Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares a cool idea for cat enrichment that just might, well, snowball into something big.
As many of us are getting ready to leave winter behind, a quick online video search will reveal many cats who embrace the season! Many even leap into the air to catch snowballs! My friends always send me photos of their cats enjoying the snow—some have a cat-safe yard or cattery, where their cats can safely explore loose outdoors with them, while another has trained her cat to be comfortable on leash.
Why would cats like snow? Likely for the same reasons that other animals do. Some canine experts suggested that it is the novelty of the stuff, the way it changes the sensory experience of being outdoors, or the added social interaction with people that may keep their interest. Animals who are in the snow all the time, like sled dogs, do not show the same level of interest in fresh snow. This is true for enrichment in shelters, too. Interest wanes on toys that have been in the kennel. Putting enrichment on a rotation, like Mackenzie’s Animal Sanctuary’s Daily Change-Up, keeps things novel and more stimulating.
Enriching an animal’s quality of life is part of our responsibility for our pets, as well as those under our care in the shelter. We have discussed easy options like food-dispensing enrichment devices, often made from materials found in the recycle bin. This is simply another way to expand their sensory experiences.
Snow, of course, is another free source of enrichment! If you do not have a safe space outdoors to take your cat, then bring the outside in! Place snowballs of various sizes in bowls or large empty litter pans, use an empty kiddie pool or tub in a large room or on the floor in a community cat room. If needed, add toys or treats along with the snowball to make it more interesting. Even once it melts to water it may be just as enticing, if not more so, to some cats. My colleague and friend, Dr. Emily Dolan, who works in R&D, shared this lovely video of her cat, Buddington Friday, experiencing a snowball inside:
In all cases, the animal decides what is enriching or reinforcing, not us. Years ago, I learned that lesson when I was a volunteer at a raptor center. It was October, and I had just read about how a zoo offered carved pumpkins to their vultures for enrichment. I excitedly placed carved pumpkins into our resident birds’ cage. One vulture started eagerly pecking at the pumpkin almost immediately, while the other retreated to the far corner of the cage and started vomiting (an extreme stress response). Be sensitive to the body language of each animal when experimenting with novel forms of enrichment.
There is an unlimited world out there of enrichment ideas. What have you found to be irresistible to shelter animals or your own dog or cat?
As the Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, Heather’s work focuses on improving the lives of dogs, cats, and horses in their communities across the country. For over twenty years, she has worked professionally with animals in veterinary clinics, universities, federal and state governments, animal shelters, and consulting businesses. She has lectured extensively on animal behavior and continues to publish peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters regarding the ongoing work of the ASPCA. She can often be found training new species, outdoors with her rescue dogs, or immersed in permaculture.
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