Our aim is to provide humane education regarding environmental enrichment to enhance the life of all captive animals.
Sprouts for pet birds? Absolutely! Sprouting is one of the best ways to ensure your bird gets some of the best nutrition available, made fresh by Mother Nature. There are so many advantages to sprouting, it's unbelievable.
Seeds have been supplied with all of the nutrients, energy and information needed to become a plant. Thus, when sprouted, seed has the nutritional value of the plant but in a more concentrated form. Considering the fact that parrots are much smaller than people, this packs a huge wallop of nourishment for your bird in the sprout's tiny package.
From Seed To Sprout
Seeds are shells containing the potential for a living plant; a wonderful invention in Mother Nature's cupboard. But Nature has allowed for many possibilities and installs defense mechanisms in numerous life forms including the little seed. Seeds not only contain the blueprints for plant building, they contain toxins, including enzyme inhibitors that protect them until tip-top conditions make themselves available to start the growth process. Seeds also contain fat, the fuel used to provide energy to produce a plant. Sprouting the seed gets rid of the toxins, burns unwanted fat and transforms this life form from one type of food into a more nutritious one.
Sprouts are essentially live bundles of pure nutrition, all in one tiny purse. They contain digestible energy, vitamins A, C, E, B, minerals, amino acids, proteins, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which have protective and disease preventative properties. Sprouts are also stuffed with digestive enzymes. These enzymes break down the food consumed, making it absorbable. If your pet bird eats and doesn't absorb the nutrition food contains, it doesn't do your parrot much good. The digestive enzymes in sprouts make the delivery of the nutrition more efficient. They are comparable to a "package delivery system" of the digestive world.
Research suggests that the period of time when there are the most enzymes in a sprout is between germination and seven days. It has been estimated that there could be up to 100 times more digestive enzymes in sprouts than in a full-grown plant, depending on the type of sprout.
Ann Brooks, Founder of Phoenix Landing, a nonprofit parrot welfare organization, is one of many sprouting advocates. "When you think of bird seed, think sprouts. These are live plants, packed with growing nutrition, the very food stuff of parrots in the wild. If there is one whole food you can encourage your parrot to eat, from budgies to macaws, this would be my choice!"
You don't have to be a horticulturist or even have a green thumb to succeed at sprouting. You can sprout easily, efficiently and safely using basic equipment that is readily available. You can purchase organic sprout mix and begin kitchen farming almost immediately.
What You'll Need
• Organic sprout mix
• Glass jars, bridal netting and a rubber band or a commercial sprouting kit
• Grapefruit seed extract (Sometimes called GSE, it is found at most health food stores and online. It has been found to have natural anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti bacterial agents.)
1) Place the desired amount of sprouting mix in a clean, glass canning jar and fill with water. Add a few drops of grapefruit seed extract. If you are using a sprouting kit, place the rubber netting over the mouth of the jar, fit the ring over the net, and screw the ring on to hold the netting in place. The ring has no top allowing the jar to breathe through the netting.
2) Rinse the sprout mix several times; drain and refill until the water rinses clear and clean. Refill the jar until it covers the mix with lukewarm water and let sit overnight.
3) The next morning, drain the water and rinse until the water is clear and rinses clean. Place the jar upside-down at a 45-degree angle in a dish rack or in a bowl so that any excess water drains and the mix is allowed to breathe. Make sure that air can circulate around the sprout mix.
4) At least two to three times a day, rinse the sprouts and place at a 45-degree angle to allow drainage. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight but in a place where it is at least room temperature.
Within two to three days, you will have little protrusions emerging from the seeds of your sprout mix. These are plants emerging out of the seed shell, alive and growing. The plants look like little tails that keep lengthening. You now have a sprout; a viable living plant packed with nutrition waiting to benefit your pet bird!
Sprouts are a living organism, so refrigerate them after they have begun sprouting in the same inverted position to drain excess water. Wet sprouts tend to decay.
Leslie Moran author of The Complete Guide to Successful Sprouting for Parrots and Everyone Else in the Family and host of moranscritterconnection.com, recommends the sniff test to determine if the sprouts are fresh. "Sprouts are living foods. They should look vibrant and alive, and smell fresh and inviting. If sprouts develop a 'slimy' appearance or their smell repels you, throw them out and begin again."
After you are done growing your sprouts, ensure they are dry to the touch, and store them inverted in their growing jar or in one of the special commercially available produce bags. After the final rinse, dry them by letting them stand inverted in the jar for a few hours or use a salad spinner to dry them before placing them in the storage bag.
Parrot Meets Sprout
Learning to sprout is one thing; getting your pet birds to eat them is another matter entirely. But there was probably a time when your pet birds weren't familiar with other foods until they tried them. You have many options for introducing your birds to fresh sprouts:
• Gradually introduce sprouts into your bird's favorite pellet mix.
• Add to scrambled eggs.
• Add to a cooked bean mash by adding just before serving.
• Add to a vegetable mix.
• Offer as treats or rewards
• Have your birds observe you eating sprouts.
• Hide them in some of the food you share with them.
• Chop finely and serve mixed in with your bird's regular wet food.
