The great indoors may be the safest place for dogs and cats, but a controlled environment does not provide the mental stimulation and physical exercise that pets experience in their natural (i.e., outdoor) habitat. Inadequate physical activity and mental stimulation can lead to serious health and behavior problems, including obesity, decreased quality of life, boredom, anxiety, and reactivity.

Fortunately, you can help your cat or dog achieve the perfect mind-body fitness balance even if they live indoors only or are unable to play outdoors during a long spell of inclement weather. Our Veterinary Behavior Solutions team suggests indoor activities and enrichment games that help ensure you meet your pet’s mental stimulation and physical activity needs without setting foot, or paw, outdoors. Read about five fun, simple, and satisfying ways to engage your pet indoors.

Adventurous palate? Food-based enrichment for pets 

Food-based enrichment toys and games challenge your pet’s problem-solving skills and, depending on the toy you give them, can serve as a healthy outlet for expressing pent-up energy or a therapeutic tool for creating calmness and relaxation. 

If your pet has food sensitivities, allergies, or a sensitive stomach, talk to our veterinary team before providing your cat or dog with food-based enrichment. Doing so helps ensure that the foods you offer your pet inspire happiness, not a trip to the veterinary hospital.

The variety of toys, puzzles, and pet-safe foods available for food-based enrichment can be overwhelming. To help you start your pet on food-based enrichment toys, consider our team’s favorites:

  • Kong and West Paw Toppl — Fill these hollow toys with your pet’s regular food or try something new.
  • LickiMats — These textured silicone mats are suitable for cats and flat-faced (i.e., brachycephalic) breeds who may have difficulty accessing food in a Kong or similar toy. Licking is a naturally soothing pet behavior and can help decrease anxiety.
  • Muffin tins — Muffin tins are an easy and unconventional way to serve your pet various healthy foods. To give your cat or dog an added challenge, place tennis balls over the food you have placed in the muffin tin wells, so your pet has to nudge or paw the ball to access the food beneath.
  • Treat-dispensing balls — These toys are a great way to increase sedentary pets’ physical activity, and you can serve your pet their meals in a treat-dispensing ball.

In addition to filling these toys with familiar foods, use them to introduce your pet to healthy nontoxic ingredients in various flavors and textures to satisfy your dog’s or cat’s mind and stomach. As with any new treat, introduce each food gradually, and monitor your pet for side effects.

Dig it: Create an indoor dig pit for your pet

Digging is often considered a destructive nuisance behavior. However, controlled and supervised digging can be a healthy way for your pet to satisfy natural behaviors and expend pent-up energy.

Indoor dig pits provide a safe nondestructive space for your dog or cat to dig for buried treasure. While indoor digging pits are available for purchase, you can easily create an indoor dig pit at home using a small kiddie pool and some linens or clothing you plan to discard. 

Simply fill the empty pool with layers of old towels, blankets, or clothing. Randomly place dry kibble or treats, toys, or chews between the layers. Let your pet dig and uncover the treasures. You may need to help them locate the first few treats so they understand that digging is permissible in the pit. To prevent your pet from chewing or playing inappropriately after the game is over, remove the dig pit and the linens and clothing.

Tricked out: Teach your pet a fun new trick

Pet tricks are more than cute behaviors. Learning tricks is an excellent way to build your dog’s or cat’s confidence, body awareness, and focus. Trick training can ultimately enhance your pet-owner bond and help you understand how your pet thinks and learns. In addition, you can discover what motivates your pet, which can help you prevent or address future behavior problems. 

Trick training only takes a few minutes each day. For trick training tutorials, we recommend checking out positive reinforcement-based programs, and you can contact our office for recommendations.  

Sniff, sniff, snooze: Scent-based activities to satisfy your pet

Dogs and cats have much stronger olfactory capabilities than people, and your pet relies on their sense of smell to do more than source nearby food. Pets use smell to gather information about their surroundings and one another, determining insights such as who has been in the area, their age, health, sexual receptivity, and perhaps their mood. As pets sniff, they may experience decreased anxiety and stress, increased optimism, and a sense of physical and mental satisfaction. Veterinary researchers speculate that 10 to 20 minutes’ sniffing is equal to a one hour walk! Easy indoor sniffing activities include:

  • Snuffle mats — These encourage your pet to forage for hidden treats.
  • Hide-and-seek — Hide bite-sized smelly treats in a small room and watch your pet’s instincts take over as they sniff out the goods. 

Prevent space limitations from limiting your pet’s physical activity and mental stimulation. Indoor activities that engage your dog’s or cat’s mind and body are an excellent way to enhance their mental and physical fitness and promote good behavior. For additional behavior tips or training recommendations, contact our Veterinary Behavior Solutions team.