We focus a lot on dogs in our content, but we love working with ALL pet species. And, most of what we say for dogs, also applies to other species. For example, we’ve discussed an overview of dog enrichment categories in our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and in this blog post. But those categories are actually applicable to other pet species, too!
We recently commissioned the amazing Lili Chin (here’s Lili’s website and Instagram) to create an infographic for us illustrating that the 14 categories of enrichment are applicable to all species. Behold!
Let’s dive into these 14 categories once more to showcase what they look like for other pet species! Plus, we showcased special pets from our lives so you’ll get to hear a little more about animals that have made a difference to the owners of Pet Harmony.
Quick Reminder: What is Pet Enrichment?
Enrichment means meeting all of an animal’s physical, behavioral, and emotional needs to empower them to perform species-typical behaviors in healthy, safe, and appropriate ways. Essentially, it means meeting all of an animal’s needs. It’s the solution to how we can let dogs be dogs and cats be cats and parrots be parrots while navigating our very human society and households.
Health & Veterinary Care
Meet Jessica, the rabbit. (Any Roger Rabbit fans out there?) I met Jessica while interning at an animal sanctuary; she was my project bunny. I taught her some cute tricks and she taught me a ton about working with other species and rabbits in general. While she was never officially part of my household, she made a big impact on my life so I jumped at the chance to include her in this project!
Most people are familiar with taking their dogs to the vet for annual exams. Cat people know that they probably should, but the dread of having to get there sometimes pushes those appointments back (this is a behavior that can be trained, though!) But what we find isn’t as common is pet parents with exotic pets knowing that vets are out there to help those furry, feathered, and scaly friends, too.
Exotic vets care for those small critters other than dogs and cats (though they frequently also see dogs and cats). For larger, farm-type pets you’ll want to find a large-animal vet. Finding a great exotic vet lets you care for your other pets’ medical needs just as well as you can a dog or cat.
If you follow us on Instagram, you’ve probably met Griffey! He’s one of Ellen’s kiddos and the reason she fell in love with working with pets with separation anxiety. Griffey’s ears were the first thing Ellen and her partner saw when they were looking for a new pup, and I think Lili perfectly captured them!
I think it’s easier to consider the hygiene of species that have similar features. For example, cats need a lot of the same grooming things that dogs do. They both have fur that needs to be kept mat-free. They both have nails that need to be kept trimmed. They both have ears that sometimes need to be cleaned.
What’s a little harder to picture, in my opinion, is those species that have quite different features. Yes, birds have nails that need to be kept trimmed, but caring for feathers is different than fur! And, speaking of, Chinchilla fur needs dust instead of water to be kept clean. Reptiles may shed their skin and need enough moisture to do so. Rodents need items to chew to grind down their teeth. Be sure to research your particular pet species to find what their skin, coat, eyes, ears, nails, and teeth need!
This little bun belongs to Emily: Harey Bundini. She talks about him in this podcast episode interviewing Peter Amelia about living in a multi-species household. Harey earned his name after the magician Harry Houdini who was a whiz at escaping any situation. Cute and mischievous all-in-one little leafy-greens-munching package!
Nutrition can be kind of a heated topic. So, we’ll keep this discussion at the level that we do in our book: there is no One True Diet. The exact same diet may not work for different individuals of the same species.
This can be even more difficult for exotics because there’s often even less research than there is for cats and dogs. We recommend looking at the diet of their natural counterparts for inspiration, diving into species-specific communities, Facebook groups, and subreddits, and, of course, asking your exotics vet.
If you’ve interacted with our content before, you likely know my pup, Oso. I only talk about him all of the time. He’s the four-legged love of my life, even when he’s in his Winter Oso form. His flirt pole days may be behind him now that he’s a senior, but running in the yard is still a favorite pastime of his!
Once again, to determine the best course of action for our pet’s physical exercise we should be looking at their natural history. A good place to start is looking at how they obtain food. Cats are obligate carnivores and tend to stalk and pounce their fast-paced prey, but don’t do as much long-distance running. Whereas hedgehogs, who eat a lot of bugs, don’t necessarily need to be quick but they do travel several miles a day.
A word to the wise: in addition to researching how your pet would get physical activity in the wild, also look into when they’re active. There’s nothing worse than learning that hedgehogs are nocturnal and will be running several miles on a squeaky wheel if your bedroom is the best place for them to live.
