Puzzle toys enhance play and put pets’ brains in gear

Is there anything more fun than watching a pet play? Whether the game is fetching a ball, tugging on a rope toy, “killing” a soft toy, wrestling with a pal or working to solve a puzzle toy, it’s fascinating to see how play mimics key real-life behaviors, such as hunting, exploration and self-defense.

Play is a rehearsal of adult behaviors, including the social signals that allow animals to get along with their peers and their humans. All the cognitive and motor skills a dog or cat needs throughout life are enhanced by play. Toys can help to stimulate a pet’s brain, and toy manufacturers take that into account when creating their designs.

“It’s very important to engage a dog’s brain,” says Elizabeth Fagan, director of marketing for Planet Dog. “When we start the development of a new interactive toy, we want to make sure it delivers on our mission of play, which in itself is critical to health and bonding, but also functions in a manner that makes a dog think.”

When a pet’s brain is working, it can be good or, well, we won’t say evil, but perhaps for ends that owners don’t always like. It’s always the brainiac dogs and cats who seem to get into trouble the most as they use their little gray cells to break into the pantry, refrigerator or trash can; work in tandem to steal food; hide inside child-proofed drawers; make their way over seemingly impregnable baby gates or unzip soft crates; climb onto roofs; or chew their way through a door to get outside.

Interactive, or puzzle, toys are an outlet for these precocious pets. They are an important part of enriching a pet’s life and allowing him or her to productively channel physical and mental energy. Understanding a pet’s natural instincts and movements and how they use their paws, noses and other senses is integral to creating an interactive toy that is attractive to pets and people.

“I always test ideas first with my own dogs, then I have some other testing dogs and cats of different sizes and mental capacities, before I consider if this is a good idea to continue to the next step,” says Outward Hound toy designer Nina Ottosson. “I can see it’s a winner in their eyes, body language and in their interest to continue finding all the hidden treats, and I can absolutely see in their happiness that it’s a winner the second time they test the idea.”

Toys can be interactive, such as balls or flying discs; treat puzzle toys, which allow pets to release energy by working for food or treats; and treat puzzle games, which offer mentally challenging problem-solving at different levels of difficulty. The best toys are easy for humans to handle and difficult for dogs to destroy. Different types of toys appeal to different pets.

“All dogs are different and like to be rewarded in different ways,” Ottosson says. “Some are very food-motivated, some are object-oriented and some like to play, run, and chase or hunt. Cats mostly like toys that include chasing and hunting in different ways, and some appreciate being rewarded with treats or food.”

No matter how your pet likes to play, the goal is to have one happy, tired, well-behaved dog or cat afterward. You may be surprised at how much of a workout your pet gets from brain games.

“It would significantly reduce the number of ‘problem dogs’ if everyone understood how important it is for the dog to use his head as well as his legs,” Ottosson says.

Biting cat may be in pain

Q: Lately, every time I pet my cat, she tries to bite me. Why has she started doing that?

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A: Your cat may be troubled by back pain. Cats are slinky and athletic, and most people don’t think of them as prone to musculoskeletal problems. But cats are always jumping on and off high places and contorting their bodies into weird positions. It’s no surprise that sometimes they can hurt themselves if they land wrong or run into something as they’re chasing a ball or toy. And with age, cats can certainly develop arthritis. If your cat is stiff or in pain, she may well react with a bite when your hand runs across a tender spot as you’re petting her.

It’s always a good first step to take your cat to the veterinarian for a physical exam to confirm whether she has pain from an injury or arthritis. If that’s the case, there are several options to help your cat enjoy being petted again. Talk to your veterinarian about medication. There are safe drugs available to help relieve arthritis pain in cats.

Nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin may help as well. Keep in mind that it can take up to a couple of months to start seeing an effect.

Your cat may also benefit from acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapies. The practitioner should be a veterinarian trained in those modalities, or someone who works under the supervision of a veterinarian. Not every complementary therapy is right for every cat. For instance, chiropractic is not appropriate for cats who have fractures, any type of cancer, or who are very old or very young.

Weight loss, a heated bed and warm compresses may benefit your cat as well. With appropriate treatment, your cat should soon be purring again from petting.

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