Most pet birds eagerly gobble them up, but if your pet bird is suspicious, just keep trying!
An Ongoing Cycle
Start the soaking process about two days before your first sprouts are eaten and, in a day or two, you will have a fresh crop ready to feed your pet birds. As you become more comfortable with this process, you can estimate the rhythm of your sprouting with the correct amount and have several cycles of fresh sprouts in an ongoing process. This ensures that fresh sprouts are available every day.
The song of the zebra finch is a pretty simple one, and not particularly tuneful, but it can tell us a surprising amount about how brains work and preserve memories.
"One of the biggest hurdles in stem cell research now is directing new cells to go only to the site where you want them to go; it's like herding cats almost," said John Kirn, a Wesleyan University neuroscientist who has studied bird brains since the 1980s.
Birds can create new brain cells through most of their brains, while the creation of new neurons, known as neurogenesis, can occur in only a few regions of a mammal's brain. Better understanding of how neurogenesis happens in birds' brains, Kirn said, could lead to medical breakthroughs for humans.
"If we can understand how they manage to do this on the molecular level, it might give us some insights that we can use," he said, adding that stem therapy is one area that could benefit.
"There's something special about the bird brain that might be important in how we can create therapies for human brain damage," he said.
Kirn recently co-authored a study on neurogenesis in the zebra finch. The study, published in the May issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, could influence research into neurodegenerative illnesses in humans,includingAlzheimer's andParkinson's disease.
Typically, the song of a zebra finch will gradually degrade if it loses its hearing. But the researchers found that new neurons that developed in zebra finch brains helped the birds retain their song even after they were surgically deafened.
"It's completely counterintuitive to what everyone thinks neurogenesis is, which is to provide the flexibility for change and to learn new things," Kirn said. "And this is perhaps an example of the opposite of that. New neurons, in this case at least, are designed to preserve function."
To arrive at this insight, the research team studied a group of zebra finches, recorded their songs, injected the birds with a biomarker that would highlight new neurons, and then deafened half the birds. After 30 days, they analyzed the songs of the deafened birds to see which ones best preserved their songs. "We have some really sophisticated software for measuring all sorts of acoustic parameters," Kirn said.
The birds were then killed and their brains examined to see which birds had the most neurons. One of the scientists' predictions was shot down immediately.
"There's a lot of evidence that certain kinds of experience including social enrichment, can augment the number of neurons," Kirn said, adding that the researchers thought the lack of hearing would have the opposite effect. "We thought that the hearing birds would have more new neurons than deaf birds, but there was no difference."
But when the researchers looked at the brains of the deafened birds, he said, "that's when things got interesting."
"We found that the more new neurons a bird had, the longer it preserved the song after it was deafened," he said.
This has some implications for the brains of other species — including humans — and about the possible causes and even treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.
"On the very abstract scale, it suggests the possibility that in some brain regions, it might be possible to preserve information by adding new cells," Kirn said. "If [human patients are] losing cognitive function, if they're losing memories, this may be a way to not just enable you to learn new information, but actually preserve old information."
The link between the brains of birds and humans is indirect, Kirn said, but "not trivial." For instance, it was generally believed that most animals — including humans — could not produce new neurons later in life. By the 1990s, though, the idea was well-accepted that the production of new neurons did occur in certain animals — thanks largely to research on birds. Eventually, scientists accepted that it happened in humans as well, though only in certain parts of the brain.
Fernando Nottebohm, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City and a mentor of Kirn's, was among the first to prove that neurogenesis occurs in birds. His study of bird brains grew out of an interest in figuring out how humans learn to vocalize.
"Some birds learn their songs much the way that people learn the sounds of speech," he said. And bird brains are a lot easier to study than the human brain. "We know much less about what goes on in the human than in the bird brain."
Kirn studies the zebra finch almost exclusively, although he did a brief stint concentrating on the canary. Unlike the canary, which learns a new song each year, the zebra finch has a limited repertoire. It learns one song in its first 90 days of life — made of four to eight notes "in very specific order and they don't vary at all" — and then sings it for the rest of its life.
Nottebohm studies both. He said they each have their advantages as study subjects. But, aesthetically, the more tuneful canary wins, hands down.
"Zebra finches have a squawky little song," Nottebohm said. "They sound like a mechanical cat."
Horses are very social animals who will group together and form herds if given the chance. Because of this, new horses are often integrated into existing groups of horses with relative ease. It's still a good idea to consider the comfort of your new horse and your existing horses whenever you introduce someone new to your stable and herd. This comfort can be maximized—and problems minimized—by following a few guidelines when you bring home your new horse.
Preparing for Your New Arrival
Inspect your barn Even if you already have horses in the space you plan to bring your new horse, you'll find it useful to inspect your barn. A horse new to an area will likely sniff every corner. He'll also be less wary of potential hazards, particularly if he's spooked. It's up to you to check for loose nails, hooks and other sharp edges. Inspect walls and doors for spaces that might catch a hoof or head. Make sure your feed room door closes securely and that buckets are high enough that a hoof cannot reach them. Also, ensure barriers can be put in place to block face-to-face access to barn mates if needed.
