Many might think that pet toys are a luxury when in fact they are a must have for an animal’s development, much like a child when it comes to progressing in life. Pet toys are beneficial in all different ways, from learning to stress relief, for distraction purposes or merely just for fun.
Pet toys come in all different varieties and there are many factors which need to be considered when buying a toy. Not every toy will be right or the same for each individual pet, and it is all about finding the right ones to suit each animal’s different personalities and needs.
What Vets say about pet toys
Clinical Animal Behaviour Vet Jamie Rushton answers some important pet toy questions.
Do you encourage pets to play with toys?
Yes! Toys are fabulous! In this day and age, they have the ability to provide so much more than just basic enjoyment from playing and are now seen as an invaluable source of environmental enrichment.
They have the capacity to promote bonding with owners, socialisation with other animals, and allow pets to express and engage in natural behaviours. In addition, they can be particularly useful in providing cognitive stimulation to animals who are undergoing stressful events, those having to ‘entertain’ themselves whilst their owners are out or occupied, and those who are being rested due to injury or illness. We also have great study data to show then can help stave off cognitive dysfunction and re-invigorate our elderly patients.
Can toys be good for your pet’s health?
Absolutely. In addition to the mental health benefits mentioned, there are the obvious physical health benefits. They encourage exercise to be fun and stimulating and with an increasing level of pet obesity (which brings with it a multitude of illnesses), then can provide excellent ways to assist in weight loss programmes.
But even more so is the welfare aspects. Not only can we help with boredom and frustration, we can now use feeding toys to bring into play the natural behaviours associated with feeding, such as hunting, and foraging which have been greatly overlooked as this is not a natural aspect for humans in today’s day and age. For birds and cats this has huge welfare implications, and for dogs who love novelty, it can bring really enhance their level of pleasure.
We also now have toys that are motorised and can be used when owner’s themselves have disabilities or mobility issues.
You will find a lot of toys designed to provide dental care for our pets. Some of these are very good and are flavoured to encourage the duration of interaction, but I would offer a cautionary word of advice. No toy that is currently on the market makes the dog chew to the left, chew to right, chew to the back and chew to the front. In other words, they are not going to be a genuine replacement for brushing and should be viewed as supplementary.
Kong is a very popular brand. What are your thoughts on their toys?
Kong has continued to grow and expand its range over the years and offer some great products. The classic design is a great product to use in your feeding strategy. In particular, I like the fact that you can freeze them with the food inside and create ‘lollipops’. This lets pets spend longer working on getting their meal which is great for times when they need to be occupying their own time. They’re especially good for the summer as well.
What do you recommend looking out for when buying pet toys?
There really are some great products out there now, particularly to help with frustration-related behaviour and referred aggression so look to find products that would encourage natural behaviour and enhance relationships with the owner and pet. For example, there are chase products that can hide food within them. That way the dog is encouraged to return the toy to the owner who can exchange its content for the good behaviour. This sort of exercise can really help build trust and co-operation in the dog-owner relationship. Also look for products that stimulate more than one sense, and have a range of toys to cover all senses, paying particular attention to individual species differences. For example, cats and dogs feed and play very differently so learn about your pets natural behaviours and try and see the toy from their perspective.
What not to buy?
Firstly, I would be asking myself has this product been designed for the pet, or for the owner? Some toys are very pretty, but not very functional or are not paying attention to that species natural behaviours and interests. Some are heavily scented which can be overwhelming and offensive for species that have far better noses than we do.
I then want to check the products durability and whether there are small parts that might be choke hazards or act as an obstructive foreign body if swallowed whole, or in bits. Sadly, there aren’t enough toys that can be safely left with the pet, without supervision so bear that in mind when choosing.
Why pets should play with toys
Some pets are not interested by toys at all, and some pets want to play all the time. However, they are a great way to ensure they don’t get bored and to keep their minds active. If a pet is bored, this can easily lead to them becoming disobedient and destructive, which can end up being quite a handful for the owner.
Mind stimulating toys for dogs tend to be ones which contain some kind of treat which they have to work to get. Kong toys are a great example, a brand which is recommended by owners and experts. The wonderful thing about these toys is that they have a hollow middle, which can be stuffed with Kong biscuits or food (many dogs love peanut butter – just make sure there is no Xylitol in the peanut butter as this can be toxic to them), keeping your pets mind busy trying to prize out the goods.
