Sounds, and Sights, and Smells, Oh My!

            To achieve wellness in any animal, you must be cognizant of three things; physical health, mental health, and behavioral health. A shelter environment is one of the most stressful environments an animal will ever experience and achieving mental/behavioral health for shelter animals can be a challenge. The most impactful thing any shelter can do to promote mental/behavioral health is implement “kennel enrichment” practices.

            What is “kennel enrichment?”  Per the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, enrichment refers to improving the environment of confined animals with the purpose of meeting their behavioral needs.[1] What this means in real life terms is that we try to make their environment interesting- spice things up a little.

            There are endless ways that we can make our animals’ environment as interesting as possible. We do this by focusing on the five senses, with many enrichment activities catering primarily to touch and taste. To give the animals in our care a well-rounded experience we also employ enrichment that challenges sight, sound, and smell. In our cat rooms we provide visual stimulation through videos of prey animals. Like most creatures, cats can become quickly habituated to a single stimulus, so we have an ever-growing list of different “shows” for them to watch.

            Additionally, we employ olfactory stimulation in the form of cat nip toys and scent sprays. Aptly named, the cat nip is almost always a roaring success with the cats. We also spray a variety of aerosolized aromas into our cats’ environments. These scents, such as lavender, mint, and vanilla, are thought to have “calming” properties. A study from a shelter in Massachusetts[2] shows an increase in animals’ interaction with the environment when scents are introduced.

            The enrichment program for shelter dogs is structured similarly. We introduce classical music and audio books, making sure to provide a suitable variety to keep it interesting. We also blow bubbles near their kennels to increase visual stimulation. Like the cats, we introduce scent sprays into the kennel environment. While evidence of “enjoyment” is yet to be determined, staff members have noted that when these stimuli are introduced the dogs recognize the change.

             Experiencing changes in sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste is part of what makes life rich for all of us – including our animals.  So don’t be surprised if you stop by the shelter and find a volunteer blowing aromatic bubbles in the dog kennel!         

[1] Animal Enrichment Best Practice. The Association of Animal Welfare Advancement, June 2017,

[2] Ellis, Sarah L.H., Deborah L. Wells (2010). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behavior of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 123 56-62.