Inspect the paddock A horse who's unfamiliar with his surroundings is more likely to find a weak spot in the fencing or a hazard than a horse who's spent months grazing in the area. Check for loose fencing and debris such as sharp fallen branches, old wire or trash. Check water sources for sharp edges. In addition, if your new horse will be turned out with other horses, be sure there are two water sources in case he's herded away from one.
Check your first aid kit Have medical supplies on hand just in case your new horse encounters a hazard you didn't anticipate.
Prepare the area for your new occupant
If your horse will be stalled, have clean shavings, a water bucket that's three-quarters full and some fresh hay set up before you bring him into the stall for the first time. Your new horse will investigate his space quickly, and he'll likely take less time to settle in if he's aware of his food and water sources. If you have a choice of stalls, choose one that gives your horse the most visual access to other horses.
If you'll keep your new horse in a paddock with shelter, prepare the paddock. Again, have the water source full and some fresh hay available before you bring the new horse into the paddock for the first time. If you have a choice of paddocks, choose the paddock that gives him the best visibility of other horses but doesn't allow him to touch another horse.
Prepare and place enrichment options in the area where you'll house your horse Enrichment is defined as the process of creating a challenging environment to satisfy an animal's social, psychological and physical needs. Enrichment enhances your horse's activities and provides mental stimulation. It can decrease the likelihood of cribbing, weaving and other unwanted behaviors. It can also help you shape his behavior in his new environment. For instance, you can provide him with mental stimulation by using various feeding options, such as treat-dispensing devices, an apple or carrot pieces bobbing in his drinking water and even something as simple as 4 to 5 small hay piles instead of one. Another idea is to provide him with a wall-mounted scratch brush to rub against. For more information about enrichment, please see our article, Enriching Your Horse's Life.
Introducing Your Horse to His New Space
To minimize the stress your horse might feel upon arriving at his new home, follow these steps:
Slowly walk your horse around as soon as he comes off the trailer. Allow him to sniff and watch whatever interests him. Then give him at least 15 minutes to walk around the area close to the stall or sheltered paddock where he'll be staying.
When you've finished letting him explore outside of his new space, take your horse into the stall or paddock and walk him around, stopping at water, food and enrichment sources.
Leave him in the stall or paddock, and observe his behavior for at least one hour before leaving him unattended. During this time, look for signs of his settling in, such as shaking his body as if he was shaking off water, eating hay, holding his ears in a relaxed position and breathing normally.
Ideally, your new horse should take at least two walks with you around the property after his first night. The walks give him an opportunity to learn about his new space and become comfortable. Strategically place treats where your other horses have been known to investigate or become aroused. Allow him to discover the treats, and make a game out of exploring the space.
Introducing Your New Horse to the Herd
Whether you have just one other horse or a herd, it pays to take the time to introduce your new horse to the herd in a systematic way. The process is often called a "howdy" process, and it gives the horses time to slowly introduce themselves to one another before sharing the same space.
Think of the howdy process as a series of stages in which you gradually increase the contact your horses have with each other. Increase the amount of contact your new horse has with the others when you no longer notice arousal when contact occurs at the current stage. How long the howdy process takes depends on the individual horses. Sometimes the process can take just 24 hours, while at other times it can be a week or two before the horses can safely be together in a paddock.
Here are the stages of the howdy process:
Visual access Begin all introductions for horses with visual contact. Again, horses are quite social and naturally form herds in the wild. They're a prey species, and they have increased safety in a herd. Giving your new horse the ability to see other horses decreases his fear response and helps him to settle in more quickly. Visual contact should begin as soon as your horse enters his new space.
Minimal tactile access Once the horses accept visual access without arousal, let them sniff each other and blow into one another's nostrils (a social greeting behavior). Don't allow them to intertwine heads or necks, however. You can prevent this from happening by using fence paneling or stall doors with guards at this stage of the howdy process. Watch for pinned ears, bite attempts, squealing and hoof strikes. Don't reprimand your horses for these behaviors. Simply observe. These behaviors are normal and should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
Increased tactile access Once the horses stop reacting, you can increase the amount of contact they have with each other. If you're introducing your new horse to a large herd, begin the process with the dominant herd member. Use a tall barn door or non-slatted fence to avoid having horses tangle their hooves and legs in a slatted fence, as forward hoof strikes are common during introductions. Place one horse on one side of the partition, and the other on the other side. The horses should have the choice to approach or not approach each other, and they should have only enough access to reach in with their head and neck. If Step 2 was conducted correctly, there will be little contact at this stage, as the horses have already become familiar with each other. The horses might sniff and blow into one another's nostrils, touch heads, touch necks or groom or nip each other. As before, make note of squealing, pinned ears, bite attempts and hoof strikes. Unless an injury is imminent, don't interfere with these behaviors—just observe. Aggressive behaviors should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
If you have multiple horses, once this stage is completed with the dominant horse, the rest of the herd can be given access to the new horse. Always observe responses, and don't move forward to the next stage until you see only a few aroused responses or none at all.
