5 Reasons Why Playing With Your Pet Is So Important
Watching your pup chase a tossed ball or your kitty scamper after a wiggling string toy is cute, but this playtime is also a major contributing factor to their wellbeing. But do you know why playing with your pet is so important? Author and animal behaviorist Amy Shojai, CABC, shares the enrichment benefits of amusing—but meaningful—recreation.
1. Structured Play Improves Behavior and Bonding
All too often, our pets get a little mischievous because they're bored or have separation anxiety. Structured playtime is the best solution. "[Our pets] thrive on routine, so a schedule they can depend on reduces stress," Shojai says. "Play feels great to our pets and self-rewards, so no treats are required. When you play with your cats and dogs, you become the source for fun and happy feelings, so they want to spend more time with you." This also builds trust and improves bonding.
While most furry friends are happy with about 30 minutes of daily playtime along with regular exercise, more active breeds such as border collies or Abyssinians might need shorter, more frequent bursts of engagement throughout the day.
2. Rotated Toys Increase Stimulation
Renew your fur baby's interest in old favorites by changing up what items they grab from the top of their toy box. You can also hide a few popular toys in a different room and encourage your pup or kitty to find them. Stash a few "couch potato" toys to use while watching TV, too.
3. Food Toys Put Pets to Work
While lazing on the bed, our cuddly buddies don't always seem like natural predators. But working for food taps into this instinct as purposeful play and mental stimulation. Puppy puzzle toys and DIY snuffle mats filled with kibble keep your inquiring pup engaged.
Shojai says cats are intermittent feeders, eating only a mouse-size meal at a time, and it's quite common for them to make 5–10 daily food stops. Most kitties eventually understand puzzle feeders after a brief learning curve.
"If the puzzle doesn't work, simply use multiple paper plates placed all around the house with a tiny meal on each, so the cat still has to 'hunt' for dinner," she says. "One or more hidden at the top of the stairs or on a cat tree ensures the cat must engage in at least some aerobic exercise to win the prize."
4. Effective Entertainment Is Easy on the Budget
While playing with your pet is important, spending quality time with your pet doesn't always mean we have to spend more on them. "My Karma-Kat loves to 'surf' on a towel dragged around the carpet. He runs and leaps onto the dragged fabric, and clings with paws and claws and adores the ride. He also loves to play hide-and-pounce from empty boxes," Shojai says. "Shadow-Pup became so enthralled with the cat's fishing pole-style toy that I made one sturdy enough for dogs."
Many cat indoor games and dog activities such as scent training hardly cost a thing and provide ways for them to use all their mental and physical abilities. A few ideas include fetch, treats tucked under wadded-up paper, obstacle courses, and hide-and-seek. Positive reinforcement and trick training are tools you can use with both cats and dogs, too.
5. Nature Tickles All the Senses
Most pups love to be outside, even for a little while, so build a dog-friendly backyard. If you don't have an adventure cat, Shojai says you can bring the outside in to pique kitty's interest by simply filling a box with different leaves and letting them nose through it.
"Also remember that part of cat play includes just ... watching. Don't mistake the cat's inactivity for disinterest," she adds. "Senior cats, especially, may not have the energy or ability to leap and dash. They still love watching flitting feathers on the end of a fishing pole toy."
Fun, interactive engagement is truly a win for your pet, and it doesn't take a lot of time or money to be creative and keep them happy.
"We know that behavior problems often arise from fear. Play not only exercises the body, but also the mind, building confidence and counteracting fear reactions," Shojai says. "Success teaches pets better ways to manage stress, boredom, or frustration. And reducing stress also lowers the incidence of associated health concerns."
Playing with pets relieves our stress, too, so the prescription for good health for all creatures seems to be more goofing off—which sounds perfectly reasonable to us!
Additional reporting by Jennifer Aldrich.