Aroma Therapy Is Enriching for Dogs and Cats of all Kinds


I am privileged to have spoken around the world on many topics relating to animal behavior. Two talks I give are all about enrichment. That’s the opportunity for animals to make independent choices to use their natural abilities.

One simple example is to hang a bird feeder outside for an indoor cat to watch.

Cats watching birds sing – better than watching American Idol, if you are a cat

Another is to offer your dog or cat’s treats by hiding them – their predatory drive does kind of kick in.

I begin these talks by saying zoo animals often receive more environmental and behavioral enrichment that our dogs and cats at home.

One often forgotten about tool is catnip. And lots of cats to offer the flehman response while rolling around with catnip. If only there was an equivalent for people.

This lioness isn’t roaring, she’s exhibiting a flehman response, giving all possible exposure of scents to the vameronasal organ (our house cats can do the same thing). The zoo scented these bushes with peppermint.

Most dogs are under-employed, and while it’s great we’re keeping our cats inside, they become round around their middles and the brains shrink, as they’re rarely asked to do anything or and they are rarely given the opportunity to chase and pounce – which is what all cats are born to do.

Of course, our dogs and cats live by their noses – as do lots of animals on the planet. At the Paignton Zoo in Devon, England – there are lots of examples of sensory enrichment – we can learn from these, and replicate them in our homes.

African lions at the zoo like a burlap ‘pillow’ scented with peppermint. One lion even carries it around and sleeps with it.  However, be careful what you use to stimulate your animals at home. Lavender may calm people, but olfactory systems are so different and ultra sensitive in cats, some say lavender excites them. However, lavender does seem to have the same relaxing affect on dogs as it does on people.

Another tool are the pheromone collars. This is a new one, for dogs and there’s a cat version too. And there’s the dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) collar. And a diffuser and spray called Feliway, both with calming pheromones. These products may be helpful for anxious dogs.

Also understand different animals respond differently. Returning home from a cat shelter is something our cat is accustomed to and finds fascinating. However, other cats might literally have a pissy fit. When I volunteered at the zoo, I’d place my docent coat on the ground – and the dogs would enthralled, intently sniffing – sometimes for hours.

Empty root beer bottle is fascinating to this dog…it’s not so much the glass bottle (when offering glass be sure the dog can’t push it somewhere where it can break, or better supervise) which is slippery and fun – it’s the smell of what was once inside in this case.

Our older dog is now 15 and has difficulty seeing at night. Dr. Natalie Marks recently reminded me that I can spray a scent, perhaps lavender or even use a dab of cologne or perfume – and mark corners on walls so our dog can help find her way without bumps in the night.

So, here’s a smell no one loves

For dogs, you can purchase odd scents at all kinds of stores – even car repair shops which have the various scented items that hang from the rear-view mirrors. The problem is that much of what we consider a pleasing aroma, dogs likely consider boring (except sausage). If you really want to please your dog – somehow duplicate the odor of a rotting animal. Now there’s a smell to get excited about. What’s the most disgusting thing your dog ever sniffed and thought was exciting? (I thank friend and Facebook fan Leslie for the idea for this post)