In-paddock access (full access) For this final stage, a bit of preparation is needed. First, be sure you've inspected the paddock. Place several piles of hay around the paddock, and load up the area with enrichment devices so that several activities are available for the horses. If possible, have the horses wear paddock boots, polo wraps or other leg protection. (If your horses never wear these items, don't attempt to use them for the first time during this stage.) In addition, if your stable setup allows, begin full-access introductions in a paddock adjacent to the area you've been using for increased tactile access.
Follow these guidelines when allowing the horses to have full access to each other:
Train your new horse to come when called before you turn him out with the group.
Conduct your full-access introductions immediately after an increased tactile access session. Your new horse should be able to just walk through a door to gain access to the paddock. This reduces change and helps the process go more smoothly.
It's normal for your new horse to be chased and pushed from the herd for the first few days. These behaviors should decrease rapidly, particularly if the other stages were conducted correctly.
Eating and drinking in the presence of the other horses indicates that your new horse is feeling more comfortable in the group.
Although there's always a risk of injury, it's less likely to occur when your horses are no longer pushing the new horse out of the herd while they're eating and drinking together. The risk of injury also lessens when your new horse shows signs of comfort such as lying down, relaxing his ears, breathing normally and grooming other horses. At that point, you can consider leaving your new horse unattended in the pasture wit
Studies have shown that captive animals live healthier, less stressful lives if they have opportunities to spend time doing things they'd normally do in the wild. Giving animals outlets for their natural instincts, ways to work for their food and interesting environments to live in is called enrichment. If you go to the zoo, you'll notice that many of the animals have toys that dispense food, objects to play with and things to perch on or climb. Many live with companions or are able to see other animals from their enclosures.
Even though they're not wild animals anymore, horses need physically and mentally stimulating ways to occupy their time, too. So what kind of enrichment should you provide for your horse? To determine the best strategies for spicing up his life, think about how a wild horse spends his day. In the wild, horses spend 60 to 80% of their waking hours grazing outdoors in family herds. Compared to this, many domesticated horses lead a very unnatural life. A typical stabled horse might not even be able to look out a window or see other horses. Because he eats a nutritious but highly concentrated feed, he finishes his meals quickly and then spends hours staring at four boring walls. No wonder many stabled horses develop habits like cribbing and weaving!
It's best to find a way to give your horse more time outside, preferably grazing with friends the way his wild ancestors did. But if your horse must spend a lot of time indoors, there are still many ways to make his life more interesting.
Whenever horses hear someone scooping grain, happy nickers echo throughout the stable. Many of the grains and sweet feeds we give horses are delicious, so feeding time is often the high point of their day. Why not find a way to make the excitement last a little longer?
There are many fun feeding toys for horses on the market. Many of them dispense grain a little at a time so that horses can play and eat simultaneously. They get to spend more time doing something that brings them great pleasure and less time staring at stall walls or engaging in undesirable habits.
If you'd like to make your own feeding toy, you can clean a large plastic bottle and poke some holes in it. Hang it in your horse's stall at head level, and he'll soon discover that nuzzling or butting the toy makes grain fall out. You can also drill holes in any large, sturdy plastic container so that grain comes out as your horse pushes the toy around the stall or pasture. (A 10-gallon pail with a well-sealed top or a Boomer Ball® works well: http://www.boomerball.com.) You can provide a different kind of challenge by putting a few large rocks in your horse's feed bucket (too big to swallow) so that he has to work around them. These strategies not only make mealtimes last longer, but also make eating more entertaining for your horse.
Additional edible enrichment options include the following:
Place your horse's hay in many small piles around the pasture instead of in one big stack.
Hang carrots and other tasty snacks from high places so that they swing and take a while to eat.
Your horse can "bob for apples" if you leave some in his water bucket or trough.
Scatter treats around the pasture or stall, which will encourage your horse to forage for his food the way his wild ancestors did.
Try the Pasture Pal® Feeder, a toy that's ideal for horses who have limited opportunities to graze outside. You can put your horse's entire ration of grain in it, and when he nuzzles the roller, grain will fall out onto a plastic tray.
A company called Likit makes an assortment of long-lasting toys that horses love to lick, like the Jolly Stall Snack Treat and the Likit Tongue Twister. You can hang them from the ceiling of your horse's stall or mount them on the stall wall.
Non-edible enrichment items that you can put in your horse's stall include the Jolly Apple™, the Pas-a-Fier (a rubber toy that your horse can bite), knotted ropes and tires. If your horse gnaws on wood, he'll enjoy the Pas-A-Fier, which can be mounted in the corner of his stall. As your horse nuzzles and chews on the toy, it releases a tempting apple scent. Many horses also enjoy toys that they can kick around, like the Jolly Ball®. For playtime in the pasture, try the Equi-Spirit™ 40" soccer ball, an enormous, puncture-resistant toy made especially for horses!
Any time you're with your horse, you're training him—whether you realize it or not! Your horse is learning every time you interact with him. So take advantage of the many opportunities you have to teach your horse every day.
