Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Socializing young kittens and puppies means giving them positive experiences with things they’ll encounter throughout their lives. Building positive associations early in life helps animals feel comfortable with new people and new situations. Animals that are well socialized when they’re young are less likely to develop fear-based behavior problems (like aggression) that could put them at risk of being sent to a shelter or euthanized later on.
Sensitive Period for Socialization
For kittens, the window of opportunity for socialization is very early: from 3 weeks to about 7 to 9 weeks of age.[1,2] The sensitive period is the time when a young kitten’s brain is most receptive to socialization. During these early weeks, a kitten is exploring and learning, developing neurological pathways that will help the kitten learn in the future. After the sensitive period, brain development shifts; kittens don’t make positive associations as quickly or easily and they’re more likely to be afraid of new things. This is why it’s so difficult, if not impossible, to convert a semi-feral adult cat into a cat that can be happy living as a house pet.
You will have noticed that the sensitive socialization period for kittens is nearly closed by the time they’re typically adopted or purchased. Socialization needs to start with the person caring for the mother cat and newborns. When you adopt or buy a kitten, continue providing socialization (at the kitten’s comfort level and pace) to reinforce what the kitten has already learned.
The socialization process should always be positive. Don’t force kittens to interact with strangers or other animals if they’re shy, and don’t push them to be near things that scare them. Let them choose whether to interact. Give them room to walk away and let them hide if they want to. Use positive reinforcement (food or play) to encourage them to interact and build their confidence.
The following suggestions are adapted from the American Veterinary Medical Association. For more tips, check out the First Year of Life page on the Cat Friendly Homes website: https://catfriendly.com/life-stages/first-year-life/
Socializing Kittens Before Weaning
Socializing Kittens 8 to 12 Weeks Old
Older Kittens and Newly Adopted Adult Cats
1. Welfare implications of socialization of puppies and kittens. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 9, 2015. Accessed July 8, 2022. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/literature-reviews/welfare-implications-socialization-puppies-and-kittens
2. Todd Z. The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens. Companion Animal Psychology. July 26, 2017. Accessed July 8, 2022. https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/07/the-sensitive-period-for-socialization.html
Photo by Haley Owens on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Holiday celebrations can be stressful for pets. Visitors, changes in routine, changes in food, unfamiliar scents and objects in the home, traveling, and noise can all cause anxiety for animals. Animals are more likely to bite when they’re scared or anxious, so minimizing sources of stress for your pets will help keep the holidays happy for everyone.
Limit Stressful Situations
To identify sources of stress for your pets, think like an animal. Animals feel safest when their routines and environment are predictable. Keep meal times, nap times, and exercise and play schedules about the same as usual. You might want to sleep late on a holiday (OK, the day after a holiday), but if your pets are used to a very consistent morning routine, this change could contribute to stress.
It’s normal and very human to want to include pets in our celebrations, but be careful not to think of your animals as little people in fur (or scale or feather) coats. They won’t feel left out if they’re not invited to a party. Most animals would rather be in a nice quiet room than in the middle of holiday hubbub. Think about your pets’ usual behavior around strangers and noise, and let them stay wherever they are most comfortable and safe.
Be aware of foods that aren’t safe for animals, especially if you have visitors who don’t know what your pets should and shouldn’t eat. Chocolate, xylitol sweetener, grapes, raisins, onion, garlic, and raw yeast dough are some of the foods that can be dangerous for animals. Limit or avoid table food for your pets; fatty or rich food can cause digestive upset. A holiday trip to the emergency veterinary clinic is not on anyone’s wish list.
Contact your veterinarian in advance if your pet is afraid of fireworks or has travel anxiety. Your veterinarian might recommend prescription or nonprescription antianxiety medication, depending on the symptoms. Plan ahead for this. Your pet might need a veterinary examination before medication can be prescribed.
Watch for Signs of Stress
The early signs of fear and anxiety can be subtle. Owners sometimes don’t realize their pets are in distress until the behavior escalates to aggression (an attempt to remove a perceived threat). Watch for any changes from the usual behavior. Some animals withdraw and hide in response to stress; others become hyperactive or clingy.
Signs of Anxiety in Dogs
Signs of Anxiety in Cats
Photo by Tyler Farmer on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The way we feed cats—not just the type of diet we choose—can affect their physical and mental health.