This is one of Emily’s dogs: Brie. Or Tomato, as she’s often called. Brie is Emily’s semi-feral kiddo that she’s mentioned on the podcast a number of times, including in this episode about agency.
Like with most things in life, sensory stimulation is one of those categories where you can have too much of a good thing. We want to make sure that we’re not providing an understimulating or an overstimulating environment for our pets of any species. Just as in providing enrichment for dogs, we still need to think about how each species operates in the world and how they use their senses. For example, birds are very sensitive to respiratory irritants, so a diffuser that provides a soothing scent to us may not be so soothing to them. Rabbits are a prey species and likely won’t enjoy being able to see predators outside of the windows.
This little scruffy girl is Laika; one of Ellen’s pups. And, yes, her hair is even wilder in real life than in this picture. Why are scruffy dogs just the cutest?
Safety refers to being physically out of harm’s way. The example that we often use for dogs is being safe near roadways and vehicles. That’s not as applicable to all species, especially those who have terrarium or aquarium setups. But that doesn’t mean that safety isn’t as important for them!
Aquariums and terrariums will have unique safety considerations, like water quality, substrate use, air quality, mold concerns, pokey wires, and the like. They’re essentially tiny versions of your house so we should treat them with the same level of care that we would our own living space.
This was my cat growing up, Snow White (I named her when I was 6; don’t judge.) She was living under our neighbor’s deck and my mom spent the night coaxing her into our house with tuna. She lived with us for over a decade after that! Apparently, our house was better than the neighbor’s deck.
Security refers to feeling like you’re out of harm’s way, whether or not you actually are. We talk a lot about security in relation to dogs who have anxiety-related behaviors, but this is also a huge category for our prey species. Being out in the open without a hiding space is scary for a prey species, even if there are no predators around!
Knowing how your species likes to stay hidden is part of excelling in this category. For example, cats typically live in a vertical world. That’s why cat trees, window shelves, and the tops of refrigerators are so popular for them. However, we always need to pay attention to the individual animal in front of us first and foremost. I recently had a client who was working on their dog and cats feeling comfortable together in the same house. One of the cats got the memo that he lives in a vertical world and it was easy to figure out hiding spaces for him. The other cat, however, had a medical issue that made it difficult for her to jump. She preferred hiding spaces on the ground so we had to get creative as to how to give her hidey spots that the small dog couldn’t access.
Meet Cah’ya, one of Emily’s birds. She is an Aru Eclectus parrot. In the wild, Eclectus hens don’t make their own nests, but instead, they find an existing nest and take it over. Cah’ya decided that cardboard boxes make great nests, and the leaves that Emily hangs around the bird room make great nesting material. So Cah’ya likes to chew up the leaves and then move all the leaf matter into her nest. And if that isn’t one of the most life-with-a-parrot stories I’ve ever heard I don’t know what is.
Personally, I find this an interesting category when it comes to working with other species. Dogs are quite domesticated. Other species, not so much. My turtle is pretty much the same as the turtles I see in the local forest preserve. There’s some cool evidence coming out that cats, genetically speaking, are really not that different from their wild counterparts, and how much they’ve been domesticated is coming into question.
So what does that mean for us as pet owners? It means that it’s usually a little easier to figure out species-typical behaviors from observing wild counterparts because behaviors haven’t been modified through selective breeding, and it also means that those behaviors are less flexible than a more domesticated species. Even though Cah’ya isn’t mating, she still makes nests. My turtle, Zorro, still needs to bask in light akin to the full spectrum of the sun, even though he lives inside the house. Perhaps one day, thousands of years from now, some turtles will adapt to living in fluorescent lighting. That day isn’t today.
As I’ve mentioned before, knowing about the wild counterparts of the species you have is one of the best ways to determine species-typical behaviors. Learn the natural history. Observe that species in the wild if you can. Get curious about why they do the things they do!
This is Emily’s other dog, Copper. Copper was really timid and inexperienced when Emily’s partner Chuck first adopted him, and he showed physical signs of having been excessively confined. So Emily had to teach Copper how to use his nose to trail scents. Now, he’s an incredibly enthusiastic and adept forager.
