Sarah Southard, DVM
Pets and Livestock
What is wellness? We often think of wellness in terms of lack of illness. “My animals are not sick, they are well.” But just as with humans, wellness for our animals encompasses much more than simply the lack of sickness. When we consider whole-animal wellness, we should consider all facets of living: physical needs (health, physical fitness, proper nutrition, preventive care programs) and psychological (social interaction, mental stimulation, proper environmental provisions, and enrichment). As this column typically focuses more on the physical needs categories, let’s look at the psychological aspects of animal wellness this month.
For all species, animal and human alike, proper social interaction is imperative to complete health. While certain animals live independently and prefer solitude, others require a minimum amount of interaction with their own or similar species. For example, sheep are prey animals which have an exceptionally strong flocking instinct. It is incredibly stressful to them for one or two sheep to be singled out and housed alone. Bears, on the other hand, prefer to live the majority of their adult lives alone.
Improper social interaction long-term has the potential to lead to stress-induced health problems, development of undesirable or dangerous behaviors, or other adverse reactions. We commonly see problem behaviors in domestic animals which do not receive proper types and amounts of social interaction with their owners. Many of our pets desire positive interaction and activity with us. When those interactions are missing, animals resort to adverse attention-seeking behaviors which often further damage the already weak relationship between pet and owner.
As important as proper social interaction, proper mental stimulation is also essential to animal wellness. Animals are problem solvers by nature. In the wild, they come across various challenges to overcome on a daily basis. Our domesticated animals are no different and will tend to be happier and healthier when given proper ways to exercise their brains. Again, different species (and even different breeds within a species) will have varying requirements. We must know the specific needs of our charges and provide appropriately for them. Boredom resulting from lack of appropriate mental stimulation will lead to the development of unwanted behaviors which can lead to breakdown of the human-animal bond. Environmental enrichment goes hand-in-hand with mental stimulation. Environmental enrichment refers to the process of manipulating an animal’s environment to increase appropriate species-specific behaviors. For example, cats instinctively have the urge to hunt, pounce, and climb. Enriching an indoor cat’s environment with objects which allow it to appropriately display these natural behaviors is mentally engaging for the cat and will decrease the potential for the cat to inappropriately display such behaviors (i.e., climb the provided cat tree rather than your custom drapes).
Wellness for animals is not simply lack of sickness. Wellness is a large multipiece puzzle involving considerations of the whole animal and its environment. Educate yourself on your particular animal’s needs. Consult the veterinarian familiar with your animal and your situation to help determine the best ways to ensure overall wellness for your furry companion. Seek out behavior and training professionals if necessary to improve your relationship with your pet. And be committed to providing for all facets of your animal’s wellness for their lifetime of health and happiness, while enriching your own!