Animals are happiest and healthiest when they’re able to do all of the things that are normal for their species. For cats, normal feeding behavior is related to their nature as hunters.
Almost all cat species are solitary hunters, unlike wolves and other canines that hunt in packs. (Lions are the exception.) Domestic cats have not evolved far from their wild relatives in this respect. This means that pet cats usually like to eat several small meals a day alone, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP).
The following suggestions are from the 2018 AAFP consensus statement on feline feeding programs.
Potential Health Problems Related to Feeding Methods
Some common feeding methods can cause physical and emotional problems for pet cats, says the AAFP.
Feeding 1 or 2 large meals a day in a single location contributes to inactivity and weight gain, increasing the risk for medical problems like diabetes. Eliminating the need to hunt reduces a cat’s activity level and mental stimulation. And feeding cats in a group might lead to food-related conflict and stress, which in cats is linked to bladder and behavior problems.
Suggestions for Feeding Cats
Suggestions for Multiple Cats
1. Sadek T, Hamper B, Horwitz D, Rodan I, Rowe E, Sundahl E. Feline feeding programs: addressing behavioral needs to improve feline health and wellbeing. J Feline Med Surg. 2018;20(11):1049-1055. doi:10.1177/1098612X18791877
2. Delgado MM, Han BSG, Bain MJ. Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort. Anim Cogn. Published online July 26, 2021. doi:10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3
Photo by Long Ma on Unsplash
Any dog might need to wear a muzzle at some point. Muzzle training makes wearing a muzzle stress-free and even fun for the dog. Resources for training a dog to love a muzzle are linked at the end of this article.
Why Dogs Wear Muzzles
Muzzles can be incredibly useful. Wearing a muzzle doesn’t necessarily mean that a dog is aggressive. A muzzle is just another tool to help keep dogs and people safe. These are some of the many reasons a dog might use a muzzle:
Choosing a Muzzle
The type of muzzle to look for is a basket muzzle. Correctly fitted basket muzzles don’t hold a dog’s mouth shut, so a dog wearing a basket muzzle can pant, drink water, and take treats.
Don’t buy a cloth muzzle like the ones sometimes used for dog grooming and veterinary procedures. Cloth muzzles keep the dog’s mouth closed, so these muzzles are not safe for dogs to wear for more than a few minutes and can also be stressful for dogs.
Basket muzzles come in various styles, materials, and colors. Some are made of flexible rubber; muzzles made of wire offer more bite protection. Muzzles for specific breeds (like greyhounds) and custom-made muzzles for dogs with hard-to-fit faces are also available.
The fit of the muzzle is crucial, so you’ll need to measure your dog’s face according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (Estimate the measurement if your dog might bite when his face is touched.) A basket muzzle should be long enough to avoid rubbing the tip of the nose but not so long that it hits the dog’s eyes, and it should be deep enough to let the dog open his mouth wide to pant. A basket muzzle deep enough to allow for full panting will probably look huge when the dog’s mouth is closed, but this is the correct fit.
The muzzle should have lots of openings for air flow. Some basket muzzles have large holes for treats; others have smaller gaps in front of the nose to keep dogs from eating things they shouldn’t.
Muzzle Training Basics
Dogs accept muzzles most readily if the training involves yummy treats and is done gradually over weeks. Dogs who are already afraid of muzzles need extra training steps and more time; don’t hesitate to seek help from a positive-reinforcement trainer.
Watch your dog’s body language throughout training to be sure she’s happy and relaxed. If at any point your dog avoids the muzzle, you’re moving too fast. Back up a couple of steps and proceed more slowly.
1. Arhant C, Schmied-Wagner C, Aigner U, Affenzeller N. Owner reports on use of muzzles and their effects on dogs; an online survey. J Vet Behav. 2021;41:73-81. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2020.07.006
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Separation-related behavior problems are fairly common in dogs and also affect cats. Pets with separation-related distress aren’t acting out of spite or mischief when they shred the sofa cushions or urinate on the carpet. These animals are anxious and afraid, and they need help.
Separation anxiety is a catchall term that describes stress-related behaviors that happen when an animal is separated from its attachment person. It causes significant distress to the animal and can lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Animals with separation anxiety sometimes have other anxiety disorders, like noise phobia. Like other types of anxiety, separation anxiety tends to get worse if it’s not treated.
