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9 Creative Ways to Keep Pets Busy at Home

Dog and cat looking bored sitting on the floor
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The recent Coronavirus pandemic has completely changed what we define as a ‘normal’ lifestyle. We’re working from home, not seeing friends, and cleaning way more than we ever did before. While the COVID-19 changes have been difficult, pets are actually benefiting from their people being home more often.

“For most pets, the shelter in place is having a positive impact,” says Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board certified veterinary behaviorist and founder of CivilizedPet.com. “They are not home alone, or stuck in a cage like they might be on a typical work day.”

Now, more than ever, pet owners are able to shower their pets with attention and love–and vice-versa.

“Pets help us all to feel comforted in normal times, all the more reason we should give back to them in these unsettling times when we need them, and they need us even more,” says Schwartz. “Remember, if you have a pet, you’re not alone even in moments when it feels that way.”

Here are some ideas for how to pass the time with your pet while you’re at home.

Creative Activities For Dogs

Dog waiting to play with owner

Try searching games

“Try search games in your home—hide a toy or treat and let your dog track it down,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Some dogs are naturally good at this, others need some basic training like hiding something in plain sight, then hiding it under a pillow and gradually making it more challenging.”

Play “The Box” game

“Here, our objective is to see if we can get your dog to advance to the box (and maybe even sit in it) without saying a word. It is a shaping technique we use in animal training,” says Vivian Zottola, research associate at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. “All you need is a box, pet training clicker, and food.”

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Ensure the room has no distractions. Then, using a box your dog could easily walk into, place it on the ground in the middle of the room.

Step 2: Observe your pet and wait for them to notice the box. If they advance and stick their heads in, super! Mark the event with a clicker sound.

Step 3: Treat your pet AFTER the clicker sound you make.

Step 4: Wait again until your pet goes back to the box/looks into the box. Repeat the mark and reward each time.

Step 5: You can wait for the dog to offer a different behavior (perhaps sticking their head further in or stepping into the box), then advancing to sit in the box. Have fun!

Enjoy outdoor yard games

Dog playing in a kiddie pool in the yard

“Walks aren’t the only option for exercise,” says Dr. Terry Marie Curtis, clinical veterinary behaviorist at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “If there is a fenced yard, there are lots of options–from walking around in the yard to setting up a little homemade agility course. For water-loving dogs, a kiddy pool can provide lots of fun.”

Put your dog’s nose to work

“Nose work is another good activity–especially for dogs who don’t have access to an outside yard. It doesn’t have to be complicated,” says Curtis. “It can take the form of hiding treats in boxes that are hidden around the house that the dog has to find. Puzzle toys can serve the same purpose–hide and seek!”

Try audio/visual engagements

“When considering how to keep your dog busy, consider some breeds (sight hounds) may enjoy watching things move about,” says Zottola. “Check out Dogtv.com for their on demand dog channel.”

And if your dog is stressed or anxious during this time, try implementing relaxing music.

“Filling the home with sounds including playing nature music (YouTube), soft classical or spa music on low volume helps,” says Zottola.

Creative Activities for Cats

Cat playing with owner on the carpet

Create a DIY puzzle toy

“Cats are known to eat 10-16 times per day,” says Dr. Melissa Bain, professor of Clinical Animal Behavior and Director of Professional Student Clinical Education at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “You can purchase toys as well as make them.”

She recommends checking out the website Food Puzzles For Cats for reviews of store-bought options. But if you’re feeling crafty, the site also offers instructions for making your own cat puzzle toy at home.

Give felines a catnip challenge

Catnip responsive cats will appreciate a little nibble,” says Schwartz. “Try hiding it under a bowl or plastic container so they have to work for it a little.”

Train your cat to high five

Cat giving paw to owner playing

Now is a great time to start training your cat to do some basic tricks. And a high five is a great place to begin.

“Use positive reinforcement training, especially with a clicker or other unique sound that can mark the behavior,” says Bain. “Be sure to remain positive and don’t use punishment.”

All you need is a pet training clicker. Here’s how to teach your cat how to high five:

Step 1: Use a plastic golf ball or a ping-pong ball on the end of a chopstick, pen, or wooden dowel as a target. Hold the target where the cat can see it and click and treat when the cat looks at the target. Click and treat any movement toward the target, and then click for actually touching the target.

Step 2: Hold the target a few inches above the cat’s head, too high for your cat to touch with her nose. The cat will almost certainly extend a paw to try to bring the target to its nose. Click and treat just as the paw makes contact with the target.

Step 3: Move your hand down, so that on each subsequent trial your hand is closer to the ball end of the target. When your hand is nearly on top of the ball, remove the target and just use your hand as the target.

Step 3: The cat will put its paw up to your hand where the target used to be. Click and treat every attempt the cat makes to put its paw on or near your hand. Add the verbal cue “high five” when the cat is putting its paw up to touch your hand reliably.

Grab a brush and groom

Cat being brushed by owner in her lap

“Many cats love to be groomed. When time is scarce, this activity tends to fall by the wayside,” says Curtis. “While owners are catching up on missed television programs, their cats can get a spa treatment just sitting in their laps.”

“Grooming your cat with a gentle tool and light pressure can become a lovely way to bond,” adds Schwartz.