Puzzle feeders can be an effective way of keeping your cats mind stimulated. Essentially it is a food dispensing toy, similar to the dog ones. Cats are known to be hunters so they have that natural instinct in them. By giving them a food dispensing toy, it means they will use their natural instincts in order to get their food themselves. For most cats it is very rewarding. Similarly, Kong do a Cat Wobbler toy which can be filled with kibble. When playing with it, if the cat knocks it in the right direction a bit of kibble will fall out the small hole on the side. The catnip stuffed fluffy tail adds extra entertainment and the toy in general encourages mental and physical stimulation.
When it comes to smaller pets who are kept in cages and hutches, they too require things around them to keep their minds busy. If they don’t have these things, they will start to get irritated, and might even try to chew through their cage or hutch out of boredom or frustration. Cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls are a great, inexpensive way of creating a fun activity filled environment for your hamster or gerbils. Alternatively, you can buy already made activity sets to place in their cages, or even better you can buy cages which already have different levels and tube attachments. Walmart sells them, ranging from $20 to $50.
All pets need exercise. Pets tend to need more exercise when they are younger as they have a lot more energy, however keeping them active when they are older is also important.
Playing fetch with dogs is a great way to get them running around. You can get hand held ball launchers from most pet stores, which enable you to throw the ball much further, so that your dog has a lot more running around to do.
Lasers or automatic moving toys are the ideal toy for making sure your cat is getting the right amount of exercise, especially if you have an indoor cat. The toys will encourage them to run around and play, and also allow them to use their natural instincts when chasing or pouncing on the laser light or toys.
For the smaller pets, such as rabbits, gerbils or hamsters, wheels attached to their cages or huts are the best form of exercise for them. As they are more limited with space, it is a good way to ensure they are able to get the correct amount of exercise on a daily basis. You can also buy small animal activity assault courses. Rosewood do a fantastic wooden one which will keep your pet thoroughly entertained. Although Rosewood is a UK brand, the products can be ordered online and shipped to America.
Bonding with your pet is very important, for you and for them. Engaging in playtime is a great way to do this.
A great way of bonding with your dog is by playing games with them. Tug of war is a fantastic way of playing with your dog one to one. It is a game that they thoroughly enjoy and they will love sharing it with you. The Kong Braidz Indestructible Dog Toy is the perfect tug of war toy and at approximately $6.89, it is a must have. You can choose from four characters and the beauty of this toy is that the strong weave helps to floss and clean their teeth during play too.
A feather teaser is the perfect toy for you to play with your cat. The feather and the movement enables your cat to stalk and pounce. An example is the Play-N-Squeak Teaser Play Wand Cat Toy (priced at $10.36). The mouse at the end is essentially something that they would hunt in the wild and the feather is kind of bird like. Cats have wonderful imaginations so it is necessary to keep them entertained in as many different ways that you can. Each cat will have their own personality so it is about working out what your cats is, and what their preference is. There are many different teasers, some with feathers, some without and so on. If your cat doesn’t take to one of them, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t like another.
It is a little bit harder with smaller pets as unlike dogs and cats, they don’t tend to play as much. However, you can still encourage them to learn and move around using home-made activity sets and treats. For example, if you make an assault course for them using cardboard boxes as things to climb over and toilet roll tubes to wriggle through, when they complete each ‘task’ you can reward them with a treat. It’s amazing what many of our pets will do when there is food involved.
It is also important for pets to bond with other pets too, and is vital for their growth and development. It is recommended to have them socialised at a young age, especially dogs with other dogs, and toys are a great way to encourage bonding and sharing.
The different types of toys
Distraction toys are toys which will keep your pet busy, distracting them from getting up to all sorts of mischief. The toy will keep them engaged and stop their minds from wandering elsewhere.
Comfort toys are toys which bring your pet comfort. These are normally softer toys but could be anything which ensures your pet feels safe.
Active toys are toys which can be used when you have an energetic pet. For example, some pets love to run around and play, so toys which can be factored into this type of play would be seen as an active toy.
Kong toys are a perfect example of a distraction toy, as they are especially good toys for destructive chewers. The toys are made from a rubber material, which is safe to chew. The rubber is soft enough to not damage their teeth but strong enough so that they can’t tear it apart. The rubber also allows the toys to bounce, making them suitable to be used as throw toys, encouraging the pets to play. The hollow middle filled with treats will keep them distracted for hours on end.