Animals with separation anxiety show distress behaviors only when they’re separated from their people, not at any other time—unless, of course, they also have another source of anxiety.
Some signs of emotional distress are obvious:
Other signs are more subtle and may go unnoticed if no one is nearby to see or hear the animal:
Animals with subtle signs of anxiety are in just as much distress as the ones who destroy the house. Unfortunately, these animals might be less likely to get treatment because their signs are harder to spot.
In a survey of cat owners, the most common separation-related behaviors in cats were destruction, vocalization, inappropriate urination, depression, aggression, and agitation.
Many disorders cause the same signs as separation anxiety. Pets with possible separation anxiety should first see a veterinarian to rule out medical conditions like urinary tract infection, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
Because of the complexity of anxiety disorders, pets who show distress behaviors often need a full veterinary appointment dedicated to behavior evaluation, not just a quick discussion during a routine wellness visit. A detailed behavior history from the pet’s owner is crucial.
The best way to tell whether problem behaviors are caused by separation is by video recording the pet when the owner isn’t home. Video doesn’t require a home surveillance system; a cell phone can be set up to point at the pet while the owner leaves the house for a few minutes. Separation-related behaviors usually start soon after the owner leaves or even while the owner is getting ready to leave. Video can help pin down the cause of the anxiety (for example, maybe the dog doesn’t rip up the pillows until the mail carrier arrives). Because video is the only way to detect subtle signs of distress, it makes sense for all pet owners to record their animals at some point to be sure all is well.
Managing anxiety in animals usually requires a combination of behavior modification and antianxiety medication. The goal of behavior modification is to teach animals how to relax and calm themselves. Antianxiety medication reduces reactivity so that animals are capable of learning new behaviors, which they can’t do while they’re distressed.
Animals with separation anxiety might need more than 1 type of medication: a long-term drug taken daily and a short-acting drug to use in stressful situations or while waiting for the long-term drug to take effect. Antianxiety medications must be prescribed by a veterinarian. Various nonprescription remedies, such as pheromones and nutritional supplements, are also available. Most of these alternative treatments are more expensive than prescription medications and have less evidence to show that they’re effective.
Treatment of separation anxiety takes time—think months, not days. The most important early goals are to keep the pet safe and minimize sources of anxiety. These are some steps to take right away while waiting for treatment to take effect:
1. de Souza Machado D, Oliveira PMB, Machado JC, Ceballos MC, Sant’Anna AC. Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats: a questionnaire survey. PLoS One. 2020;15(4):e0230999. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230999
2. Overall KL. Advances in treating dogs who cannot be left alone. VMX 2020 Proceedings: Small Animal & Exotics: Book 1. North American Veterinary Community; 2020:120-123.
3. Sherman BL. Canine separation anxiety: a common behavior problem and welfare concern. 2019 Fetch DVM360 Conference Proceedings. MultiMedia Animal Care LLC; 2019:37-39.
4. Tynes VV. Separation anxiety and the “pandemic puppy”: what lies ahead after lockdown. American Animal Hospital Association. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://www.aaha.org/publications/newstat/articles/2021-06/separation-anxiety-and-the-pandemic-puppy-what-lies-ahead-after-lockdown/
5. Brooks W, Calder C, Bergman L. Separation anxiety: the fear of being alone. Veterinary Partner. June 4, 2020. Updated July 14, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=9673053&pid=19239
Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dog bites are physically and emotionally traumatic and can also have serious consequences for the dog. National Dog Bite Prevention Week, the second full week of April, is a good time to learn more about dog bites.
Why do dogs bite?
Dogs bite as an instinctive response to provocation. Even friendly, tolerant dogs can bite under the wrong circumstances. A dog might bite a person in situations like these:
Which dog breeds are likely to bite?
Trick question! Any dog can bite if provoked.
Assuming that a dog is aggressive because of its breed is unfair to responsible dog owners and (in the case of breed bans) potentially unsafe for the dog. It’s even more dangerous to assume that a dog won’t bite because it looks like a breed people think of as “friendly.” It’s almost impossible to tell the breed heritage of a mixed-breed dog just by appearance anyway.
