Once upon a time in a suburb known as Naperville, sub-zero temperatures weren’t recorded for days on end, schools weren’t closed due to extreme heat AND extreme cold , and we could go outside with our pets and enjoy winter fun like snowy hikes in the preserves. At the very least, we could safely leave our homes before cabin fever set in providing a measure of personal sanity. Well, welcome to the winter of 2013-2014. I’ve been seeing lots of animals with a few extra accumulated pounds, most likely due to inactivity and boredom, fierce opponents in the battle for good physical and mental health. Not even the cats have been spared. With frigid temperatures, all but the hungry coyotes and bravest of bunnies have been spotted outside the windows, making amusement for our feline friends difficult to come by. Lack of activity turns into muscle wasting and fat accumulation and promotes the development of unwelcome behaviors. Here is a disturbing statistic: up to 59% of all dogs and cats are overweight or obese. I’m convinced that number is higher this year!
Is your pet chewing on the carpet, barking at the door, begging for food, or obsessively grooming this season? Guess what? Many new behavioral problems manifest during times of inactivity or physical stress. Don’t mistake a dog begging near the dining table for a hungry animal; more than likely we have “trained” an undesired behavior by providing something especially tasty. Come on, even when I am not hungry, I can still manage to eat a Girls Scout thin mint. We feel guilty denying them something undeniably yummy and even more importantly, our attention! Many times, that is what a bored pet is really seeking and there are many substitutions for a tasty snack.
Here are some ideas to stay active and engaged indoors, playing to your pets instincts to smell, hunt, pounce, retrieve, and be touched. Yes, food can also be involved, but please, oh please know what calories your pet is and should be consuming to maintain an optimal body condition. Treats count. Table scraps count. The small bits that Grandma feeds as she is making dinner count.
Save feedings for late at night so your pet doesn’t keep you awake or guilt becomes a reason you get up at 3 am to feed Fluffy. Know that they are truly full. Better yet, take the pesky humans out of the feeding equation and use an automatic feeder set on a timer. Multiple feedings can be provided (wet or dry food) at intervals throughout the night.
Hide kibble throughout the house and let your pets “hunt” for dinner. Not only does this burn calories, but the mental stimulation is also fatiguing. Offer food puzzles, cubes, or rolling kibble dispensers so your pet slows down while eating and is mentally and physically engaged. I’m an amazon prime member and shipping is usually next day on many of these items and they are easily searchable.
New = Interesting, at least for a period of time. Rotate toys your pet has access to, making Christmas come throughout the year. Old toys can be hung or hidden in novel spots each day. Garage sales can be great resources for inexpensive soft stuffed animals or laundered blankets. Some toddler climbing structures and tunnels, ramps, etc. can be used safely for pet entertainment on the cheap.
Cats love to climb! Provide lots of opportunities with trees, ledges, boxes, and bags to hide in. Many cats like to eat up high. Double bonus! Exercise and and a chance to hunt indoors. By thinking vertically, you can double your cat’s play area. I’ve created inexpensive play spaces using empty cardboard boxes, plywood or an actual piece of firewood with the bark intact for scratching, and cardboard tubes from fabric supply stores. These sturdy tubes used to hold heavy bolts of fabric and can be covered with sisal rope for scratching or serve as a “trunk” for a cat tree. Many are four feet in length. Other recyclables include the plastic ring from a milk jug (used for batting around the floor), empty toilet paper tubes, and ping pong balls.
Very popular is the FroliCat Dart laser toy; FroliCat Dart is an automatic rotating laser light that provides hours of fun. Place Dart on the floor, turn it on and watch the chase begin. As seen on TV, the Cats Meow Yellow Undercover Fabric Moving Mouse. 99/100 cats agree, it’s fun to attack human feet moving under the sheets, but just as fun is pouncing on the moving “mouse” hidden under a parachute-like tent.
Using a moving rope with a knot on the end simulates a moving bug. They will love to “attack” anything on a string that moves or darts. A fish tank or even a cat sitter video with images cats love (hamsters, bird, other cats) can also provide visual stimulation.
Teach your cat to play fetch. Attach a favorite toy to a line, throw the toy, and reel it back in as needed. Your cat may learn to bring the toy back to you because he/she is rewarded when you throw the toy again!
Back to the dogs….I’ve seen some dogs slowly acclimated to running on a human treadmill. This generally involves positive reinforcement during the training period using food, clicker sounds, or verbal praise. Underwater treadmills are a fabulous tool offered by several local establishments. See Spot Swim in Montgomery offers an indoor swimming pool, just for dogs! Yahoo! Also available are Doga DVDs. You guessed it, yoga for you and your dog! Ommmmm.
One industrious little Jack Russell Terrier (aren’t they all? I know has learned to run up the stairs with a tennis ball in his mouth, drop it down the stairs, and chase the ball down and retrieve it! Repeat until exhaustion is achieved! A tired terrier is a happy terrier and a happy owner. You and another family member can simulate this exercise by sitting at the top and bottom of the stairs and throwing treats or another object your pet will retrieve. In fact, most dogs were originally bred to perform a job that required chasing, digging, retrieving and pulling. How can you employ your dog? Maybe hide kibble in empty plastic water bottles buried neck deep in the snow. Their noses will get a workout hunting for the buried treasures. You can also create an indoor sandbox out of a child’s plastic pool and sand. This is best located in the basement or garage. Bury your pet’s treasures and let them dig!
Pet sitters and dog walkers or enterprising and responsible teens can come by for mid-day walks, grooming, playtime, training or petting sessions. We like The Pooper Scoopers at everythingpet.net and out-u-go for their reliable services.
Central Bark in Oswego, Doggie Depot in Downers Grove, and DePAW University in Geneva offer daytime, evening and weekend classes to suit the lifestyle and needs of all of their canine friends. They also will host playtimes and sleepovers so your pet can exhaust themselves with their canine buddies. Class options include scent work classes, agility classes, or go back to basics with an intro to obedience. Even your pup can get a degree!
Teaching your pet new tricks or commands doesn’t have to be a formal experience. The library has tons of books available with new tricks you and your pet can practice in short, frequent sessions. My 12 year old dog just learned how to roll over and it was my 13 year old son who did the training.
If you have neighborhood canine friends, host a playground in your basement or family room for enrichment. With the abundance of pet lovers, meetups can be arranged though your veterinarian, local newsletter, subdivision website or community message board. Outings to a pet store to sniff out new toys or hind quarters can also be exciting.
The weather will break soon, I promise. And when it does, there will be new concerns like fleas, ticks, and injuries from becoming TOO active too soon. In the meantime, let’s do what we can to get through the rest of the season.
Have a tip or a picture that has worked for you and your pet? Let me know!
Dr. Lisa McIntyre