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Robert Clark

You might think your pets have it made. While you're at the office all day, they're snoozing and snacking. But too much time alone with too little to do can cause serious problems. "Now that many people spend less time at home, dogs spend less time outdoors, so we need to work harder to meet their biological needs and provide them with safe and appropriate outlets for their energy, habits, and interests," says Katenna Jones, an animal behaviorist with the American Humane Association. Creating a stimulating environment is one way to alleviate issues associated with boredom and lack of activity, such as destructive chewing and overgrooming. Pet professionals call it environmental enrichment, and it's as important to your pet's well-being as good nutrition.

MIX IT UP

"There's a difference between what a pet accepts and what makes it thrive," Jones says. Activities that provide environmental enrichment improve your pets' world with mental, physical, and social stimulation. These activities lie outside your pets' routine and tap natural skills and behavior, which is both fun and stress-reducing. You can provide mental stimulation with toys and games that require problem-solving, physical stimulation through activities that trigger instinctual behavior such as hunting and exploring, and social stimulation through interaction with other creatures. The trick is to vary your pets' activities by introducing random events, says Marc Morrone, host of Martha Stewart Living Radio's "Ask Marc, the Petkeeper," on Sirius XM Radio.

Curious about what your pets do all day? A "pet cam" can record their behavior. As to whether an animal can be overstimulated, the answer is yes. That might occur in a noisy, crowded public gathering, but not with interactive toys and activities.

PLAY AROUND

Channel a cat's energy with a climbing tower, or cat condo. Cats also love playing with paper bags and boxes. Try offering several boxes and rearranging them regularly (and go to marthastewart.com/cat-playhouse for a great playhouse you can make from boxes). Laser pointers and battery-operated mice prompt hide-and-seek play and predatory behavior. For downtime, a window with a cushioned seat alongside is the equivalent of feline television (a bird feeder outside makes the show even better).

For dogs, supervised time outdoors is always stimulating. You can change your walks by hiding treats along the route, encouraging your pet to sniff and search. Make an obstacle course by having your pet sit at each parked car or lamppost or walk figure eights around trees.

Dogs need more interaction than cats. Try a play-training class, which uses games to teach and reinforce obedience, or join a dog-sport club, which allows your dog to engage in the type of behavior it has been bred for (get information at akc.org). And don't forget to make regular playdates with other dogs.

CHOW DOWN

You can stimulate all five senses by feeding your pet via interactive toys and activities.

WHERE'S DINNER?

Try giving your dog a meal in a hollow rubber chew toy (such as Kong brand) or a puzzle toy that requires moving the pieces with the nose or paws. Put your cat's dinner in a puppy-sized Kong toy, or sprinkle kibble in cardboard boxes or bags. This encourages the cat to pry the food out, which triggers natural hunting instincts.

RECIPES FOR FUN

Add an element of surprise for your dog by layering a Kong toy with a biscuit, kibble, and peanut butter. Or make a "pupsicle" by filling a Kong toy with kibble and chicken broth and freezing it. Your dog will savor the challenge of licking up every last bit.

Comments (2)

Anonymous
December 31, 2018
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Anonymous
December 18, 2012
I am thrilled about the "pupcicle" idea! I am beginning to pet sit for others in their homes and this will add a creative twist to the change for animal that I am caring for. Will use vegan broth to accommodate pets diet. Are almonds safe for dogs? I prefer almond butter over peanut for the other treat ideas.