A dog’s body language and facial expressions are better indicators of bite risk than its (apparent) breed is. These cues can be subtle, but learning to tell if dogs are feeling anxious, afraid, or aggressive can help keep you safe.
Who’s at risk of being bitten?
At least half of the people bitten by dogs in the United States each year are children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Older adults are also at higher risk. Most people with dog bites are bitten by their own dog or another dog they’re familiar with.
How can I keep myself and my kids from being bitten?
These measures can reduce the risk:
What can dog owners do?
Socialize puppies and newly adopted dogs so they’ll be comfortable with different people and new situations. Dogs who are well socialized are less likely to feel nervous or threatened when they encounter new people and unfamiliar environments. Obedience training using positive reinforcement also builds trust between dogs and their owners.
Be sure your dog’s rabies vaccination is up to date. Monitor your dog’s health; pain and illness reduce a dog’s tolerance for being touched and handled.
Don’t let your dog run free outdoors, and follow your local leash laws. If your dog is nervous around unfamiliar people, be sure he has a place to get away from visitors to your home.
Photo by Ralu Gal
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Socialization helps dogs become comfortable with new people, animals, and situations. It’s especially crucial for puppies and newly adopted dogs. Socializing dogs requires a little creativity during a pandemic, but you can still make sure they have the experiences they need to be well-adjusted pets.
The best age to socialize puppies is up to about 3 months. Very young pups consider everything they encounter to be a normal part of life, so they’re not likely to be afraid of these things later on. After 3 to 4 months of age, their brains are less receptive to new experiences and their fear responses increase. Puppies that don’t receive adequate early socialization sometimes grow into adult dogs with fearful, anxious, or aggressive behaviors that could land them in a shelter.
Adult dogs also benefit from socialization and training. Newly adopted dogs need consistency and routine to help them settle into their new homes. Carefully exposing dogs to things that worry them, with plenty of positive reinforcement and professional help if necessary, can help them manage their fears. As always, contact your veterinarian if your dog is especially fearful or has had changes in behavior.
Here are some things you can do to enrich your dog's environment during times of physical distancing.
Give your dog toys that engage all of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Rotate the toys so your dog doesn’t get bored. Let your dog explore different areas of the house under supervision.
Let young puppies interact safely with everyday objects, especially ones that move or make noise: brooms, umbrellas, pots and pans, blenders, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, bicycles, and so forth. Play music. Let your puppy play on different surfaces, like wood, carpet, pillows on the floor, slick surfaces, gravel, concrete, and grass.
Wear hats, sunglasses, and your pandemic face covering—not necessarily all at the same time—in front of your puppy. Move the furniture around to help your pup get used to changes in the environment.
Give dogs and puppies practice spending time alone to help prevent separation anxiety when you have to leave. Use positive reinforcement to teach your new dog or puppy that their crate is a safe space.
Sit outside with your dog or puppy and watch people go by. Is the neighbor using a leaf blower? Fabulous—this is a great opportunity to teach a young pup that loud sounds are OK. (If your dog is afraid of the sound, don’t push this! The point is to get puppies used to noises before they develop noise anxiety, not to force a fearful dog to sit through something scary.)
Take your dog on walks. The more people, other dogs, and noisy vehicles a puppy encounters before 3 months of age, the better. Adult dogs also need the sensory stimulation they get from walks. Maintain physical distance from other people during the pandemic; the CDC recommends keeping dogs at least 6 feet away from people who aren’t in their own household.
Go for car rides, gradually increasing your dog’s time in the car. If your pet has motion sickness or car anxiety, contact your veterinarian.
Dogs that are used to being handled are less stressed than others at the veterinary clinic. Prepare your puppy for future veterinary visits by using positive reinforcement while touching his paws, ears, tail, and belly. On behalf of clinic staff everywhere, I beg you to get your puppy comfortable with foot handling while he’s young. Contact your veterinary clinic for advice if your dog has trouble with nail trims at home.
