Enriching Your Pet’s Environment with Their Food

What is meant by “environmental enrichment” and why is it important for my pet?

Environmental enrichment is the process of changing or adjusting how a pet lives to increase typical behaviors and/or increase physical activity. By adjusting the home setting – with food, positive training, novel objects, or sensory enrichment - we can reduce a pet’s stress, help them to stay mentally engaged, and improve the quality of their daily life.

Dogs and cats require dedicated time for mental stimulation to fulfill natural behaviors like foraging or hunting for food, play, sniffing, scratching, and territory marking. Enrichment can help provide this stimulation.

"Environmental enrichment...can reduce a pet’s stress, help them to stay mentally engaged,
and improve the quality of their daily life."

There are three general ways to use food for enrichment: offering opportunities to forage or hunt; offering new types of food; or providing novel ways to feed, such as with food puzzles or during training.

Who might benefit from environmental enrichment?

  • Dogs or cats that are overweight
  • Dogs or cats that are inactive
  • Pets that eat food too quickly
  • Pets displaying behavioral problems
  • Any healthy pet that spends at least 50% of each day inside
  • People working on obedience training with dogs or cats
  • People training dogs for outdoor activities such as agility competitions, long-distance hiking, or search and rescue work

Why use a food puzzle or novel feeding method instead of a food bowl?

Published studies over the past 15 years have demonstrated positive benefits for dogs or cats who use food toys or puzzles. For example, dogs living in kennels and fed with food toys were found to bark less and were more active than dogs who did not get the toys. Another study found that dogs preferred to work for food or other rewards rather than receive them for free.

For inactive or overweight dogs and cats, novel feeding is an inexpensive way to keep them working for food. Toss some or all of your pet’s daily food allotment across the room, the house, the yard, or even a staircase, to force them to increase the number of steps they take each day. There are many anecdotal reports of pet parents getting their overweight dog or cat to lose weight simply by tossing part of their daily food instead of placing it in a food bowl.

Animal behavior consultants have found that foraging toys and food puzzles also help decrease boredom and reduce aggressive behaviors in cats. There are many online sources for do-it-yourself food puzzles; consult your veterinarian before making them to ensure they are safe to use.

What are some specific ways I could improve my pet’s environment using food or treats?

  • Replace the pet’s food bowl with an ice cube tray or muffin tin to deliver kibble or canned food for one or more meals each day (or a few times per week). When the pet must remove food from each compartment, it slows them down and extends the total time needed to eat their food.
  • Replace the pet’s food bowl with a large mixing bowl filled with tennis or wiffle balls. When dry kibble is poured into the mixing bowl, the pieces fall between and around the balls. The pet must carefully pick at the small kibbles, which takes more time than eating from a bowl with no obstacles. This can slow down a pet who usually gulps their food.
  • Give your pet a food puzzle – either homemade or bought. Food puzzles are another way to slow the rate of eating, with the added benefit of keeping the pet actively engaged or mentally stimulated. Some puzzles are simple enough for a dog or cat to quickly figure out, while other puzzles are more complicated and require you to show the pet how to get the food.

What are the best food items to use for environmental enrichment?

  • For dogs or cats who are highly food motivated, using some of the pet’s regular food is an easy option. If you feed dry kibble, use part of your pet’s daily allotment in a food puzzle or as a training treat. If you use a loaf-style canned food, make small meatballs to use as training treats.
  • Low-calorie commercial pet treats can be convenient (and sometimes low cost). Investigate commercial options for dog or cat treats at your local pet food store and look for those that contain fewer than 5 calories per piece.
  • Dilute any of your pet’s favorite flavors (e.g., peanut butter, chicken broth, juice from a can of tuna) with a small amount of water and pour into an ice cube tray to make flavored ice cubes. Alternatively, a tasty liquid could be gently warmed and poured over dry kibble or mixed in with canned food to make a “gravy”.

Which food items should I avoid? Which foods might cause problems?

Avoid feeding your pets alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, fatty foods, grapes, raisins, marijuana, onions, tobacco products, and xylitol sweetener, which is found in many human products. Find more information about toxic foods on the ASPCA website.