Enrichment: Not just for Zoos
Thursday 1st November 2012

When you think of enrichment you might think of Taronga’s chimps skilfully fishing low-fat yogurt out of their mock termite mound.

For those that don’t know what enrichment is, it’s an integral part of caring for animals in Zoos and helps retain their wild behaviours and to be active and alert. It also provides experiences that in turn enable the animal to adapt to a changing environment, much like what would occur in the wild.

Zoo keepers spend hours brain-storming, making and setting up enrichment for our animals and it’s always a highlight for our visitors when they get to see the tigers’ hunting abilities as they rip apart a box filled with meat treats or the meerkats foraging for mealworms.

But just how many of us actually do it with our own beloved pets at home?

I knew when I was preparing to buy a miniature Schnauzer puppy, that I would need to make a pledge to shower this dog with as much enrichment as possible to counteract the 12 hours a day I would be away at work. I was lucky. I work with wild canids and am surrounded by fellow keepers who have a wealth of knowledge on different puzzles and activity items to try.

Now, five years on, my dog bounds around the house when he sees the cue I’m about to leave for work - putting my work boots on. He excitedly anticipates a myriad of different items to ‘have fun’ with.

Any new type of puzzle or activity must be trialled with your pet under supervision first. This ensures your pet does not use it inappropriately. By this I mean swallowing part of the puzzle, getting caught in it, or simply ensuring it’s not too difficult. Once your pet masters some of the enrichment items you’ve made, you may need to make them more difficult!

Simple ideas to get you started are:

  • Rotating any toys your pet has access to

Have a few out one week, then swap them the next.

  • Use cardboard boxes, tetra packs, plastic bottles to hide/smear food inside. 

I’m sure you’d agree that this is more exciting than scoffing a bowl of food within seconds of you leaving? My dog plays with the empty plastic bottle long after all the treats are gone! He loves that crunchy sound it makes!

  • Crush some fresh herbs around the yard, or the leftover herbs from dinner.
  • Change your walking habits and take a different path. Or even mix it up by  walking  on the other side of the road.

There’s a stack of enrichment toys you can purchase too, from Kongs to treat balls and complex puzzles, but the truly fun things are those that the dog can really get into. Save your cardboard boxes, toilet rolls and juice bottles and after your pet has finished with them, they can still usually go into the recycling bin where they were going to end up in the first place!

What about your pet bird I hear you ask? Well you can get creative with perches and use natural branches that can be more stimulating for their feet. Give them native browse to pick at, access to sand or soil, even toys or a paper towel they can peck apart.


As for Rabbits and Guinea Pigs, you’ll be able to find items such as native leaves, non-toxic browse, toys, toilet rolls with treats hidden inside, different bedding or access to grass areas.

I hope you’ve been inspired to enrich your animals at home. Stay tuned, I’ve got lots more helpful hints and I’ll blog again soon!

- Deb, Carnivore Keeper