Socializing Dogs During COVID-19 (American Veterinary Medical Association): https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/socializing-dogs-during-covid-19
Socializing Your Puppy During the COVID-19 Pandemic (University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center): https://www.vmc.umn.edu/sites/vmc.umn.edu/files/puppy_socializing_during_covid19.pdf
1. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization. 2008. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf
2. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): if you have pets. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 28, 2020. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/pets.html
Photo by Alvan Nee
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Giving medication to cats is not always as simple as giving it to dogs. Unfortunately, this means that cats might not receive all of their medication, and some might not get any medication at all. If you have trouble giving your cat pills, tell your veterinarian. Together you can find a way for your cat to get the treatment she needs.
Try It in Food
If the medication can be given with food (check with your veterinarian), try hiding the first dose in something tasty to see if your cat is willing to take it this way. Use a small amount of food that your cat loves or a soft cat treat. Offer the bite of food containing the medication when your cat is hungry; don’t just leave a pill in the middle of a bowl of food.
Using food to administer medication can cause food aversion and reduced food intake in some cats, says the American Association of Feline Practitioners. If your cat doesn’t readily eat the first dose in food, don’t keep trying this method. Never force food into your cat’s mouth. Some medications are bitter and most cats won’t eat pills on their own, so be prepared to try something else.
Give It by Hand
For many cats, manual administration is the quickest and surest way to give pills. This technique is easier to show than to describe. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has an excellent video series demonstrating how to give a pill to a cat with your fingers or with a pill gun. (A pill gun is a tube with a soft tip and a plunger that lets you place pills onto your cat’s tongue without putting your fingers in the mouth.) The videos are at this link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzf8tGKj10zzg6Unhw4QZrqcvJZ1amkax
Here are some tips:
Try a Different Form of Medication
It can be very difficult to give a tablet to a cat who doesn’t want it. Some medications come in liquid form. Here is the Cornell video series showing how to give liquid medication to a cat: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzf8tGKj10zxJYert-yKU0B3cUpkH5Y0Z
Compounding pharmacies can make some medications into flavored liquids, chewable soft treats, and other forms that cats might accept more easily. A few medications can be made into ointments that are applied to the skin (usually inside the ear), although this delivery method doesn’t work for all medications. Talk to your veterinarian if you’d like to pursue these other options.
You can find more ideas in these articles:
Giving your cat medication. American Association of Feline Practitioners. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://catfriendly.com/cat-care-at-home/giving-cat-medication/
Giving your cat oral medications. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/hospitals/pharmacy/consumer-clinical-care-guidelines-animals/giving-your-cat-oral-medications
Medicating your cat. University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed August 21, 2020. https://www.vet.upenn.edu/docs/default-source/ryan/ryan-behavior-medicine/medicating-your-cat-(pdf).pdf
Photo by Paul Hanaoka
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
If you’ve been sheltering at home during the pandemic, your pets have gotten used to having you around all the time. Puppies and kittens adopted during lockdown might have never been home without people. Take these steps to prevent separation anxiety in your pets when you start spending more time away.
Gradually Change the Schedule
Dogs and cats feel most secure when their environment is predictable. If meal and walk times will be changing, start the new schedule in advance to give them time to adjust. You might also need to gradually alter the timing, frequency, and duration of play times (but make sure they still get plenty of exercise).
Make Departures No Big Deal
A standard recommendation for pets with separation anxiety is to stay calm when you leave and when you return. It’s fine to say hi when you walk in the door, but excited greetings and prolonged goodbyes can be counterproductive. You don’t want to focus too much of their attention on the fact that you are going or coming.
Start With Short Departures
Have everyone leave the house for a few minutes to see how your dog reacts. Some signs of separation anxiety are barking, whining, scratching at the door, urinating or defecating in the house, and chewing the door frame or other objects. A video camera (if you have one) can pick up signs like pacing, panting, and lip licking. If all goes well, gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.
If your dog seems anxious, progress very slowly and use positive reinforcement like treats when you leave. Simply picking up the keys or touching the doorknob is enough to trigger anxiety in some dogs. Dogs that already have separation anxiety might need a veterinary consult.
Use Toys and Treats
Giving your pets toys or treats when you leave can serve 2 purposes: distraction and counterconditioning. A time-consuming toy like a food puzzle gives them something to think about other than the fact that you’re gone. Never leave your pets with toys they can swallow whole, chew apart, shred, mangle, break, or choke on, though.
