Virtually every member of the animal kingdom benefits from a more interesting and mentally stimulating environment. This is the premise behind providing environmental enrichment for animals in a variety of captive situations ranging from zoos and labs to homes. Enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation that can help keep animals in all of these settings healthier and happier.
What Is Environmental Enrichment?
In a nutshell, environmental enrichment means features placed in the living space of a creature that are intended to stimulate and enhance their physical and social activity. An interesting and stimulating environment is an important means of promoting development and maintaining mental health. This is true for both humans and nonhuman animals. It is especially true of animals in captivity, whether that be a pet cat or a lion at a zoo because they lack the freedom to wander and engage in certain natural behaviors in the limited space of their enclosures.
Environmental enrichment can look very different depending on the species that it is intended to enrich. For a house cat, environmental enrichment could include shelves on the walls, different textures of carpet throughout the house, and a window at which to watch birds. Each of these features allows the cat to display and use instinctual behaviors: the shelves allow for climbing and perching at a height in order to watch the world go by below, different textures of carpet encourage them to rub, roll, and scratch and a window allows them to stalk.
What Are the Different Types of Enrichment?
Broadly, there are five types of environmental enrichment that are frequently used to improve the living conditions of animals in captivity. They are: social, physical, nutritional, occupational, and sensory. All of these are critical components and must be considered together if creating an effective environmental enrichment program for an animal.
Social environmental enrichment is especially important for social species such as dogs, elephants, and mice. Providing for the social needs of animals gives them the opportunity to display and use natural behaviors, promotes mental wellbeing, may help the animal to cope better with their situation and surroundings, encourages physical activity, and can reduce abnormal behaviors associated with stress or isolation.
It is important to provide social enrichment as appropriate for each individual animal. If a pet dog is cautious of or aggressive toward other dogs, then a dog park or other free-roaming access to other dogs could be dangerous. Instead, limited time with another dog with a fence in between the pair or simply interacting with humans may be a better and safer way to meet that dog’s need for social interaction.
Physical enrichment includes items placed into the environment with which the animal can interact. If you have ever visited a zoo or a sanctuary you may have seen large red balls, often with handles, in the animals’ enclosures. These, along with items such as climbing gyms, tubes, nets, and swings, are a form of environmental enrichment. Giving your dog or cat a new toy would be another example. Changing toys periodically or making changes to the environment in which the animal lives is a good way of keeping things interesting for them.
There are three main types of nutritional enrichment: providing new and interesting ways to feed the animal, offering the opportunity to forage for food, and offering a new and exciting type of food. Nutritional enrichment is frequently used for dogs in animal shelters, as it can be easily provided to dogs in kennels and often requires little time to clean up. Examples include placing treats or kibble into a puzzle toy or smearing peanut butter on a wall to provide nutritional enrichment.
Occupational enrichment consists of providing training. For example, animals in captivity are often trained to cooperate with handlers to administer veterinary care more easily. Training provides a lot of mental stimulation for the animal that helps them cope with stressors, promotes exercise, and gives the animal options and self-determination.
Sensory enrichment encompasses anything that appeals to an animal’s senses. Examples include scented sprays, different textures, and a radio or television.
Environmental Enrichment for Animals
Animals in captivity everywhere benefit from a diverse set of environmental enrichment stimuli that encourage them to interact with the world around them and provide the opportunity for mental and emotional stimulation. If you share your home with animals then you likely provide them with environmental enrichment without necessarily meaning to. Providing new treats, new toys, a new bed, or moving a piece of furniture are all examples of enrichment. Spending time with them by cuddling, playing, or training are also methods of ensuring they are being enriched and challenging themselves.
Environmental Enrichment for Zoo Animals
One way that well-run zoos attempt to improve the welfare of their animals is by providing plenty of opportunities for environmental enrichment. Oftentimes they will provide novel items such as pumpkins during the fall for their animals to destroy and consume. Enclosures often include various rocks, tunnels, and water features for the animals to explore. Many animals are often given occupational enrichment and trained to cooperate with keepers and veterinary staff. Yet even with all of the enrichment that is provided to the animals, whether wild animals should be kept in captivity at all remains a pressing question. Captivity necessarily makes it harder for an animal to satisfy its behavioral needs. This is especially true of species such as elephants and antelope that travel dozens of miles a day in the wild. There is no way for a zoo to provide adequate acreage for such species to be able to meet this need.
Environmental Enrichment for Lab Animals
Environmental enrichment for lab animals is one clear example of enrichment not being enough to justify keeping animals captive. The provision also tends to be minimal. Depending on the species, lab animals are housed in pairs or groups and provided with some type of bedding. However, their housing is often fairly barren. A fairly new development within lab animal care consists of tickling rats as a form of welfare, an interaction that results in a pleasurable noise similar to laughter. Yet any gains of such enrichment must be seen in the context of the harm done by animal testing.
Environmental Enrichment for Humans
Though important at every stage of human life, environmental enrichment has been shown to be especially important for children. Providing access to new stimuli and situations helps children develop flexible connections and learn about the world around them. Providing a wide array of different types of enrichment aids children’s brain development.
Is Environmental Enrichment Good for Animals?
Providing environmental enrichment is an essential part of keeping an animal in captivity. However, enrichment and other forms of animal welfare are often not enough to justify maintaining that animal in captivity if release or alternative housing options are available. The orcas and other porpoises and dolphins held by Miami Seaquarium and other aquariums around the world are one example of enrichment not being enough to justify keeping an animal in captivity. Providing for the needs of these animals in captivity is exceedingly difficult and failure to do so has resulted in frustrated animals with few outlets for venting their emotions.
Environmental Enrichment Examples
There are seemingly never-ending ways to provide environmental enrichment that challenges animals and increases their welfare. Below are just a few examples of ways that animals’ environments are enriched.
Among the many ways that shelter dogs’ lives can be enriched are providing walks, playgroups, being read to, periodically using puzzle feeders or kongs, spraying scents in their kennels, or playing a radio in the kennels.
There are many ways to enrich the lives of shelter cats, some examples are toilet paper tubes filled with catnip and treats, blankets with different textures, cat trees, group housing for friendly cats, clicker training, and plenty of cuddles with volunteers.
Lions in a zoo would enjoy living in groups, having a variety of rocks and enclosure features to climb and rest on, and having various sounds played for them.
Parrots in a Home
Proving welfare for a parrot might include offering new toys, allowing for plenty of time spent outside the cage, training in tricks such as speaking, and offering nuts and seeds so that they are able to use their beaks.
What You Can Do
There are many ways that you can help to ensure animals are receiving appropriate enrichment. You can start by considering the ones you share your home with. Are there ways that you could enrich their lives by providing them with new activities and options? Finding a local animal shelter or sanctuary and volunteering to help with toy creation, feeding, or interacting with the animals is another awesome way to promote enrichment. Some shelters will accept donations of common household items such as toilet paper or paper towel tubes that can be turned into treat dispensers or put in the cages of hamsters or other small animals. Collecting these items to be repurposed by shelters can help the animals have a more positive stay while they look for their new family. Supporting Wild Welfare is a great way to impact the lives of wildlife living in captivity.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.