Riding and driving horses get training enrichment any time you take them out for exercise. But there are other kinds of training you can try, too. Clicker training is an exciting new technique that's rapidly gaining popularity in the horse world. It's great for horses of all ages, but clicker training can be particularly beneficial to horses who are too young or too old to ride and need a good mental workout! Horses are extremely intelligent and tend to learn very quickly with this method. Please see our article on Clicker Training Your Pet to learn how to get started. Begin by teaching a few easy tricks. If your horse enjoys clicker training, you can start incorporating it into your riding and groundwork as well.
An easy first behavior to teach is targeting—teaching your horse to touch something with his nose on cue. You can use a bucket, a traffic cone or a closed fist as your first target. It's best to start this training with your horse in a stall. If he starts mugging you for your treat bag, you can immediately step away for a few moments to teach him that obnoxious behavior never earns a reward.
Not only is teaching your horse to target a lot of fun, it's practical, too. Once your horse learns to target something, like a small ball on the end of a stick, you can use this new skill to move your horse around without any physical force at all—which is great when you're working with an animal who's much larger than you are! You can use targeting to move a fearful horse into a dark barn or to lead him over a bridge or an obstacle on the ground. You can even use targeting to teach a horse to load into his trailer without fussing. See our article on Teaching Your Horse to Target for more information. (You can use a clicker instead of the word "Yes.") We also recommend reading Alexandra Kurland's book, Clicker Training for Your Horse, which explains how to use this exciting method to teach your horse a new way of learning.
Try Something New
There are many different disciplines in the riding world, like dressage, hunter/jumper, driving, endurance, Western performance and games, reining and cutting. If you have a fit horse who's getting weary of one sport, you can always start training him in another one. Who knows? Maybe he has talents you haven't discovered yet!
Horses are very athletic animals and require regular exercise to stay happy and healthy. If you don't have time to ride your horse daily yourself, consider a part-lease or finding an enthusiastic horse lover who's willing to help keep your horse fit.
Riding in circles in an arena can get dull, so if you live in an area where trail riding is possible, consider teaching your horse to be calm and well-mannered on trails. Following an experienced equine friend may help him get used to the great outdoors. Lunging and working in a round pen are other ways to exercise your horse. (However, these activities shouldn't be his only form of exercise because constant turning can put stress on his legs.) Even a walk down a new road can be exciting enrichment for a horse who's too old or too young to be under saddle.
Horses enjoy all kinds of sensations. Here are a few ways to indulge your horse's sense of touch:
Remove the broom handle from a natural-fiber push broom and secure the broom to a stable, free-standing pole or to the wall of your horse's stall. Make sure the bristles are at withers-level. Your horse will love the opportunity to scratch himself on and off throughout the day.
Build a high mound of dirt or sand in your pasture for your horse to climb, or give him a nice sandy patch to roll in. (Sand is easier to brush off than mud!)
Massage your horse. This is a great way to bond and soothe any sore muscles. Massage can also help calm a fearful horse. There are various massaging techniques, including the popular Tellington TTouch®: http://www.ttouch.com/whyTTEAM.shtml.
Set up a sprinkler from time to time so that your horse can enjoy the cool spray. Some horses have fun playing in the stream of water; others simply enjoy a cool shower on a warm afternoon.
Allowing a sociable horse to spend time in a field with friends is one of the best ways to enrich his life. Even when resting, horses tend to stand close together, and good friends often groom each other's neck and shoulders. If turn-out time is impossible for some reason, visual contact with other horses can help make your horse's life more interesting. At the very least, your horse's stall should have a window to the outdoors so that he can watch what's going on and catch a glimpse of other horses instead of staring at bare walls.
If your horse lives alone, we strongly recommend getting him a friend. It's ideal to house your horse with another horse or a pony, but a donkey, a burro, a llama or a goat can also provide great comfort and enrichment. Horses develop bonds with all kinds of animals, including cats, dogs and even rabbits.
Cats kept exclusively indoors live longer, healthier lives than outdoor cats. If you allow your cat to go outside, he might come into contact with wild animals who carry parasites and disease, as well as other outdoor cats who may fight with him, greatly increasing his risk of getting feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Your cat might encounter predators, like dogs, foxes and coyotes, who could seriously harm or even kill him. He might be hit by a motor vehicle. He might be exposed to poisonous substances like lawn chemicals, antifreeze and rat bait.
Because of these and other dangers awaiting the outdoor cat, it's estimated that a cat allowed outdoors in the United States lives an average of one quarter as long as a cat living exclusively indoors. Keeping your cat indoors is the best way to prolong his life. Of course, cats don't understand that they're safer staying indoors, and some cats will do everything in their power to escape. This is especially true of indoor cats with a history of going outside.
Your cat can learn to be happy indoors if you provide him with an enriched environment and give him opportunities to be by himself. However, if you have a cat who keeps trying to escape, it's vital to make sure he isn't successful! Cat-proofing your exits and deterring him from hanging around the doors are essential management steps for you to take.
If you read our articles on Cats Who Play Rough and Predatory Behavior in Cats, you'll find a common theme in the treatment or management of these behavior concerns: providing environmental enrichment that lets your cat engage in natural behaviors. Here are suggestions that can fulfill your cat's need to engage in predatory behavior:
Provide toys that your cat can throw around himself and toys that require your participation, such as those you wiggle and dangle from a wand or stick. Move the toys in such a way that they mimic the movements of a rodent or bird.
