Behavioral wellness refers to how well an animal functions socially, mentally and emotionally in its environment. As a former zoo keeper, dolphin trainer and as an animal behavior consultant, I believe that behavioral wellness is as important to animal welfare as nutrition, exercise and medical care.
Like each of those, behavioral wellness is best achieved when it is managed proactively to prevent problems. But it’s never too late to make improvements if behavior has gotten off track. The nice part is that the activities that go into achieving behavioral wellness are some of the most rewarding activities that we enjoy with our pets.
So how can you take steps to ensure or improve your pet’s behavioral wellness? Consider the following:
Physical exercise falls into both the categories of physical health and behavioral wellness. Adequate exercise releases energy so that your dog or cat can be relaxed when appropriate. When your pet is well exercised they will have less frustration, boredom, destructive behavior and attention-seeking behavior. Before you get a new pet, plan time in your schedule for physical exercise.
Puppies and kittens should be introduced to a variety of benign and novel people, animals and environments before the age of 12 WEEKS! This is when they are primed to learn who to accept as part of their family and what to accept as “normal”. Before you get your puppy or kitten, look into opportunities to set up safe outings, play-dates, and guest visits. Pairing all of these things with positive play and food treats will help to ensure positive acceptance of new things.
Regular social interaction is important in all stages of life. Whether it is with you, your family, your friends or other animal friends, your cat and dog need some time for love, attention and social play every day.
Just as your dog or cat has physical energy to expend, they also have mental energy that needs an outlet. Companion animals are creative and thinking creatures. They are born food seekers, den diggers and problem solvers just as other wild animals are.
Providing mental tasks allows your pet to realize this potential. Rewards-based training is an excellent way to help them use their mental capabilities, and it is also a great way to get nice behavior from your animal!
Food dispensing toys, interactive puzzles and other environmental enrichments such as digging pits and even music are great to provide when you are away from your pet. Walks outside do triple duty for your pet. They provide social time, physical activity and mental stimulation all at once. An added bonus – let’s face it – we can probably use a good walk too!
Animal emotion can be a tricky subject. Nonetheless, it is fairly well agreed upon that animals do likely share some emotions that we can relate with. It is important that we don’t simply assume what animals are feeling or project our own feelings onto them. What will benefit our cats and dogs though, is if we use their behavior as an indicator as to how they may be feeling.
Are they calm, quiet, playful or relaxed? Are they pacing, hiding, panting or avoiding? Observing and acknowledging these types of behaviors can help us be more aware of our animals’ emotional states and our effect upon them. Seek out books and videos to help you interpret your pet’s body language. Body language behaviors can give us great insight as to how our animals are feeling, and if we need to change something – maybe the environment, maybe our behavior – to allow them to feel better.
Recognize deficiencies and make changes
Providing for the behavioral needs described above will set the stage for your pet’s emotional well-being. If you encounter behavior that is problematic for you, it most likely arises out of a behavioral need that is problematic for your pet. You have a great deal of power to arrange your pet’s activities and environment, so you also have the power to make positive changes to improve their behavioral health when necessary. If a behavior issue has you stumped seek out information, education and help to get you and your pet back on the right path.