Dog and cat toys are for more than just fun

Selecting toys that fit each pet’s unique personality, plus the benefits of toys and safety tips

There is a plethora of toys available on the market for both canines and felines. Dogs can engage with chew toys, treat toys, puzzle toys, and play toys. Their cat counterparts have playthings such as scratching posts, climbing toys, hiding places, wands, and teasers.

It is important for clients to know these toys are for more than just fun. Play is essential to a pet’s overall well-being. The tips below provide an excellent resource for you to share with pet owners on the ins and outs of dog and cat toys.

Each pet has unique preferences

Every companion animal has their own personality. Therefore, pet owners can find the best toys for them by providing a variety of options, then analyzing their behavior and taking a trial-and-error approach to see how they react.

“Cats have preferences and opinions about everything, so a toy that interests one cat may be of no interest to another. Watching how your cats play is key,” Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice), owner and hospital director of 2 exclusively feline practices, said in a dvm360® interview. “Do they like things that roll or fly better? Do they play alone with toys, or do they need their human to get them going? Do boxes and bags have appeal? Do fur, feathers, or other textures enhance acceptance?

“What motions get them excited? Before investing in toys, it is helpful to know what style of play your cat has. What textures do they like to scratch on—smooth fabric, rough fabric, vertical, horizontal? Scratching is critical for marking territory, keeping nails healthy, and stretching, so [the] size and weight of scratching posts must consider all 3,” Colleran said.

Universally, for cats, an important feature of toys is that they are the right size (mouse size) and change texture, color, shape, or odor as they are played with, Colleran explained. These types of toys simulate prey more closely because they don’t stay rigidly the same.

In an interview with dvm360®, Debbie Martin, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, LVT, VTS (Behavior), co-owner of TEAM Education in Animal Behavior, noted that dogs’ preferences in toys can also be breed specific. “A Labrador retriever or golden retriever—they’re retrievers, right? They usually like to put [or hold] things in their mouth. Maybe they like to go chase and get the thing, then bring it to you,” Martin said.

“[With] herding breeds, [such as] Shelties, corgis, or German shepherds, fast movement oftentimes gets them excited, and they want [to] chase. [This goes for] terriers, as well. A lot of terriers were bred to go after vermin and catch them. Initially, they worked with people that way but were more independent in their play. So sometimes they are more likely to want to go get [the toy] but maybe not bring it back to you, they’d rather dissect it.”

However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes dogs can be taught from a young age to engage in different types of play or with toys that don’t reflect their breed, Martin explained. It all comes down to their personality, as well as a combination of nurture and nature.

Benefits of pet toys

Offers stimulation and provides an outlet to enact natural behaviors

Providing toys for a dog or cat promotes physical and mental stimulation. In fact, Colleran emphasized, rather than referring to toys as enriching a feline’s life, she noted they optimize their life, demonstrating how essential these additions to their environment are.

“[Playing with toys] gets [dogs] moving [most] of the time, so it’s good physical exercise for [them]. It also is mental stimulation for them, [as] they get to do natural behaviors we would expect them to do, [such as] exploring things, shredding things, [and] chewing on things,” Martin said. “In fact, when [dogs] chew on things, it can release serotonin, which is that feel-good neurohormone that kind of puts us all at ease…so certainly the neurochemistry effect that’s happening, as well, is beneficial.”

Colleran said toys have the same impact for cats—although their natural behavior repertoire consists of stalking, hunting, killing prey, stretching, and resting. However, she noted the importance of a cat feeling safe while playing. “All the toys in the world won’t matter if there are perceived threats—unrelated cats, new people, competition for resources—safety is the No. 1 priority,” she said.

Enhances human-animal bond

Utilizing toys to play with pets strengthens the human-animal bond in multiple ways. First, if pets aren’t provided proper toys to play with, they will find their own items around the house to chew on, which can lead to unhappy pet parents.

“If [dogs are] not chewing on your shoes and your table, you’re less likely to get upset with them, right?…. It certainly can be damaging to the human-animal bond if they are chewing on your personal items that you don’t want them to chew [on], so providing them with a whole bunch of appropriate things to chew on will strengthen it,” Martin said.

Additionally, like humans, dogs are social creatures, so playing with them fulfills them. Martin noted it’s a stress relief for us and allows our inner child to come out while it builds a dog’s trust with you, displaying to them you are safe to have fun with.

When it comes to cats, Colleran stated that they bond with us the same way they do with littermates and other conspecifics: through exploration, play, grooming, resting in proximity, etc. Through this, humans become recognized as family. Thus, playtime serves as a method to help build that bond.

Safety during play

To avoid hazards, there are 3 things to remember: (1) ensuring the toy is the appropriate size for the pet; (2) ensuring it’s not too hard, especially if it’s a chew toy for a dog; and (3) ensuring they are supervised while they play with toys. Be mindful of toys that can break into small parts and be swallowed, Colleran warned. Plus, if there is more than 1 pet in the household, ensure the bigger dog, for example, doesn’t have access to the smaller pet’s toys. Pets should always be supervised while engaging with toys, and they should be stored away after playtime.