Why older pets also need stimulation

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It is necessary to enrich the lives of dogs and cats so that they can display their natural behaviors. Zoos have known this for decades and offer enrichment activities for captive animals of all ages.1.2

Increasingly, veterinary professionals are emphasizing to their clients that enriching their pet’s life helps prevent behavioral problems, treat behavioral problems, improve well-being, and to some extent, maintain an appropriate weight. Arguably, mental exercise is as important as physical movement and flexibility.3

Why Enrichment Activities for Senior Pets Are Important

Here are some ideas to stimulate animals’ sense of smell.


  • Borrow a dog toy from a friend or neighbor to intrigue them with a new sensation.
  • Borrow a cat toy and dogs will be amazed at what they discovered.
  • Dab a clean cloth with a few drops of vanilla, coconut, ginger, lavender, perfume or cologne.


  • Use catnip and/or silver vine.
  • Use catnips.
  • Use valerian root.
  • Dab the fish oil onto a clean cloth.
  • Provide them with safe, cat-friendly spices, such as oregano.
  • Dab a few drops of perfume or cologne on a clean cloth.

Old dogs (and cats) can learn new tricks. In fact, it’s healthy for them to do so. However, the reality is that enrichment efforts generally decrease when it comes to older pets. Pet parents tend to think, “Fido knows how to do that,” or “Fluffy is too old to look up food puzzles,” or “I’m too busy with the younger animals,” or “Petunia has arthritis.”

Dogs have long been used as a model to study brain aging in humans, particularly for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.4.5 It turns out that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in humans are associated with the factors listed below (not including genetic predispositions, smoking/alcohol, and poverty), which are similar to those in dogs suffering from these diseases.5-9:

  • Lack of mobility, movement or physical exercise
  • Obesity (59% of dogs and 61% of cats are overweight or obese)
  • Lack of social interaction
  • The absence of employment, even volunteering, of commitment of any kind, of reason to get up in the morning
  • Lack of positive attitude: Laughter may truly be the best medicine, as a positive attitude appears to delay cognitive decline and/or reduce its effects, at least for a while (for dogs and cats, this can translate into the game).
  • Lack of intellectual activity: It turns out that great-grandfather was right when he said: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Most of these factors are linked to the lack of enrichment in daily life; Likewise, finding ways to stimulate older pets can help promote their long-term health and well-being.

How to Enrich the Lives of Senior Pets

Offering food or treats from toys and food puzzles is one way to enrich pets’ lives. The desire to work for food and the preference for problem solving have been studied, although little research has been conducted specifically on dogs or cats. The study results indicate that laboratory rats, grizzly bears and other animals will prefer to work for their meal rather than receive a “free meal” in captivity or the laboratory. This phenomenon is called counter-loading. Although there is limited data regarding contrafreeloading in dogs and cats, and even less in older pets, the phenomenon appears to be very real for many species. Of course, weakened animals should not be “forced” to work for food, but animals that enjoy this can continue to do so throughout their lives, even into old age.ten

Even as cats age, their prey drive does not decrease. You can help them meet this need through an interactive game. Older cats may benefit from shorter play sessions; about 5 minutes or less is usually enough. When geriatric dogs can no longer take long walks, shorter, more frequent walks can allow them to get outside to smell the roses or grass, which is incredibly stimulating. Another option is dog strollers (also for cats who have already enjoyed stroller rides): this is a way for geriatric pets to still be with their people and simultaneously enjoy the sights and smells of the world .

Can a new pet bring out the youth in the old pet?

This adage of adding a younger pet to the home to give an older pet new life can certainly work for social dogs and for cats who have already had positive experiences with other cats. But be careful: this decision is not the animal’s choice and may or may not work well, and can be anxiety-inducing, especially for cats.

A virtual pet is a safer option. If the TV or computer screen showing programs about dogs or cats is ignored or disliked, it is quite easy to turn it off. Some cats like to watch lizards and birds on TV or you can provide them with a higher level so they can watch them through the window.

Ultimately, older pets benefit from enriching activities as much, if not more, than younger pets.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes for veterinary professionals and pet owners, hosts 2 national radio programs and has appeared on television shows including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of dvm360 as well as the boards of directors of the Human Animal Bond Association and the EveryCat Foundation. He participates in conferences around the world. Visit stevedale.tv.

The references

1. Dale S, Brière A. American zoos. Mallard duck press; 2022.

2. Schultz C. Behavioral techniques in zoo animals. In: Eastern States Veterinary Association. Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference. US Department of Agriculture; 2004.

3. Dodman N, Lindner L, eds. Good Old Dog: Expert Tips for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy and Comfortable. Marine books; 2012.

4. Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Wilson RS, Yu L, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Effect of purpose in life on the relationship between pathological changes in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive function in old age. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):499-505. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1487

5. Milgram NW, Siwak-Tapp CT, Araujo J, Head E. Neuroprotective effects of cognitive enrichment. Aging Res Rev.2006;5(3):354-369. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2006.04.004

6. Can I prevent dementia? Alzheimer.gov. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.alzheimers.gov/life-with-dementia/can-i-prevent-dementia

7. Preventing Alzheimer’s disease: what do we know? National Institute on Aging. Updated September 24, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/preventing-alzheimers-disease-what-do-we-know

8. Stress management. Release of stress due to laughter? This is not a joke. Mayo Clinic. September 22, 2023. Accessed October 17, 2023. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-owned/stress-relief/art-20044456

9. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention announces World Pet Obesity Awareness Day: October 11, 2023. Accessed October 17, 2023. https://www.petobesityprevention.org

10. McGowan RTS, Rehn T, Norling Y, Keeling LJ. Positive affect and learning: exploration of the “Eureka effect” in dogs. Anim Cogn. 2014;17(3):577-587. doi:10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x


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