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Jan 02, 2020

Exercising the Brains of Our Pets: A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

By Diane L. Grigg

Animals crave communication. They want us to understand them, inviting exclusive access to their thoughts and feelings. We, in turn, long to express our desires to other species with which we share this world. The fact is we communicate with our creatures every day. It is such a natural process that we think nothing of it. The bond we share with our pets is such that we know they get us. Animals that are integrated into the fabric of our life seem to instinctively know what is expected of them through intimate body language and simple expressions. The longer they live, the more we need to exercise their brains in addition to consideration of their physical health. When animals became domesticated, many natural inclinations and instincts were either taken away or reduced. No longer do they have to hunt with the expectation of scarcity and starvation. They eat on a regular basis, some more than others. Warm beds and comfortable living quarters replace “the wild.”

The idea of enrichment gives us humans the task of keeping the minds of our best friends blood-enriched and fluid. This allows for proper brain communication without “roadblocks” in neurotransmission. Animals are living longer. Developing some type of cognitive diminishment is inevitable. These so-called roadblocks might be beta amyloid proteins that collect in the brain and prevent neurons from properly signaling to each other. This neurodegenerative condition is similar to Alzheimer’s. In animals, it is referred to as Cognitive Dysfunction Disorder. Everyday stressors can become insurmountable, leading to depression. Once the depression becomes chronic, abnormal behaviors arise that significantly affect your best friend’s quality of life.

When an animal’s environment is stimulating, their mental state is alert and positive. Even fish in a tank benefit from being in a room with activity. Enrichment can begin at any age. If one has the privilege of a long-term commitment with an animal, then activities can provide mental engagement early on. Studies indicate that dogs can learn to understand certain words and then connect those words with specific actions correlated to purposeful communication. Recently it has been shown that some dogs can actually convey a desire using simple words associated with specific sounds. While this exhibits the sharing of information across species, the notion that we can assist our pets in mental stimulation thereby improving quality of life is an epiphany.

Adding new activities regularly will keep an animal guessing what comes next. While many dogs have the privilege of going outside, confinement to the inside is what is best for most cats, birds and other species. While this confinement is safer, there has to be ongoing positive mental motivation to prevent boredom and depression. Bringing the outside world inside using perches near windows enables cats to safely watch what is going on while getting a daily dose of much-loved sunshine. Mentally challenging toys and games allow them to flex their instinctual muscles and look forward to a prize or treat at the end of a session. Hunting, nesting and increased social interactions allow confident experiences to boost the immune system. Organic catnip is a sure way to relax your feline friend.

Birds love interactive toys, mimicking behaviors experienced in nature. Toys and games that encourage foraging, shredding, chewing and preening can reduce the destructive behaviors observed from boredom and depression such as appetite loss, aggression, self-mutilation and excessive vocalizing. With clipped wings, the energy expended from flying has to be channeled into something dynamic. Birds benefit greatly when vibrant exciting toys with repetitive sounds are introduced to their environment. Singing to your bird friend will invoke a joyful symphony of sound and movement – all the while mentally enriching and exercising the mind.

It does not take a lot to exercise the mind of our pets. Keeping the imagination animated and aroused strengthens the human-animal bond. Toys can be safely homemade. Take your dog out for a walk. Dogs, being highly social animals, value fresh air, a change of scenery, the potential of meeting new creatures and friendly exchanges. Cats enjoy toys they can hunt and capture. Expending excess energy in a safe environment increases the enrichment of the brain. Whatever creature you share your life with, learn about that species to better emulate their native environment to produce a sound mental state.

Loving daily exchanges with your best friend, such as stroking, cuddling and being included in family activities, releases a neuropeptide called endorphins. These brain chemicals inhibit pain signals and produce a feeling of euphoria. Playtime reduces aggression and stress. Those feel-good chemicals released contribute to optimal health of the body and mind. Animals need to keep connected to their existence. Humans have to support that association by becoming agents of enrichment. The more time we spend with our beloved friends, the sweeter life becomes. The realization that we can effectively contribute to the quality of something else’s existence is the true meaning of humanity.