All animals need food to survive. Even if you are providing them with the calories they need, they still have a need to search for and procure food. This is a species-typical behavior that’s so important that we decided to pull it out and make it its own category. Again, we’re going to be looking at the natural history of the species and how they would find food in the wild.
In general, vegetarian species will spend a lot of their time grazing and moving over larger distances to find food. Omnivores and carnivores spend time hunting. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to release live mice for your cat to catch. We can simulate their hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle using wand toys or food puzzles. It just means that we need to provide foraging opportunities that mesh with their foraging needs in our human households.
Meet Lexi (left) & Betty Boop (right)! These were my horses growing up. Most trainers have stories about how they wish they knew then what they know now, and these are the two I’d go back and do things differently with. I would absolutely love to go back in time and clicker-train these two if I could!
Horses are herd animals and like any herd animal, they need others of their species to hang out with! When you’re researching the natural history of your pet’s species, make sure you look at how they hang out with conspecifics in the wild. Are they more solitary animals? Herd animals? Form groups during mating season but otherwise hang out in pairs or alone? Not every pet wants a friend of the same species! And not every species knows that humans are okay right off the bat. Think like that species, not like a human.
I wish I knew enough about training when I was younger to be able to train Snow White! Alas. I have had the opportunity to train many other cats, though, and even work with clients who have cats with maladaptive behaviors.
Every species need mental stimulation. Any species can be trained. Mental stimulation can be achieved through training, foraging, problem-solving, and things like that! What’s going to be different between training different species is how quickly they respond, how much they can eat (and how they eat!), what other reinforcers you can use, and what they can physically perform.
Now that Oso is a senior and is slowing down, this is often what he looks like on a day-to-day basis- happily snoozing on the couch! Snuggling up with him on the couch is one of my favorite things to do with him.
When we talk about the calming category, we’re often talking about rest, relaxation, and sleep quality. That’s important for all species! Each species will have its own requirements for the proper amount of sleep and the time of day in which they typically rest and sleep. As I mentioned above, it’s helpful to know when your pet is expected to be most active. There’s a chance it will not be when you are! If you’re trying to play and interact with them during their nap time, chances are it’s not going to go as well as it could if it were a time they are more active. Everyone needs their sleep.
I mentioned before that Griffey- unbeknownst to Ellen- had separation anxiety when he came into her life. Independence was not his forte! They’ve since worked hard on him feeling comfortable being apart from his humans, and the kong wobbler is one of his favorite independent foraging activities!
Independence includes being comfortable being alone (within reason for their species’ needs), being comfortable exploring their environment, and learning life skills. All species can benefit from this. I think it’s easier for folks to think about comfort being alone and exploring their environment regardless of species, so let’s talk for a moment about life skills.
For many species, life skills will be a lot about navigating having a human as a caregiver and each individual figuring out how to interact with one another. That could be how to be fed by a human, how to be handled, or even learning other skills through training. For example, I had rats for a couple of years- Melody & River. Each night I would give them free time outside of their cage to explore the house. But they needed to learn how to come back! So I taught them a recall for their favorite treats, just like I would a dog, so that they could explore their environment, have fun, and come back when they needed to.
I’ve mentioned him before in this article, but finally here’s Zorro! He’s a Red-Eared Slider; they live partially in water and partially on land. That means he needs an aquarium with the proper aquatic environment and a land-type environment. I wrote a bit about his new setup in this blog post.
Environment is a big category. It can include who they live with, rural vs. city living, sound levels, air quality, water quality, humidity, temperature, and more! Once again, knowing the natural history of the species will be helpful here. The biggest thing I want to mention is to always be questioning how we can improve the environment, especially for species that live in enclosures. It shouldn’t be enough for them to just get by; we should be creating the best darn enclosures we can! Question common practices to see if they’re really the best environment possible.
- Get to researching the species you have! Learn their natural history, how their wild counterparts behave and spend their days, and join specialist groups to get more information.
- Choose one category that you think can be improved upon and make a change. We recommend changing just one thing at a time so you can see the true effect.
- We love seeing enrichment for all different species! Tag us with pics of your enrichment strategy on Facebook and Instagram @petharmonytraining
P.S. You can download our Pet Enrichment Poster! Click here for the English version. And you can also click here for the French version!
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