Provide your cat commercially available "cat videos." The most popular ones show close-ups of birds and small rodents.
Position bird and squirrel feeders outside windows where your cat can observe animals coming and going during the day.
Please see our articles, Enriching Your Cat's Life and Cat Toys for more great ideas and information on keeping your cat busy and happy.
Another need a cat has that can affect his welfare as an indoor cat—and affect whether he attempts to escape outside—is alone time. We recognize this need in ourselves but don't always consider it when thinking of our pets. But cats actually have a greater need for personal space and alone time than people do—it's their nature. Under natural (feral) conditions, they avoid each other for the most part. Cats' territories are large, and although they often overlap with other cats' territory, cats have sophisticated chemical social signals, called pheromones. They leave these as information for the other cats so that the cats can "time-share" certain areas—meaning they can use the same area, but at different times so that they don't run into each other. These signals help inform other cats about where and when the cat was in the area. Over time the signals can even tell cats when a cat will likely be back so that others can be sure to be gone by that time.
To meet an indoor cat's social needs, you'll want to provide him enough space to be comfortable and enough perching and hiding places to be alone. If you have more than one cat, you should also have multiple feeding areas, and at least one more litter box than the total number of cats you have. (In other words, if you have three cats, you should have at minimum of four litter boxes). The boxes should be in different areas rather than lined up next to each other. Your cats should also have enough high perches so that one is always available to everyone. Perches can be purchased as indoor cat "trees," but they can also easily be created by emptying spaces on book shelves and window shelves.
Lastly, use a pheromone diffuser in an area or areas where your cat frequents. Synthetic versions of cat pheromones that are released when cats rub their faces on things (like Feliway®) can reduce your cat's anxiety. If possible, use the diffuser until your cat's escape attempts diminish.
Teaching Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
Besides indoor enrichment, another approach to meeting your cat's needs while keeping him from running loose outdoors is to take him on safe outings. One option is to train your cat to walk on a leash with you. Do this by first teaching your cat to accept a harness (collars, even break-away collars, generally can create problems for cats and are less secure than cat harnesses). When teaching your cat to accept his harness, work with him once a day, or once every other day, following these general guidelines:
Buy a harness and an oversized collar for your cat. The collar should be large enough to fit over your cat's shoulders and around his chest. (The collar is just for these exercises. Your cat won't actually wear it. It's just much less scary to a cat than a harness can be.) Prepare some extra special treats for him, like tuna, chicken bits or salmon. (Vacuum sealed salmon can be purchased in small bags in the grocery store near tuna). Don't give the treats to your cat unless you are working on teaching him to accept his harness and leash.
Bring the harness, the collar and the special treats over to your cat.
Let the cat sniff the collar and harness. Offer him treats as he does this.
Lay the collar against your cat's neck, offer him a treat and, as he's sniffing the treat, remove the collar and let him eat the treat. Repeat this until you can snap the collar very loosely on your cat for just a moment while he's sniffing or eating the treat.
Next drape the collar over your cat's shoulder, across his chest and down between his front legs, diagonally like a seatbelt. Always introduce the new feel of the straps while the cat is sniffing or eating his treat, and always remove the collar immediately. Work until you can snap the collar on him diagonally over his shoulder, draping down between his front legs.
Once your cat accepts the collar, discard the collar and teach him to accept the harness using the same gradual process, always accompanied by delicious treats.
Once your cat accepts his harness, allow him to wear the harness—under your supervision—until he can wear it for five minutes at a time. Be sure to give him periodic treats during this time. Once he can tolerate five minutes happily, teach him about being on a leash.
Take him to somewhere familiar inside where he feels comfortable. Put the harness on him and then hook him to the leash. If he moves away from you, wait until he gets to the end of the lead and then quickly—before he panics—call him to you and give him a treat. Continue training for a few days until 1) he doesn't worry when on the leash, and 2) he has begun following you.
Note: If your cat doesn't like treats, is afraid of the collar strap or reacts to any part of the training with fear or attempts to leave, it's best to avoid training him to walk on a leash. On-leash outdoor excursions are not as valuable in increasing your cat's welfare as is avoidance of stress.
For more information, please see our article, Teaching Your Cat to Walk on a Leash. And to learn more about how to best teach your cat new behaviors, please see our articles,Training Your Cat and Clicker Training Your Pet.
Creating a Secure Outdoor Enclosure
A secure outdoor enclosure allows your cat access to the exciting sights, sounds and smells outdoors, enlarging his home territory. Enclosures for cats should be completely enclosed, such as a screened-in porch, or constructed so the cat can't climb up the walls and jump out. Walls should be at least seven feet high and should not be accessible to trees or climbing vines. In addition, the top of the wall should be capped with a fence ledge that angles toward the interior at least one foot, as an added deterrent for jumping and climbing cats.
Cat Proofing Your Exits
Even if you do a great job providing enrichment for your cat, if your cat has been allowed loose outdoors in the past he'll likely try to get outdoors on his own again.
