Making Paws-itive Choices

To help our animal BFFs put their best paw forward, it's up to us humans to give our pets the opportunities they need to live their happiest, healthiest lives.
By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT and Leah Lopez Cardenas
October 01, 2020

Our pets' well-being requires more than just food in their dish and an occasional walk around the block. Dogs and cats both need enrichment opportunities to unlock their full potential, including playtime, socialization, and bonding activities that are regular components of their routines.

The Power of Play: How Enrichment Leads to Longer, Happier Pet Lives

For us humans, enrichment is the frosting of life. We can survive without it, but where's the fun in that? It’s why we crave vacation, turn to the arts, and delight in dining out. These moments can shift our perspective and offer a chance to experience new sights, smells, tastes, and points of view. Enrichment is a key part of living our best lives, and the same goes for our animal companions.

From behaviorists to veterinarians, pet experts across the board agree that finding ways to enrich their lives—through playtime, socialization, exercise, and mental stimulation—is a huge component of helping our dogs and cats be their happiest, healthiest selves. And it’s more than just having fun (though that’s certainly a part of it). Pet enrichment can help our pets learn to interact with each other, bond with their humans, and improve their physical and emotional health. 

To better understand all the ways playtime helps our pets, we spoke with animal experts about the importance of incorporating these activities into our pets’ routines and how to get started.

Physical Benefits of Play

“Play is wonderful for pets in many ways,” says Deb Eldredge, DVM, who breeds Belgian Tervurens in New York. When they’re younger, playtime “helps puppies and kittens learn to control their bodies, since coordination comes from practice.” And because weight-bearing [activities] and movement strengthens bones and tones muscles, Eldredge says it’s good for bone growth, as well. She adds that aerobic exercise—such as hiking or playing fetch with dogs, or a feather wand toy for cats—is good for heart health and can also help with weight control.

But playtime isn’t just for youngsters, and should be a regular part of pets’ routines even as they age. “If pets don’t move about, they’ll lose muscle tone and eventually even muscle mass,” Eldredge says. “Bones become more fragile without weight bearing. Weight control can be very difficult with calorie reduction alone and no exercise.”

Studies show that behavioral enrichment—alongside plenty of exercise and a diet rich in antioxidants—can help maintain cognitive function and lower the risk of late-stage diseases in senior pets. Playtime together may even have the ability to potentially lengthen lifespans for our furry family members. Nikki Harris, COO of Jacksonville Humane Society in Jacksonville, Fla.,  points out that pet owners who interact with their pets on a regular basis are apt to discover physical issues more quickly, meaning early detection and earlier treatment by a veterinarian.

The Nature of Play

While we know that every pet needs good nutrition and exercise to stay healthy, enrichment also plays a critical role in animal health by creating opportunities for our pets to express their natural behaviors. “Play is a natural behavior. [For dogs], their mom plays with them as a puppy, they play with their littermates, and that’s kind of how they interact with humans or other pets in their life,” Harris says. “Their very first bonds formed in life are through play, so it’s only natural that playing with your dog is something that’s ingrained in them and creates a positive experience.”

But while physical exercise and play may be among the first things pet parents think of when considering their animals’ well-being, it’s only one kind of stimulation that pets need.

While each animal is different (with genetics and home environment playing a large part in health), research shows that pets are happier, healthier, and live longer lives when they’re provided activities that stimulate their mind and different senses.

Brain Games

Dogs Hope and Bandit are great examples of how mind-stimulating activities can transform a dog’s life. Though it’s been several years since Marni Steadham of Des Moines, Iowa, adopted Hope (an 11-year-old Schipperke), and Bandit (a 7-year-old mixed breed), Steadham says that both dogs occasionally still engage in “undesirable behaviors.” As a board member and dog trainer for the Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society, she understands that these behaviors are rooted in a range of emotions, including fear and nervousness.

Left: Hope is an 11-year-old Schipperke who loves attention and will do just about anything to get it (including making a deliberate mess). | Credit: Marni Steadham
Right: Bandit is a 7-year-old mixed breed with a penchant for squeaky toys and a tendency to get nervous around new people and dogs. | Credit: Marni Steadham

Lots of pet parents are familiar with the behaviors Steadham observed in Hope and Bandit—like attention-seeking destruction, anxious barking and whining, and pulling or barking while walking on-leash. To address those, Steadham found ways to incorporate enrichment opportunities into each dog’s routines, which has helped curb her pups’ problem behavior.

To find out what types of enrichment each dog needed, Steadham says the first step was identifying the issues that were causing the dogs stress. Then, she found creative methods to enrich each dog’s routine.

