Right at Home: games and toys to keep pets happy

Our dogs are often as fat as we are, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Family cats can look like furry ottomans. At Tufts University, they've set up an obesity clinic at the vet school.

It's time to get our pets up and at 'em.

Dogs and cats love to play, and there are scores of great toys to engage their bodies and minds.

Be mindful of your pet's breed and character when choosing games and toys, advises Victoria Wells, senior manager for behavior and training at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' adoption center in New York City.


"Scent-oriented dogs will respond best to games that involve seeking out something that has an odor, so hide treats around the house that they have to locate," she says. "Buy toys that you can hide treats inside, and the dog has to tumble it to get at them."

Intelligent dogs need mental stimulation just as people do, says Wells.

Spot's Seek a Treat sliding puzzle and Discovery Wheel might fill the bill. Company of Animals has a Twister treat-finding game. The Kong line of toys are pack pleasers; the toys have holes at one end to hide treats, and the heavy-duty rubber construction makes them tough enough for larger dogs. (Available at many pet stores, or at www.wag.com ; www.companyofanimals.co.uk )

Big, energetic dogs will have fun chasing the sturdy Varsity Ball. And for a little humor, consider Moody Pet's Humunga lips-, tongue- or moustache-shaped chew toys that give your dog a hilarious visage when they're holding them. (www.varsitypetsonline.com ; www.moodypet.com )

Dogs that love to interact love to tug — and Wells says that, contrary to some opinion, tugging can be a great game.

"It's all about who's in control of the game. You decide when you play it, when the toy must be released, when it must be dropped," she says.

Teaching these skills early in a puppy's life makes play a lifelong joy. But even a rescue dog can learn, with patience and understanding.

Try a tennis ball attached to a rope, which makes retrieving and throwing easy — no slobbery balls to grip. Petco also offers Bamboo's Combat Bone, a soft and floatable bone-shaped tugger, while Homegoods' extensive pet department, HG Pet, has great squeak-and-fetch options too. (www.petco.com , www.homegoods.com )

Sturdy coils of small, medium or large marine-grade rope also do the job, but for multi-dog tug action, consider Ruff Dawg's four-handled rubber toy. (www.wag.com )

If you've got a ball-loving dog, you've probably spent hours throwing one; tennis balls seem to be the toy of choice. For something a little different, consider the Mystery Tree, which requires the dog to trip a lever to release the ball. And for truly energetic canines, get the Hyperdog Launcher, which shoots up to four balls 220 feet via a slingshot-like contraption. No more goober-y hands or sore throwing arms. (www.activedogtoys.com )

Some dogs love hide and seek; Kyjen has a plush tree trunk you stuff with mini squirrels for Dog to extricate. (www.kyjen.com )

And how about chasing bubbles? Activedogtoys.com has the automatic Bubbletastic and Bubble Buddy, which blow bacon- or chicken-scented bubbles.

Perform a toy test: Does your pet respond best to a plush toy, a ball or an interactive food toy?

On his website Cesarsway.com, dog behavior specialist and TV show host Cesar Millan advises that toys can help a dog learn not to bite. With puppies, introduce toys quickly as substitutes for hands.

Wells suggests some easy-to-make homemade toys. Poke holes in a 2-liter soda bottle and fill it with a few kibbles: Pawing the bottle will randomly release the treats.

A popular treat at shelters is a savory ice pop. "We put some treats in deli or carry-out containers, then fill them with water or chicken stock" and freeze them, she says.

Caregivers also scent objects with cinnamon, clove or lavender at different times of day, she says, depending on whether they want to energize or soothe their furry charges.

When you leave the house for a long period, Wells say, "limit the number of toys you leave out. Just like children, pets get bored if their entire toy box is available to them every day."


Cats appreciate an interesting toy as much as dogs do. Kitty condos, which often have several elevations and platforms to climb, sit on and hide in, are excellent choices.

"Vertical hiding places and sanctuaries are very important to cats," notes Wells, since they seek these out in the wild.

Look for upholstered versions in kneadable micro plush, or carpet remnants.

Scratching posts made of sturdy jute will save your furniture, and can be purchased or made at home. A feline version of the mouse exercise wheel is available at Catwheelcompany.com.

Other homemade cat toys include toilet paper rolls filled with catnip or treats, which the cats release by batting the toy around, and wands made out of rulers, rubber bands and feathers, Wells says. Cats get their own version of the ice pop, she says: 3-ounce drink cups filled with cat food and chicken or beef stock, and then frozen.

A fun interactive family toy might be the Abo Cat Tunnel: Kids and pets chase each other through a nylon tube. The Bergan Catnip Cyclone involves a circular track on which a cat spins a ball filled with catnip; the more twirls, the more catnip aroma released. A feathery teaser can be attached. The Cataction Magneticat provides a magnetized bug on the end of a wand that bobbles around while your cat tries to catch it. (www.petco.com )

The Ba Da Beam Rotating Laser Cat Toy features a battery-operated laser. (www.drsfostersmith.com )

At Catchannel.com, find tips on making your own versions of wand, tug and climbing toys out of boxes, paper bags and other household items.