Toys & Training for Your Pet's Mental Health
Mental health is an important topic for people. We know that having a pet in the home can be beneficial to our own mental health, but are we keeping up with theirs? Pet Community Center works to keep pets happy, and addressing our pets' mental health is key to this.
You may have heard the phrase “a tired dog is a happy dog.” Typically, this refers to keeping your dog physically exercised. But what happens when the weather, your schedule, or your own physical health don't allow you to exercise your dog? This is when behavioral enrichment becomes an even more important tool for maintaining your pet’s mental and physical health.
The goal of behavioral enrichment is to encourage natural behaviors. For dogs and cats, we want these natural behaviors to occur in ways that do not cause problems for us. For example, does your cat have a scratching post? If so, great, but only if they use it! A scratching post is designed to encourage your cat to perform the natural behavior of scratching (which can remove the dead part of their nails, keeping them healthy) on an appropriate material and not your furniture.
Chewing is another natural behavior for dogs and cats. Dogs and cats, especially during their “teething” stage of life, love to chew on different textures, which helps to loosen their baby teeth and make way for their adult teeth. There are a variety of teething toys for puppies and kittens, so it's important to try different options to see what your pet prefers. Be sure to take the size of the toy or bone and your pet's mouth into consideration. For example, a small toy designed for a Yorkshire Terrier would not be appropriate for a German Shepherd. For cats, catnip sticks and teething toys are great to direct their mouths to, instead of your furniture or finger. Again, it’s important to find what material and type of toy your cat likes for different things. Some cats love catnip toys, while others have no interest in them.
When it comes to dog toys in general, there are a LOT of different options. From plush, to squeaky, to bones and balls, each has their own benefits and cautions based on your dog's personality, behavior, and overall toy preference. Remember, if your cat won’t engage with a scratching post or your dog doesn’t interact with his toy, then it’s not enrichment.
Plush squeaky toys are one option for dogs and some cats. Often your dog will “destuff” the toy. This can be good and bad, depending on what happens with the stuffing. If your dog pulls the toys apart and leaves the stuffing and the squeaker laying on the floor, it’s a good thing. However, if your dog likes to keep chewing on the squeaker, then vigilant supervision is very important to prevent your dog from ingesting any toy parts. (Proper behavioral enrichment should not result in a veterinary visit.) While we tend to get annoyed that they destroyed a new toy so quickly and we have to clean it up, this just proves that toy was a great form of enrichment.
Other ways to get your pet’s mind working more is through food dispensing toys. These toys allow you to put kibble or treats into them so your pet has to work to get the food out. There are a variety of difficulty levels, so you need to try different ones to see what works best for your dog or cat. Some toys allow you to “stuff” food and treats into them and your dog or cat has to lick the toy or bounce it around to get it out. These can even be frozen with tasty treats for summertime fun. Using canned food, peanut butter, or squeeze cheese in moderation can be tasty treats. There are also puzzle toys that require your dog or cat to use their paws or nose to move puzzle pieces or caps around to release the food. These require supervision to ensure your dog or cat doesn’t chew through the puzzle pieces, but they are a great way to encourage problem solving and often amusing to watch.
Slow feeders can also help with the mental health of our furry friends. Slow feeders come in the form of bowls with obstructions, snuffle mats that encourage dogs to sniff through to find their food, or even plastic “grass” looking feeders. You can even make your own by using a muffin tin and separating your dog’s food into each muffin part. These are often recommended for dogs who eat their food too quickly, which can cause health problems like increased vomiting.
Toys and slow feeders are important to the mental and physical health of our furry companions. Many problem behaviors that start small, like chewing while teething, can quickly be redirected onto an appropriate toy before becoming an issue that’s too hard to handle. Toys allow for positive interactions and can help build a relationship with your dog or cat. Plus, toys can be a great reward when training - another “tool” in the box of enrichment.
Training is an excellent way to keep your dog or cat mentally fit while spending quality time with them. Using positive reinforcement to teach your dog fun tricks like roll over or your cat to sit and stay are excellent ways to build your relationship with them while keeping their brain active and teaching them some great skills. Even basic manners practice (like sit and stay) can get your dog some much needed mental exercise on a cold, rainy day. Training can also increase your ability to communicate with your dog and read their body language, all while teaching lifelong skills. When it comes to cats, they can learn many of the same behaviors’ dogs can, all while bonding with you! The biggest points to remember are to keep it fun, keep it positive, and always end on a good note!
Whether it’s toys or training, our pet’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. These tools can often prevent unwanted behaviors and encourage natural behaviors in an appropriate way. By using behavioral enrichment, and learning what your dog or cat engages with, you can help keep them happy and healthy.