In Hope’s case, Steadham said that when the pup became bored, she’d start following her “incessantly from room to room,” even barking at her owner for attention. “Hope wants to be with her humans constantly,” Steadham explains. “If she can’t get access to my attention, or feels bored and needs stimulation, she’ll find things to destroy including tissue boxes or the trash.” The wiley pup even figured out how to get into the garbage can. (Smart girl!)

While Hope's behaviors may stem from boredom or just wanting attention, Steadham says her other dog, Bandit, expresses anxious behaviors that may stem from fear. The pup has a tendency to become nervous or fearful around unfamiliar people and dogs, resulting in excessive barking and lunging on-leash.

As an experienced trainer, Steadham knew that adding personalized enrichment activities into each of the pup’s daily routines would help them feel happier and less stressed.

Types of Pet Enrichment Activities

Incorporating ‘social hours’ with trusted friends and their pets into your weekly routine can improve your pup's social skills (and give you an excuse to see your human pals, too!).
| Credit: Jennifer A Smith / Getty

Animal experts typically point to five primary types of pet enrichment activities that can reduce your pet’s stress and improve their mental health, in turn helping mitigate problematic behaviors (not to mention maintain your sanity and shoe collection). 

Steadham uses a combination of these strategies to help each of her dogs feel their physical and emotional best. Understanding these different options will help you choose the ones that will help your pet, too.

1. Physical Enrichment

Physical enrichment involves anything that gets your pet moving; it addresses your pet’s physical needs, and their mental needs too. For dogs, that may mean chasing a Frisbee and going for runs, or positive reinforcement training sessions and off-leash romps. For cats, playing with movable objects like feather toys and tracks with a ball are fun options that engage a cat’s desire to chase and pounce.

2. Social Enrichment

If you take your dog for walks, play a round of fetch, or just cuddle up with Kitty for some one-on-one petting time, you’re already giving your fur baby some much-needed face time with their favorite human. It's beneficial for them to socialize with other animals, too. Just like with people, socialization builds confidence. For dogs, that may mean organizing a play group with trusted friends and pups whom you know are healthy, well-trained, and get along.

Socialization for cats looks a little different, but is still important, and may mean inviting close friends over to pet and play with them.

3. Sensory Enrichment

Sensory enrichment means engaging your pets’ senses—sight, taste, and smell. One way for animals to activate their high-powered noses is through scent work. Because animals have a much stronger sense of smell than ours, Harris says scent games and other sensory activities let your pet exercise both their body and mind while optimizing their natural skills. Scent work “keeps [the animals] very busy and it’s a really fun, inexpensive thing you can do at home,” she says.

Try placing treats, leaves from outside, or a favorite toy filled with a treat under cardboard boxes for your pet to sniff out and find around your home. Another way to give pets a chance to use their natural instincts are sensory enrichment toys that give dogs or cats an opportunity to forage, explore, and sniff around to get their food. Try making a DIY snuffle mat that will simulate rooting through grass as a pet would do outdoors in the wild.

For dog owners, scent work can even be a segue into competitive nose work groups or more formal work aiding search and rescue operations or wildlife recovery efforts.

4. Nutritional Enrichment

We know a healthy diet is important for every pet, but incorporating nutritional enrichment activities into normal feeding times can make eating meals more exciting. Mix up feedings with different types of food items including treats, regular food, chewables like all-natural bully sticks or marrow bones, and tasty snacks like plain, unsalted, xylitol-free peanut butter. You might even try introducing a puzzle feeder to encourage your dog or cat to work on instinctive animal behaviors, like they would hunt for their meals in the wild.

5. Occupational Enrichment

Occupational enrichment basically means giving your dog the chance to learn new things. While basic cues like “sit” and “down” are helpful dog training skills to learn, it’s also important to teach pets skills that can help you both complete everyday tasks. These types of skills build confidence and give your pet choice and control over their own care, which helps alleviate stress and fear.

For cats, this might mean teaching your kitty to use the scratching post, to give her a happy way to fulfill her instinct to scratch. A dog that offers to give their paw at the sight of nail clippers—instead of the owner or groomer having to forcefully grab their paw—has more control over the activity and will feel less stressed to do it. Dogs might also benefit from competitions like Flyball relay racing, agility and scent work, and therapy dog training—which is one method Steadham used to enrich her dog Hope’s routine.

