, 1997), but because performing these natural behaviors may play a larger role in your pet’s overall health and wellbeing. Indeed, enrichment can have greater effects than just making your little one more active or providing a cute photo opportunity; while much more research is needed to fully understand its effects, enrichment can influence everything from animal behavior to brain physiology and anatomy (Baumans, 2005).
The Spice of Life!
Through research, we’ve seen that providing enrichment items to rabbits promoted natural behaviors of chewing and playing and reduced abnormal behaviors (Poggiagliolmi, et al., 2011). However, enrichment is not a one stop shop. Research has also shown that access to the same enrichment devices resulted in decreased interest by more than 50% after 5 weeks of exposure (Johnson, et al. 2003). This reduced interest over time indicates the need for steady rotation of different enrichment items. Providing a variety of enrichment items that vary in appearance and/or function is recommended in order to promote a wider and more diverse set of natural behaviors in your pet. Though all of the benefits of enrichment are not yet fully understood, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is a key component to a happy and healthy fur child.
- Baumans, V. 2005. Environmental enrichment for laboratory rodents and rabbits: requirements of rodents, rabbits, and research. ILAR Journal 46.2: 162-170.
- Garner, J.P. 2005. Stereotypies and other abnormal repetitive behaviors: potential impact on validity, reliability, and replicability of scientific outcomes. ILAR Journal 46.2 (2005): 106-117.
- Johnson, C.A., et al. 2003. The effect of an environmental enrichment device on individually caged rabbits in a safety assessment facility." Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science 42.5: 27-30.
- Newberry, R.C. 1995. Environmental enrichment: increasing the biological relevance of captive environments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 44.2-4: 229-243.
- Poggiagliolmi, S., Crowell-Davis, S.L., Alworth, L.C., Harvey. S.B. 2011. Environmental enrichment of New Zealand White rabbits living in laboratory cages. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 6.6: 343-350.
- Sambrook, T.D., Buchanan-Smith, H.M. 1997. Control and complexity in novel object enrichment." Animal Welfare 6.3: 207-216.
- Young, R.J. 2003. Environmental enrichment for captive animals. John Wiley & Sons.