First Things First: Check Windows and Doors
Check the security of your windows and doors. Check that your doors latch securely and that the springs are taut so that the doors close quickly. Be sure your window and door screens are not tattered. Tattered screens invite cats to attempt escape.
Encourage the Family to Watch for Escape Attempts
Be certain that all family members watch for your cat and any attempts he could make to escape. However, remember that children are easily distracted by friends and activities and may not be able to always keep the cat from escaping. It's helpful to practice with children and show them how to leave the house without allowing the cat out with them. Teach them to watch for the cat, to open the door slowly, and to turn back toward the house as they close the door behind them—with your cat inside!
Deterrents at Doorways
A cat who is given outlets for his natural behaviors through environmental enrichment will gradually accept and indeed enjoy his life inside his home. But before he adjusts to this lifestyle change, it can be helpful to set up humane deterrents to discourage him from trying to get out. (Keep in mind that using noise-making deterrents can be stressful for your cat.) Here are some suggestions:
Noise maker Keep a can, half full of pennies and properly sealed, in a convenient spot next to the doorway. Encourage family members to lift the can and shake it each time they leave the house regardless of where the cat may be. Your cat will learn to associate the unpleasant sound with people leaving, and so he'll stay away from the door.
Water spray bottle Keep a spray bottle in a convenient spot next to the door. Have everyone pick it up before they open the door. When the door is open, if your cat approaches, squirt or mist him, whichever seems more unpleasant to him.
A motion-activated sound alarm Radio Shack sells a variety of motion-activated alarms. The downside of using one of these is that it will go off whenever anyone goes near the door, unless they make an effort to step over the infrared beam.
SpraySentry™ Cat Deterrent System This is a device that detects movement within several feet and delivers a short burst of compressed air to deter the cat. This, too, has the pitfall of activating whenever anyone goes near the door.
ScatMat® A ScatMat delivers a startling but mild electric shock when touched. The mat can be set in front of the door as a deterrent. Many cats who have been allowed outdoors will learn to jump over the mat, so your vigilance is still necessary even when the mat is present. Placing two mats side-by-side may be more effective.
The word "compulsive" describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. Most compulsive behaviors are normal activities, such as eating, grooming, moving around or sexual behaviors, but they occur in the wrong contexts and to such an extent that they interfere with normal functioning. The most common compulsive behaviors in cats are wool sucking or fabric eating (a form of pica) and excessive licking, hair chewing or hair pulling (called psychogenic alopecia). When performed compulsively, these behaviors can be harmful to a cat. Cats who eat fabric can suffer intestinal obstruction, and cats who over-groom can develop skin wounds. Sometimes a cat becomes so compelled to engage in a compulsive behavior that it interferes with her ability to lead a normal life and impairs her relationship with her pet parent.
What Causes Compulsive Disorders?
Compulsive behaviors often develop when a sensitive cat is frustrated or stressed. Initially, the cat performs a displacement behavior. She wants to do one thing but she can't, so she gets frustrated and does something else. For example, when a cat sees another cat outside the window, she might want to attack—but she can't get out, so she performs a seemingly irrelevant behavior instead, like licking herself. If stressful situations like this happen repeatedly, the cat may continue to engage in the displacement behavior. At first, she'll do it only in stressful situations, but she may eventually do it even when there's nothing frustrating going on. At this stage, the behavior has become repetitive and compulsive.
While it's not been confirmed, some experts believe that kittens who were weaned too early might be susceptible to developing compulsive disorder later in life.
Facts About Compulsive Disorders in Cats
Cats are usually less than two years of age when they develop compulsive disorders. Kittens may be as young as three to four months old when they start wool sucking, for example.
Although any cat can develop a compulsive disorder, Oriental breeds, such as the Siamese, are particularly prone to developing them. It's likely that the breeding practices necessary to create and maintain these purebred cats also concentrate genes associated with compulsive disorders.
Female cats are more commonly affected with psychogenic alopecia. There is no known sex bias for other compulsive disorders.
Compulsive disorders occur most often in cats who live exclusively indoors, presumably because indoor cats get less mental stimulation and physical exercise. Indoor cats are also more likely to face stressful situations, like fighting with other cats in the home.
Significant disruptions in a cat's life, like moving to a new house, home remodeling, or the addition of a new pet or family member to the household, can cause stress and trigger the development of compulsive behavior.
Check with Your Veterinarian First
Don't assume that your cat has a compulsive disorder just because she's licking herself or eating non-food items. Some medical conditions can cause these behaviors, so it's crucial to have your cat thoroughly examined by her veterinarian before doing anything else. A cat who licks herself excessively might be suffering from allergies or fungal infections, or she could be experiencing pain in the area she licks. A cat who eats non-food items, such as fabrics, could be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. If you have more than one cat and they all share a food bowl, it's also possible that your cat simply isn't getting enough to eat.
It's important to understand that behaviors originally caused by medical problems can become compulsive. Your cat might continue performing a behavior, even after you've resolved its medical cause.