Tailoring Enrichment to Your Pet’s Needs

Because of her dog’s attention-seeking behaviors, Steadham decided that putting more attention on occupational enrichment would give her dogs more time with her while also giving them new skills to concentrate on. She and Hope, who had already mastered basic obedience skills, began a therapy dog training program as a way to channel the pup’s energy. As part of Hope’s training programs and therapy visits, she learns to stay focused during interactions with unfamiliar people while receiving positive reinforcements like treats, petting, and attention.

“I tell people Hope’s visits during therapy dog activities are a favor to me—my dog requires so much love and attention that I need to have other people pay attention to her for me,” Steadham says. “This isn’t an exaggeration. Hope gets super excited to do therapy dog visits and is typically less demanding of my attention (afterwards) at home.”

Hope’s handler, Marni Steadham, completed a therapy dog training program as a way to channel the pup’s energy. Hope loves the extra attention she gets during therapy visits.
| Credit: Marni Steadham

Steadham chose a different approach for Bandit, since his underlying issues are different. For his needs, Steadham introduced additional structure into the pup’s life, built around a daily routine that helps alleviate his anxiety.

“If Bandit is going to be left alone, first he goes for a walk outside, which is followed by a treat-filled toy,” she says. It’s a routine that offers Bandit some predictability, and one she says has done wonders for his happiness. These new habits help the fearful pup feel he has a choice and control over a situation that typically would cause him stress.

Signs a Pet Needs More Playtime

Now that she’s able to identify the cause of each pup’s problem behaviors—boredom in Hope’s case, and fear for Bandit—Steadham has a better idea of when the dogs need more enrichment opportunities.

There are several telltale behaviors that may indicate your pet needs more playtime or enrichment added into their routine. “Pet owners should pay attention to their pet’s behavior and interests. When [your pet] starts to misbehave or get bored, they need to have a structured play system,” Harris says.

Signs Your Cat Is Bored

Signs Your Dog Is Bored

Many of these signs could also be symptoms of illness, so visit your vet to make sure there’s not something else going on. Your vet will also be able to help you create a plan of action to incorporate more enrichment activities, depending on your pet’s individual needs.

How to Make More Time for Pet Exercise and Play

Tip: Regularly rotating your pet's selection of toys keeps her from getting bored. Switch up a toy when your furry friend starts to ignore or stop playing with it so she always has something new and exciting to interact with!
| Credit: Waitforlight / Getty

Let’s face it—human schedules can be ruff, and playtime is hard to come by. But how much play do our pets need? While every pet is different, especially depending on age and health status, there is no perfect amount of time to reach each day. Instead, try to focus on the quality of play, and be sure to incorporate both physical and mental components into your dog or cat’s routine. “Having access to enrichment means my dogs enjoy a high quality of life, and allows their personalities to shine through, reflected through what they enjoy to do,” Steadham says.

Good play doesn’t have to be long, and play sessions can be dispersed throughout the day. The ideal playtime schedule gives your pet a chance to play at times when they feel most active. For most pets, this means right after breakfast and dinner as well an hour or two before bed. Play a quick game of tug before you feed your dog breakfast, or throw the cat toy a few times as you get dressed for the day. In the evenings, instead of going for long walks around the neighborhood, take a short, brisk walk and then head home for a game of fetch or hide and seek.

To get in more playtime, Eldredge says busy pet parents can multitask. “While cooking dinner, push a toy or ball around with your foot—which helps your coordination, too! Or toss a soft toy while you read or watch TV.” You can also set up your home to provide enrichment that your furry friend can do on their own if you’re crunched for quality time on a particular day. “Set a food puzzle down while you check on your email,” Eldredge says.

Other interactive toys that fight boredom and loneliness are great options for the pet owner that’s gone during the day. Toys like snuffle mats and food-filled Kongs are quality options for both dogs and cats that keep them busy for a long time. Treat dispensing toys like the Furbo dog camera can also help keep pets engaged while their human companions are away.

It may also help to rotate your pet’s toy selection about once a week, providing two or three toys at a time. Experts suggest rotating the toys you leave at home for your pet as well as the ones you use to play with them. This can help alleviate boredom and get your pet excited about something new.

In addition to toys, it may help to provide lookout spots that allow pets to observe the environment outside their home. Keep the curtains opened so they can see out the window, or if your window is higher up, create a window perch or raised pet bed to give your furry friend a peek at the world around them. Experiment with what your pet enjoys most. After all, the best enrichment activities are the ones your pet enjoys.

Enrichment paws-itively affects your pet’s whole body, from nose to tail. And it brings you and your pet closer together. It’s how we give our pets the healthiest, happiest years they could ask for.