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Foraging Balls May Help Reduce Unwanted Behaviors in Dogs and Cats–and Pigs.

When I was offered a free subscription to Lab Animal, a journal dedicated to research in laboratory animal medicine, I couldn't say no. I was...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Sep 13th 2008

When I was offered a free subscription to Lab Animal, a journal dedicated to research in laboratory animal medicine, I couldn’t say no. I was certain that eventually an article would appear in the journal that would apply to this blog.

And so the waiting game began. I monitored the journal for months without success. I simply didn’t think that my readers would be interested in the methodology of diagnosing Encephalitozoonosis in Wistar rats.

However, this month I finally hit paydirt. The article was entitled “The foraging ball as a quick and easy enrichment device for pigs.”

From a synopsis of the article:

As a supplement to their facility’s existing enrichment program, Huntsbery et al. gave pigs hard plastic ‘foraging balls’ . . . [h]oles were drilled in to the balls and then [the balls were] filled with tasty food items . . . [t]his enrichment device was a simple and effective way to encourage pigs to show species-typical foraging behavior.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with dogs and cats? It turns out that wild dogs, cats, and pigs spend a majority of their waking hours in the pursuit of food (dogs and pigs forage; cats hunt). When removed from the wild and offered food in the form of meals that take less than a minute to consume, pets are left with a lot of free time.

And sometimes that free time causes problems. Pets may become bored or anxious.

This boredom may be linked to separation anxiety, psychogenic alopecia, acral lick dermatitis, house soiling, aggression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and a host of other issues.

Foraging balls release food slowly over time. This keeps the animal busy, interested, and happy as he works to retrieve his meal.

As the authors of the article put it:

Researchers found that pigs housed in a barren environment . . . demonstrated more maladaptive behavior . . . compared with pigs reared in enriched environments.

In other words, pigs that had access to foraging balls were more likely to be well-adjusted and happy. And, in my opinion, dogs and cats with some of the issues listed above may benefit from receiving their food in foraging balls.

Here is some good news: foraging balls are commercially available. My pal Buster has one. If I put his dinner in it and set him loose, he will spend hours happily nosing it around the house until every last morsel has been released (see pictures).

Smaller balls can be used for cats. Kong toys can be filled with food and used for the same purpose.

It is not realistic to use foraging balls as panaceas for such complicated disorders as separation anxiety or psychogenic alopecia. But they are inexpensive and simple. And I would certainly recommend foraging balls before resorting to anti-anxiety medications.

The paper cited in this post is Huntsberry, et al. Lab Animal 37, 2008: 411 – 414.