All animals can benefit from enrichment (i.e., the process of making their environment more stimulating and interesting). Enrichment has many benefits, including reducing stress, boredom, and behavior problems, and the chance of cognitive dysfunction development. Humans can seek out our own enrichment and stimulate our brains in many ways, but pets need their owner’s help. 

Anything that stimulates one or more senses can be enriching for pets, but toys are the easiest, most readily available items. However, toys can be problematic for enrichment because their novelty wears off and pets may lose interest and need frequent new toy replacements or a rotation of existing toys. The Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team knows toys can be expensive, so we are offering these ideas for do-it-yourself toys you can make from household materials. 

#1: Cardboard food puzzle for dogs or cats

You can turn several different cardboard objects into a fun food puzzle for dogs or cats. The idea is to stuff loose or lickable foods into the cardboard, including toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, or boxes, cut small holes in the sides, seal the ends with non-toxic glue or tape, and ask your pet to get the food. Some pets will learn that shredding the cardboard is the fastest way to the food, while others will work diligently and extract each piece carefully. Either way, the game will be enriching for your pet and easy for you, because the cardboard is disposable, but take care that your pet doesn’t swallow any cardboard pieces.

#2: Snuffle mat for dogs

A snuffle mat uses thin fleece or cotton strips tied to a basic rubber mat in a dense pattern to create a “forest” of fabric. Sprinkle treats throughout the mat and watch your pet snuffle through the forest to find each bit of goodness. Supervise your dog during their snuffle mat hunt to ensure they do not shred or eat the fabric.

#3: Cat house or tunnel

You have likely noticed that no matter a cardboard box’s size or location, your cat will try to get inside. Using that curiosity to your advantage, you can create various enriching cat structures from basic cardboard boxes. Collect shipping containers from your online shopping forays until you have enough to make a cat house, maze, or castle. Ensure stacked boxes are secured to one another and sturdy enough to support your cat’s weight.

#4: Ball pit for dogs

For all those ball-obsessed pooches, a canine ball pit is heaven on earth. Create a ball pit by covering the bottom of a small plastic pool or bin with tennis balls and sprinkling treats throughout. The balls will move as your dog sniffs out the treats, making your pet’s job harder.

#5: Muffin tin game for dogs or cats

The muffin tin game is a simple food puzzle for dogs and may interest some cats. Place high-value treats inside each muffin tin section, and top the treats with a ball that covers the treats completely. Your dog will have to remove each ball to get to the treats. This game is best for thoughtful, deliberate dogs, because exuberant pets will learn quickly they can get all the treats by flipping the whole tin.

Other enrichment ideas for pets

Toys aren’t the only way to provide your pet with novelty and enrichment. Other engaging options include:

  • Window perches — Allowing your cat or dog to watch the world outside, including birds and small mammals, can be enriching for some but frustrating for others. Avoid giving those pets window access.
  • Social time — A play group can be enriching for dogs who crave social contact with other dogs.
  • Training — Learning new things is the ultimate brain teaser.
  • Exercise — Walking stimulates your dog’s senses and provides a physical outlet for their excess energy.

Keeping your pet on their toes with new and exciting enrichment toys and activities that reduce boredom, stress, and behavior issues will help ensure your pet is the best version of themselves. Contact the Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team for additional tips on pet behavioral health or to schedule your furry pal’s next routine checkup and preventive care services.