Counterconditioning means giving an animal a positive stimulus, like a yummy treat, at the same time as an unwanted event, like you leaving. Counterconditioning can help animals form positive associations with things they don’t like but have to put up with.
Confine Pets Safely
If your dogs can’t safely have the run of the house while you’re away, accustom them to a crate or an appropriate room in advance. Make the space a familiar, comfortable environment for them, using positive reinforcement as needed.
Destruction and house soiling aren’t signs that your dog resents you or wants your attention. These could be signs of anxiety, boredom, lack of exercise, or (with house soiling) just needing to be taken out more often. Punishing animals after the fact increases their anxiety and does nothing to keep the behavior from happening again. Look for the cause of the problem instead.
Doggie Daycare? It Depends
Dog daycares and kennels might or might not be open in your area. Follow your local public health precautions. Dogs and cats don’t seem able to transmit COVID-19 to humans, and the risk of them becoming infected appears to be low. To be safe, however, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends limiting contact between pets and people who are not part of the household. If any people or animals in your home are sick, don’t send your dog to daycare. And don’t put face coverings over pets’ noses or wipe them down with household disinfectants.
For More Information
COVID-19: 7 steps to help your pet prepare for your return to work. American Veterinary Medical Association. Published June 12, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.avma.org/news/press-releases/covid-19-7-steps-help-your-pet-prepare-your-return-work
McConnell P. Preventing separation anxiety in the time of COVID. The Other End of the Leash. Published April 27, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/preventing-separation-anxiety-in-the-time-of-covid
Photo by Eric Ward
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Indoor cats need mental stimulation and physical activity to stay happy and healthy. Playing games with your cat and providing cat-appropriate toys can make life better—and more fun—for both of you.
When and How Long to Play
Always let your cat choose whether and when to play. Cats might nip when they’re overexcited or want to stop interacting, so watch your cat’s body language (for example, pinning the ears back or twitching the tail) and be ready to end the session before things go too far.
When you’re petting your cat, remove your hand every minute or so and watch her reaction. If she ignores you or walks away, it’s time to stop. If she rubs her head against your hand, she probably wants more head or face petting. Some cats are overstimulated by being touched for very long on the lower back near the tail and prefer to be petted on the front half of the body.
The ideal length of a play session probably depends on the individual cat. The results of a 2014 cat owner survey showed a possible link between the length of play sessions and cat problem behaviors: owners who played with their cats for at least 5 minutes at a time reported fewer problem behaviors than those who played for 1 minute at a time. However, the survey didn’t show whether longer play resulted in fewer problem behaviors or whether owners just didn’t engage as much with cats who had behavior issues.
To choose toys and games for your cat, start by thinking like a cat. Cats are born hunters, and even cats living the good life indoors need to be able to act on their natural instincts. Cats play by acting out predator behaviors:
The toys you provide should allow your cat to perform all of the instinctive predator behaviors. Cats tend to like moving objects they can stalk, which is why your feet might be a target. Try a variety of toys that mimic the movements of prey animals like rodents and birds. These can include toy mice, balls, toys dangling from the end of a wand, or toys pulled on a string. Of course, don’t leave strings or toys your cat can swallow within your cat’s reach when you’re not there to supervise.
Cats can become frustrated if they can’t catch what they’re chasing. If you use a laser pointer, hide a treat for your cat to find after stalking the moving light. (And don’t point the light into your cat’s face.) Balls inside circular tracks might not be attractive to some cats because they can’t capture, hold, or bite them.
Cats get bored with their toys, so don’t leave the same toys out every day. Rotate your cat’s toys to keep her mind stimulated.
You don’t have to buy a lot of cat toys to play with your cat. Paper bags, boxes, crumpled paper balls, and socks all make great toys. Think about engaging all of your cat’s senses with objects that look, smell, taste, sound, and feel different from each other.
For more ideas for toys and enrichment for indoor cats, check these resources:
1. Delgado M. Do cats have petting preferences? Yes! Cats and Squirrels website. December 29, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2020. http://catsandsquirrels.com/pettingprefs/
2. Strickler BL, Shull EA. An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats. J Vet Behav. 2014;9:207-214.
3. Playing with your cat. International Cat Care. July 30, 2018. Accessed March 19, 2020. https://icatcare.org/advice/playing-with-your-cat/
Photo by Kim Davies
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.