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Rescue Group Best Practices: mental well-being

Animal welfare organizations tend to focus their attention on the first three freedoms, ensuring their animals receive proper nutrition, veterinary care and adequate shelter. But the last two freedoms are equally important, and your group must take steps to ensure that each animal’s mental well-being receives just as much attention as the physical. Ensuring the mental health of the animals in your rescue’s care is just as important as ensuring their physical welfare.


Failure to meet Freedoms 4 (freedom to express normal behavior) and 5 (freedom from fear and distress) cause animals to experience stress, and stress translates directly into disease, which can increase veterinarian bills, decrease adoptability and put a strain on your entire organization. Therefore, it is in your best interest to make sure that the animals in your care stay as stress-free as possible.

Even though many animals are stoic, meaning they do not disclose early symptoms of distress or disease, there are behaviors that to the careful observer indicate stress:

  • Urinating/defecating on bedding
  • Extreme overstimulation or fear response at the sight of people or other animals
  • Barrier/kennel aggression
  • Repetitive behaviors (e.g., pacing, spinning, licking)
  • Being shut down, unresponsive, withdrawn or hiding
  • Under- or over-grooming
  • Not eating
  • Cats using the “litter box lounge” (it is not normal for cats to lay in their litter box)
  • Excessive or inappropriate vocalizing (especially loud/ repetitive sounds)

Remember, you need to know what is normal to recognize what is not. If a cat that normally is very vocal suddenly stops “talking,” or if a dog that normally greets people politely in the kennel suddenly starts lunging or barking, those could be indicators of stress. All signs of stress should be addressed immediately, either by adding enrichment to relieve boredom, removing the stressor (e.g., placing the animal in a quieter room) and/or obtaining veterinary attention.


Enrichment is not a “nice extra” for animals awaiting new homes; it is so important that the ASV GSC at p. 34 expressly states that it is not optional:

The purpose of enrichment is to reduce stress and improve well-being by providing physical and mental stimulation, encouraging species- typical behaviors (e.g., chewing for dogs and rodents, scratching for cats), and allowing animals more control over their environment…. Enrichment should be given the same significance as other components of animal care, such as nutrition and veterinary care, and should not be considered optional.

The good news is enrichment does not have to involve a lot of time, expense or expertise.

Easy automatics

There are ways to provide enrichment almost automatically, just by incorporating them into cage/kennel setups and the general environment. Items like hiding boxes for cats, toilet paper rolls for rodents, scratching posts for colony rooms and safe chew toys for dogs, can all be incorporated into your basic cage/kennel setups right along with food and water bowls. Putting up window perches for cats, playing a nature video, or perhaps even installing a fish tank, can be “add-ons” that all residents of a room can find stimulating and enjoy.


Using enrichment techniques to help make cleaning and other processes easier is another way to incorporate enrichment without adding undue burdens. If you hold several dogs in a kennel situation, incorporating playgroups gets everyone outside for easier cleaning while the dogs exercise and play. Give cats interactive toys to distract them while their cages are spot-cleaned.

In-cage enrichment

For most people, shelter/rescue volunteering and “dog walking” are synonymous, and that is definitely a much needed service for animals living in kennels or cages. But walking alone is not truly enrichment—in fact, it can actually be detrimental. Kenneled dogs often jump and carry on at the front of their cage when people come by—why? Because the only excitement in their day is when a person arrives and takes them out. But kenneled dogs may spend 20+ hours each day inside their kennel, and caged cats usually spend all of their time in that space, so should not that be the place they want to be and feel most comfortable?

It is not difficult to enrich the inside of a kennel/cage for an animal awaiting a new home:

For dogs:

  • Stack cereal boxes and smear the innermost box with peanut butter, so the dog has to rip the boxes apart to reach the treat.
  • Place their dinner in water and freeze it, so the dog has to lick his kibble out; serve meals in Kongs with kibble on the bottom and wet food on top.
  • Fill Kongs with peanut butter, or better yet, freeze the stuffed Kongs (Kong has a program where shelters and rescues can get free or low cost unsaleable “seconds.”).
  • Blow nontoxic bubbles throughout the room and let the dogs try to catch them.
  • Read or do paperwork while sitting in the kennel.

For cats:

  • Add objects like caps, paper bags, tissue paper or empty boxes to cages.
  • Place treats in tin foil and ball it up, so the cat can not only bat it around but also work to open it and find the goodies.
  • Grow fresh cat grass or catnip.
  • Groom cats inside their cages.
  • Put catnip inside socks or strips of fleece and knot them.
  • Stuff tuna or other treats inside an old toilet paper tube, then plug the tube with tissue paper as an extra obstacle for the cat to remove.
  • Put strips of carpet or scratching posts inside the cage.
  • Feed wet food in half of a plastic “Easter” egg to make the cats work to get the food out.

Enrichment does not have to be fancy or expensive. The key is to be creative and give animals activities and toys that not only prompt physical stimulation, but also engage their brains and require them to problem solve.

Out-of-cage enrichment

Enrichments that provide both mental and physical stimulation should also be provided outside of the animal’s cage/kennel. Dog walks, for example, are often either just a quick potty break or a long hike designed to tire the dog out physically. Both opportunities are important, but how often do dogs catch on and take longer and longer to potty, knowing that once they do they will immediately have to go back inside? And while long hikes are exhausting, they are also physically conditioning the dog to need longer and harder workouts to achieve the same results. Trips outside the kennel should not be just for exercise, they should provide opportunities to engage the animal’s brain. Reinforcing polite walking manners, for example, or using clicker training to teach a new skill not only engages the mind, it helps increase the dog’s adoptability. And it does not have to be all work—creating scent trails for dogs to follow, or letting them dig for treats in sandboxes or wading pools, allows them to expend energy and use their senses.

You can also engage cats both physically and mentally. Believe it or not, cats can be clicker trained just as easily as dogs! And there is an added benefit to engaging cats— research shows that people are most likely to adopt a cat that engages with them and initiates a physical connection. Thus, encouraging cats to approach people and even teaching them to politely paw at passersby can be lifesaving!

Other stress relievers

For animals whose stress is not relieved by enrichment alone, there are other techniques you can use. Sometimes just changing their location can make all the difference. If an animal needs a quieter space, moving him away from sources of noise and stress can help; conversely, for the dog that needs lots of stimulation, putting her in a kennel right in the center of the action can do the trick. Some groups swear by products like Feliway and Comfort Zone, which simulate natural calming pheromones. Thundershirts are available for both cats and dogs to help relieve anxiety, and music and techniques like Tellington Touch (TTouch) and Reiki can be used to calm anxious animals. Medications are viewed by many as a last resort, but an argument can be made that animals are better off being successfully medicated before their stress behaviors become lasting bad habits. Talk with your veterinarian about options and protocols.


Not too long ago, fosters were warned to keep foster pets far away from their own pets and children to avoid spreading disease. Puppies, in particular, were to be kept isolated until they had their full series of vaccinations. Nowadays, we know that the benefits of proper socialization far outweigh the risks to anyone involved. Of course it is vital to ensure that all pets are properly vaccinated and that all interactions are closely monitored, but helping to ensure that foster pets are well acclimated to all types of animals, people and environments is a critical component of preparing them for successful adoption.