Calming pets with sensory enrichment

Enhancing our pets’ lives through their senses

By Dr Jo Righetti

We all hope that pets in our care are happy, carefree and suffer the minimum stress possible. Unfamiliar shelter environments may have our dogs pacing or barking and our cats’ toileting inappropriately or hiding. Even our normally relaxed pets at home become stressed on occasion – thunderstorms, car travel, guest in our homes.

Some simple sensory measures involving both stimulation and relaxation, may help to relax animals…

Auditory Stimulation


Music helps pets calm down and most will lie down and relax when played music:

  • Shelter dogs bark less when played classical music
  • Pop music, although perhaps preferred by staff, has little effect on dogs
  • Heavy metal really stirs them up and increases barking
  • A mix of classical and reggae should relax everyone

Changing musical genres keeps dogs listening. Beware, however, when the music stops, the barking starts!


Voice relaxation is also possible in dogs. The calming tones of audiobooks helps dogs lie down and relax and reduces vigilant behaviour. If not audiobooks, we could leave a radio on, tuned to talkback radio. We don’t yet know the effect on cats but, chances are, soothing voices will relax them too.

Look out for pain

There is a link between canine noise sensitivities and pain. Hearing a disliked sound may cause the dog to move, causing more pain and further noise aversion. This is worse in ageing dogs. If you suspect your dog may be in pain, have a check-up with your vet.

Visual stimulation

Television and movies

Some pets love to watch television and others barely even notice the screen. Newer technology, with higher resolutions, are more appealing to pets, who may take notice of movements or animals on the screen. Most cats also enjoy iPad games.

While most of these visual media are out of financial reach of shelters, they may be something to add to the wish list.

Scent stimulation

Dog scents

We all know how wonderful and powerful the dog’s nose is, so using scent to enrich their lives is beneficial. Effects, tested in shelter dogs, included the following:

  • Lavender and Chamomile reduce barking and movement in dogs
  • Rosemary and Peppermint increase barking and movement
  • Vanilla, Coconut, Ginger and Valerian reduce the levels of barking and movement
  • Coconut and Ginger increase sleeping

Cats scents

Catnip or prey (rabbit) scents increased sleeping time and decreased standing and exploratory time. Catnip also resulted in play-like behaviour, for those cats that respond to it. Cats have little response to lavender.

Shelter sense stimulation

Animals spend more time at the front of the cage when scents are absent, so perhaps shelters need to keep relaxing scents for non-visitor hours. Potential adopters may find it entertaining to watch a dog engage with their scent-enhanced toy or a relaxed cat relax on their lap.

How can you enhance your pet’s senses and stimulate or relax them?

All of these sensory topics have been discussed on my website Pet Problems Solved.

Original references:

Dogs prefer Bach to Britney
Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs
‘Four Seasons’ in an animal rescue centre; classical music reduces environmental stress in kennelled dogs
The effect of different genres of music on the stress levels of kennelled dogs
The effects of audiobooks on the behaviour of dogs at a rehoming kennels
Stress-busting films for pets

The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter
The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of dogs housed in a rescue shelter
The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter

Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis

Dr Jo Righetti is the Australia CAN Ambassador. She is a PhD-qualified animal behaviourist, with 20 years experience in business. Dr Jo consults with a variety of companies, organisations, governments, vet clinics, universities and media. Her regular blog, Pet Problems Solved, is a wonderful storehouse of knowledge for people who love pets. Dr Jo lives with a dog & 4 cats.

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