Identifying the Cause
Once you've ruled out medical issues, the next step is to figure out what's causing your cat to feel stressed and, if possible, get rid of it. Some of the most common factors that contribute to the development of compulsive disorders include the following:
1.Separation anxiety, particularly if someone in the family is absent for a lengthy period of time, or if a person or pet in the family has died or left the home
2. A new person or pet in the household
3. A move to a new home
4. Restricted access to the outdoors
5. Inadequate social or environmental stimulation due to an exclusively indoor life
6. The presence of cats outside the windows of the home
7. Loud or high-pitched noises
8. Attention seeking
Obviously, some of these factors can't be eliminated or avoided. However, if you can't remove the source of your cat's stress, there are still ways to help her cope.
Helping Your Compulsive Cat
If your cat reacts to a specific sight or sound, you can expose her to the thing that upsets her at such low levels that she remains calm. At the same time, you'll be associating the thing with something your cat enjoys, like treats or play. For instance, if she gets stressed when you play the piano, start by teaching her that she gets tasty salmon every time you play a very quiet tune. As she demonstrates that she's comfortable with this, take several weeks to gradually expose her to louder music. Each music session should be accompanied by her favorite foods. For more information about this kind of procedure, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning.
Cats who are stressed by the presence of other cats outside the home can be discouraged from watching out windows. Remove your cat's favorite resting spots by windows, and make other places more appealing. If necessary, cover the windows with curtains, blinds or even an opaque material like cardboard. Please see our article, Keeping Cats Out of Your Yard, to learn about ways to deter outside cats from coming around.
If your cat lives exclusively indoors, enrich her environment so that she has plenty of things to do. Make sure you have structures for climbing and perching, bird feeders, fish tanks or Kitty TV for watching, and interesting toys for playing. Spend 10 to 15 minutes at least once a day playing interactive games with your cat. Some cats even enjoy a daily walk outdoors on a harness and leash. (Please see our article, Enriching Your Cat's Life.
Some cats engage in compulsive behaviors because they get attention from their pet parents. It's important that you don't unintentionally reward your cat with attention when she's engaging in a compulsive behavior. If you do, she might learn that eating fabric, for example, makes you follow her around everywhere, or that licking herself makes you come over and stroke her. It's best to interrupt your cat without interacting with her. Simply remove the item she's chewing, or clap your hands to distract her from licking.
If your cat is having a hard time adjusting to a dramatic change in her life, such as a move or the loss of a family member, medication might help her. Anti-anxiety medications, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) or clomipramine (Clomicalm®), are often helpful in treating compulsive disorders. Please see Behavioral Medications for Cats for more information and Finding Professional Help for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.
Specific Tips for Fabric Eating and Wool Sucking:
1. Keep desirable items out of reach, and prevent your cat from going into rooms where she can access bedspreads or curtains. If she sucks or chews specific items, spray them with a deterrent to make them taste bad. Please see our article, Using Taste Deterrents, for information about products designed for cats.
2. If your cat sucks or chews but doesn't ingest fabric, provide furry mice and soft toys as acceptable alternatives. If your cat eats fabric, provide toys made of rubber or plastic. Scatter the toys in areas where your cat would normally go to look for fabric items.
3. Some cats will chew on fresh catnip and cat grass as safe alternatives to fabric. A few even like to eat lettuce and green beans.
4. Some cats enjoy chewing pieces of thin rawhide lightly coated with fish oil or cheese spread. Others prefer to chew on raw chicken wings. Make sure they're raw—cooked bones can splinter and choke or injure your cat. Only give your cat rawhide or chicken wings when you're able to closely supervise her.
5. Use your cat's feeding times as enrichment opportunities. Hide small dishes of her food around the house so she has to hunt for them. You can also see if she'll eat from a food puzzle toy. You can use toys made for small dogs, such as the KONG® or the Tricky Treat™ Ball. Alternatively, you can make a toy by punching holes in an empty toilet paper roll. Make the holes large enough for the pieces of kibble to fit through. Cover one end of the roll with tape, dump some kibble or other semi-hard treats inside, and then cover the other end, too. Set the toy down in front of your cat and roll it so that she sees the food fall out of the holes.
6. Speak with your cat's veterinarian about feeding her a high-fiber, low-calorie diet. She'll be able to eat more of this kind of food, which will keep her occupied for longer periods of time.
Can a Compulsive Cat Be Cured?
It's often not possible to completely cure compulsive disorders in cats. However, behavior modification, drug therapy and changes to your cat's environment can be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of her compulsive behavior, making it more tolerable for you and for her. It may help you to keep a daily diary of your cat's behavior so that you can see whether your efforts are helping. If they are, seeing it on paper will encourage you to continue with the treatment program.
What NOT to Do
Do not punish your cat for engaging in compulsive behavior. Punishing her will increase her stress, and she'll probably do even more compulsive licking, sucking or chewing as a result.
It's usually not helpful to physically prevent your cat from engaging in compulsive behavior. For example, making her wear an Elizabethan collar probably won't work. While restraint can be helpful in the short term to keep your cat from harming herself, it's important to find a long-term solution to address the source of the underlying anxiety.