When I was younger and working at an animal shelter in New England, little was done in the way of enriching the shelter environment. Shelter settings are stressful and boring. This leads to undesired behaviors.  Over time, chronic stress affects hormone levels in the body. This can have significant, negative effects on behavior. Therefore, I am asking my readers to get involved with helping alleviate boredom and stress at their local animal shelters.  An easy thing to do is donate food releasing toys. There are many different types. Some are meant to have food licked out while others need to be moved about for kibble and treats to fall out. I like to have both types of toys in my arsenal of enrichment items.

Toys meant to be stuffed with softer foods are great quieter activities. The Kong toy company has a program where toys can be purchased by qualifying 501c(3) shelters at a significant discount.  If you think your shelter meets the criteria, you can apply at https://www.kongcompany.com/shelter-registration. There are various brand toys similar to Kongs, including Sumo, Titan, Dogzilla and Nylabone’s Busy Time Stuffable chew toy. These toys can be easily washed and disinfected after use.

There are many toys requiring physical manipulation to get food and treats released.  They need to be rolled, tipped, flipped or rocked. Some are simple balls with holes while others have obstacles the food needs to work through. If you are handy, you can make food releasing toys. A 4-inch PVC pipe and end caps are all you need.  Cut lengths of pipe so there will be 4 to 6 inches between the edges of the end caps. Drill holes randomly around the pipe. Make sure they are large enough for goodies to fall out. Do not glue the end caps to the pipe so the toys can be disassembled, cleaned and filled.

Physical exercise and mental stimulation are important for shelter animals.  Wading pools filled with balls and a few dog treats tossed in is an easy-to-make enrichment area.  Using the rope that bungee cords are made from, a floppy toy tied to one end and the other secured to a post can make a tug-of-war station.  If your shelter has a play yard, taking dogs out one at a time for a few minutes of flirt pole games is great for body and mind. These toys can also be used to teach self-control.  The dog stopping and waiting can get the game started again. 

Paper bags and cardboard boxes provide play and hiding opportunities for cats.  Adding them to a cat’s cate, along with simple toys to bat around, can go a long way to help reduce stress and boredom. Using food releasing toys so cats must work for part of their meals is beneficial.

Rabbits and rodents should have the ability to forage for food. Toilet paper rolls and small, plain boxes can be filled with hay or orchard grass and treats for them to find. Do not forget tubes, tunnels or places for them to hide.  Ferrets can hunt for food in boxes filled with balls or corn-starch (not plastic) packing peanuts or use food releasing toys.

Birds also need enrichment.  Foraging stations, climbing spots, things to shred should be provided.

I am asking my readers this year to reach out to local shelters and help provide enrichment opportunities.  If you are a scout or 4-H leader, creating enrichment ideas for shelter animals is a great way to give to the community.

The animals will be all the better for it.


Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.

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