The Family Zoo

Submitted by Teresa Nahachewsky, RVT, Member-at-Large SAVT Board of Directors

Hello Friends!

Are you tired of your dog looking at you with those big puppy eyes, begging for attention? Does your cat lay on all the things that you try to work on? Is your bird doing … bird things? Do your kids randomly switch personalities between heavenly angels and the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes? 

Yeah. Life is crazy right now. Or it always was, but you could find easier ways to escape it before we had the civic duty to protect our neighbours as ourselves from this invisible enemy. The question is: what can we do to channel the energy in our homes? Well, my dear readers, the answer is simple. If your home is a zoo, do what zoos do! Develop better Environmental Enrichment protocols!

Environmental Enrichment can be broken down into 5 main areas:

  1. Sensory: smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound. This is like putting on the bird channel for your cat
  2. Environmental: specific needs of the animal like climbing, perching, nesting areas, etc. like making a blanket fort
  3. Foraging/Feeding: most commonly thought of, like using chop sticks for people who aren’t used to them
  4. Occupational: Habits regarding action, like chewing a stick, grooming, using task oriented devices. These are often used together with the foraging/feeding strategies, like using a treat ball for a dog’s meal
  5. Play: Using non-food related toys and opportunities to learn and interact and have fun with! Like playdough! 

According to the Toronto Zoo (as well as many other educational sources on animal and human enrichment), “It was a positive effect on our animals by allowing them to interact with one another in a very natural way. It also stimulates their minds and provides them with physical and mental exercise.” Which sounds like a great way to say, “It keeps them busy and out of trouble for the most part.” 

Is that what you need in your household this week? Here are some suggestions on how to keep your Home Zoo happy and healthy! For simplicity’s sake, I’ve sorted my suggestions into the 5 areas by a common Home Zoo build of Dog, Cat, Child (elementary school age), and Adult.

Sensory: 

  • Dog: Go for a walk specifically for smelling (your dog walks you). Or lay treat/kibble trails through your house to practice nose work (kids can help with this one!)
  • Cat: Strap a broom head to the edge of a cat post as a new rubbing feature. Enhance their attraction to it with cat nip!
  • Child: “What’s in the box” game – put different objects in a box and have your kid stick their hand in to guess what it is!
  • Adult: Listen to a new podcast about Greek mythology, watch a TedTalk on lake fishing, or read up on the benefits of drinking tea.

Environmental:

  • Dog: Create a safe zone for your dog using a kennel, or “dog specific area” where no one is allowed to bother the dog. Practice with your kids to read dog body language to know when the dog might need some alone time. Family Paws Parent Education is a great resource for becoming a Dog Aware Family!
  • Cat: Make sure there are adequate “get away” spots up high for your cat to look around and hide from the over-abundant children that are now in their area. Try having at least one perch set up in the 2-3 rooms your cat spends the most time in.
  • Child: Let your kids get creative! It’s what they do best! Make a list with them of 5 things they want to do, whether it’s build a boat, colour a picture, make a cave, and then use your imagination (and theirs) to make it happen! For example, the boat can be made of paper and put to the test in the bathtub.
  • Adult: Cleanliness is next to Godliness. It also reduces stress and anxiety when things are in a good place for you! The trick is to make it simple and rewarding for yourself. Watch some Marie Kondo on Netflix, pick a room, and do something to it that you know will spark joy!

Foraging/Feeding:

  • Dog: Have a yard? Scatter the kibble in the grass (or snow) and let your dog find their meal! Make a stuffed kong with peanut butter or soft food and freeze it! My dog personally loves ice cubes, so I just make sure I have a steady supply of those handy. Free and easy!
  • Cat: Have a spare shoe mat lying around? One with rubber fingers or ridges meant to catch dirt? Smear some wet food (soaked kibble works well too!) into the mat and let your kitty lick their meal away! It’s like a snuffle mat that you didn’t have to make or spend tons on. Bonus for it being easy to clean!
  • Child: Finger food painting. Meals of finger food, and then let your kids make whatever kind of landscape or funny faces they want! On their plate, of course. Also easily done at snack time with fruits and veggies and dips.
  • Adult: One word: Mealime. It’s a meal-prep app that gives you the option to put all the ingredients in a grocery list that can then be edited from anyone in your household, even while you’re at the store! My family has never been disappointed by the recipes yet. Best thing about it? It’s free!

Occupational:

  • Dog: This can be something specific to the kind of dog you have. If your dog is a digger, make a “dig safe” spot for them. If they are a herder, teach them to round up their toys in the living room. If they aren’t as active a dog, get them something to chew on while they lay in bed. Whole frozen carrots can be a tasty treat if you can’t get a chew toy at the moment!
  • Cat: What do cats do? Hunt. Even the fattest, laziest cat will go after a shoelace dangling in front of them. Don’t have time to play with your cat? Make it a game for your kids that they don’t get a snack until they’ve played with the cat for 5 minutes. This will satisfy the instinct to hunt multiple times a day for your feline friend!
  • Child: School work fits in here. If you struggle with keeping everything else in the household functioning on top of school, this is a great time to use a video chat app to get the grandparents or other family members involved! You can even take turns with other parents during the week to help with homework!
  • Adult: Whether you have a job at this time or not, be kind to yourself. Things have changed and will continue to do so. Set yourself 1 or 2 goals a day to accomplish. If that’s as simple as getting everybody to brush their teeth today? Fantastic! If it’s something like do an inventory of the freezer? Great! If it’s to go for a 20-minute walk by yourself? Wonderful! Life will always be hectic. Take the time to enjoy it too.

Play: 

  • Dog: Let your dog do their thing, or have even more fun and start shaping new behaviours! Play games like 101 Things to Do With A Box. Here is a video of Dr. Sophia Yin training her pup using shaping (no words or cues, just trial and error!) to put her feet in a box. The best part is you can use shaping techniques on ALL SPECIES! Make it a game with both your cat and your kids too! Try get them to figure out an action you want performed with just a positive marker. 
  • Cat: Cats already know what they want to do with a box, so let them play! Bonus if you use a crumpled-up paper ball to chase!
  • Child: Get outside! Social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t physically leave your house. Go for a bike ride, strap on roller skates, roll in the grass (or snow, depending on the situation), go camping in the yard or in the house, the possibilities are endless. The only goal is the smile and laugh!
  • Adult: Set up a chat with your neighbour across the street. Sit on your lawn while they sit on theirs and have a beer together. Live farther away from people? Use your favourite video chat app to just hang out with a group of friends! Get on Steam and play board games together virtually! Need some alone time away from kids? Ask the grandparents to follow this example for some safe interactions!

When all is said and done, no one knows your Zoo like you. Adapt and change with patience and kindness. Wash your hands. Come together by staying separate. We can get through this! You got this, Friends! 

Your supporter from afar,
Teresa Nahachewsky, RVT

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