Interacting with shelter pets makes all the difference to them
In the animal welfare world, "enrichment" refers to our efforts to reduce stress in shelter and rescue animals. Worrying about whether dogs and cats are stressed out might seem silly, but it's actually a very serious concern for us because stressed-out animals soon become sick animals and infectious disease outbreaks can be devastating to our shelter population. Our mission at the Yavapai Humane Society (YHS) is to promote the welfare and humane treatment of companion animals, so we spend a lot of time thinking about enrichment.
Many studies have been conducted to analyze ways to reduce stress among cats and dogs maintained in shelter confinement. Stress compromises the immune system in companion animals just as it does in humans. Reducing stress means fewer sick animals, which directly reduces our costs and allows us to care for and find families for more animals. And it's not just physical illness we're trying to combat in our shelter animals. Stress due to boredom and lack of appropriate stimulation often results in unwanted behaviors, making pets less adoptable.
To reduce physical, environmental and emotional stressors, we first must identify what stresses animals out in shelters. First and foremost is overcrowding. This is particularly challenging for "open admission" shelters like YHS. Because we accept every animal, we have more animals! Confinement, boredom and minimal interaction with their own and other species are all causes of stress. Chronic barking, other loud noises, strong odors and extremes in temperature are distracting and stressful to pets (and to me!). Remember, if something in your environment bothers you, there's a good chance it's also bothering your friends of the four-legged variety.
Of course the "common-sense" solution is to simply get animals "out" or adopted as soon as possible. But what can be done when that dog or cat isn't "the one" somebody is looking for that day?
The ASPCA defines enrichment as "any addition to an animal's environment with which the animal voluntarily interacts and, as a result, experiences improved physical and/or psychological health." Bedding, blankets, toys, and exercise are the basics of enrichment.
For dogs, simply providing regular exercise in the form of leash walks, trips to the dog park and toys to entertain can help. That's just one of the reasons our volunteer dog-walkers are so vital to what we do at YHS. Social interaction with both humans and a pet's same species also can help. We know that certain animals become depressed, withdrawn and even deteriorate physically as well as mentally (refusal to eat or drink) if there is no social interaction or physical stimulation provided. Brushing or other forms of grooming soothe and calm many dogs and even cats.
It's also important to change things from day to day. While some animals thrive on routines such as a regular feeding schedule, it's also important to change things like smells, sounds (classical music is the most frequently recommended by the experts) and even toys on successive days to decrease boredom.
Would you believe that just changing how food is presented, particularly to dogs, helps relieve stress? Using "kongs," or even paper bags filled with an appropriate amount of kibble rolled down and closed, presents a dog with a challenge, which will keep him stimulated. Placing food in empty paper towel rolls, rope or chew toys soaked in broth are other low-cost means of providing activities and nutrition to pets to improve their quality of life while they wait for their new home.
Volunteers and donations are always at the crux of effective enrichment programs for any shelter, and ours is no different. Enrichment is simple to help us with, it just means getting involved! It doesn't require any special skills - just time and a passion for saving the lives of companion animals. So if you'd like to help us enrich the lives of companion animals, volunteer either at the YHS shelter or with other local animal rescue groups. Getting involved and helping us enrich animals' lives can make all the difference in the world to shelter animals, and you just might find it's not only the cats and dogs that benefit!
Dr. Lisa Darling, DVM, MBA, shelter veterinarian of the Yavapai Humane Society, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the shelter at 445-2666.