Diet, dentition and discovery
Taking a break from anxiety in dogs, I’d like to tell you about my theories on food and happiness (which is kinda treating anxiety, so perhaps not a complete break). This really applies to all pet species, but for this post I will be providing examples for dogs, cats and birds.
For many years I have been telling owners of overweight and over hungry dogs to find ways to slow down their hound’s consumption – we are talking about dogs that will eat a day’s food in a literal 10 seconds! A dog that eats too quickly remains hungry after the meal and digests its food badly, potentially resulting in vomiting, pancreatitis and other problems. So by slowing them down, you make them enjoy their food more, digest it better, and not realise they are eating less!
However, as important as this “dietary therapy” is for morbidly obese mutts (you know who you are), it is also an extremely important principle guiding the feeding of Zoo collections all over the world, and an important component in treating feather destructive disorders in parrots. We are talking here basically about making food more of a challenge. Both physical or mental challenges work here – the process of solving the problem triggers a core emotion called SEEKING. In all animal species studied the seeking emotion is a pleasurable one. When an animal is spending time – in a safe environment – working out how to find food, how to get into its container, or how best to chew it – that animal is having a good time, nothing is surer. Foraging is fun! And more importantly foraging replicates a natural existence in a healthy positive way.
How do you get your pets foraging?
For birds – often living in isolation much of the day and at risk of turning over-preening into self-mutilation – any extra minute spent foraging and finding food is highly valuable. Time is consumed, happiness is increased, the mind is stimulated to think about new things, and the body can be healthily stressed. My favourite trick is to have some times, or even entire days, when the only food available is a hanging seed block placed in a hard to reach spot in the middle of the bird’s cage roof. The only way the parrot can get to it is by climbing up under the roof and hanging upside down to pick at the block. The block tends to be quite unstable and the bird has to put in quite substantial effort, and develop different strategies as the block is slowly consumed. I have seen birds develop quite complex strategies including cracking off larger pieces and taking them over to other eating places where they can more carefully dissect and consume the chunk, before heading back up to the roof to collect another chunk. These are very similar behaviours to those seen in wild birds eating seeds in trees.
Indoor cats, and cats that their owners would prefer were MORE indoor cats, benefit greatly from environmental enrichment – just like their larger brethren in Zoos. Getting them foraging can make an enormous difference to the mental and physical health of some cats. The simplest trick? Sheets of office paper. Little A4 food puzzles I call them. Get a sheet of paper, put a tiny handful of cat biscuits in it and fold or scrunch up a little package that moggy has to work out how to get into. You can leave these little parcels in progressively trickier places as your cat gets better and better and finding and opening them. The ultimate level of this process is in the food parcel pinata – hanging from string at a challenging height. Your cat has to find it, reach it and pull or tear it down to access the food. My other favourite way to feed cats is frozen raw meat – with or without bones. Raw chicken pieces are not only completely safe for your cat to eat, they are possibly the healthiest type of meaty bone you can feed a cat. And feeding it frozen solid means your cat consumes a chicken wing far slower, chewing far more thoroughly and cleaning its teeth as it goes.
A delightful way to introduce your dogs to the joy of foraging is to spread their dry biscuits out in increasingly hidden places. Feeding into last week’s post, a lovely strategy is to get your dogs used to performing a SIT and STAY while you head off around the house with your serve of biscuits, depositing little piles here and there. You then return and release the dog(s) to go and start sniffing out their prey. In many cases this keeps them busy long after all the food has been consumed, as most dogs will keep sniffing around for quite a long time happily snuffling out that one last biscuit. Yes, they are going to eat more sand, fluff and plant matter during this process and, no, that doesn’t matter to their health or happiness one tiny little bit. The SEEKING joy that is generated in this process is enormously valuable to a dog’s well being.
Get creative, come up with your own clever ideas to make feeding more interesting and natural and post in the comments on this Facebook page.
- Panksepp. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. 1998
- Grandin. Making Animals Happy. 2009. 5-23