Some dogs love a comfort toy, like a blanket or a soft stuffed toy, however these are not suitable for all dogs. If your dog is a little boisterous, destructive or just generally gets bored quite easily, they might end up ripping these toys apart and removing all the stuffing, which is not ideal for the pet or the owner. These are the perfect toys if you have a calmer dog who just wants to carry the toy around for comfort, however you must still ensure that there are no parts which can be removed and swallowed, especially if the toy is given to them when you are not around. For example, make sure that the eyes and noses of the soft stuffed toys are embroidered on and not stuck on.
An example of an active toy for a dog are rope toys. Rope toys are a fantastic invention. They are great for pets who like to play tug of war as they tend to be strong and durable. With the tugging and pulling, many other toys might accidently rip, but rope toys tend to be the most resistant. There are so many in the shops nowadays that there is the definitely the perfect one for all tug of war loving dogs. American dog is also a fantastic example of a brand for those active pups. They have used their knowledge of military and outdoor gear to create high quality, long lasting pet dog products. They have a broad range of toys. Their flyers and tug toys are perfect for keeping your dog running around and playing. Their toy products range from approximately $10 - $25.
Tennis balls are also a popular active toy choice with dog owners. They are a really great way of getting your pet to run around (as long as they chase after the ball). When buying the right tennis ball for your pet, you need to ensure that it is the right size. Do not purchase the smaller tennis balls for a bigger dog as there is a good chance they will get it stuck in their throat amidst all the excitement.
Catnip for some reason makes cats go absolutely crazy, in a cute loveable way. Yeowww is a popular brand amongst cat owners. Their toys are stuffed with ‘only the finest, organically grown catnip’ and come in all different shapes and sizes. You can also buy the catnip loose from Yeowww so that you can make your own toys with it. You just have to stuff it inside another toy or make your own completely from scratch.
It is quite rare that a cat will carry a toy around like a dog, for comfort, however if they do, ensure that the toy is safe, with no bits which could easily be pulled off.
If you have an active cat, there are a couple of toy ideas which would be appropriate. Motion toys are a great way to keep them occupied. An example being the SmartyKat Hot Pursuit Cat Toy Concealed Motion Toy (priced at approximately $18) which is an electronic toy which replicates the movement of hidden pray. It has a moving wand underneath some fabric so the cat can see the movement and attempt to catch the ‘prey.’ Another useful and fun toy for your active cat would be an electronic mouse. At approximately $10 the Hexbug Mouse Cat Toy is a great option. The electronic mouse will move itself around the house, imitating the movements of real prey. There are two settings, one for the quieter cats and one for the more energetic hunters.
Similarly, to the dogs and cats, there are also boredom breaker toys for the smaller pets. These again might use food to encourage them to complete activities. Again like the other species, it is important to keep their minds active otherwise they can end up becoming agitated and potentially aggressive.
For the smaller pet, you can get tunnels and hideaways made from soft wooden bark that can actually also be used as a chew toy. The fact that they are able to chew this is a comfort as chewing is a natural thing for the smaller pets to do.
Exercise balls have proven to be a fantastic invention for those energetic little pets. As they are confined to their cage most of the time, it is nice to let them have a run around without worrying about where they are. It gives them a chance to explore and get some proper exercise. Kaytee do run around balls for less than $5.
The different materials
Rubber toys tend to be the most durable and especially good if you have a pet who likes chewing or is teething. Rubber toys are pretty indestructible, so it is unlikely they will be able to tear them apart. They certainly would be a suitable choice for most dogs.
Plastic toys are not necessarily the best choice for dogs as they can easily be destroyed and could end with your pet accidently swallowing a part of the plastic toy. When buying a plastic toy, make sure there are no components of it that can be easily removed by your pet.
Many cat toys tend to be made from plastic. When it comes to cats, it is not so much of an issue as they are not normally as destructive as dogs. Cats tend to use their paws to play with toys more, whereas dogs use their mouth and teeth.
For the smaller pet, plastic is a suitable material. Especially products such as the hamster balls, which can give them endless hours of fun and freedom, spending time out their cages. At the same time however, make sure that there are other things in the cages that your pet can nibble and play with, so that they don’t try to chew the plastic if they get bored.
Again, like plastic toys, stuffed toys aren’t for every pet. These are the types of toys which are the easiest to destroy, making them a no go for excitable, destructible pets. Although many toy brands have made their soft pet toys stronger and more durable, it is still recommended to keep an eye on your pet when playing with them. If you can see that they have ripped it or are close to ripping it, then it is definitely best to take it away from them and replace it with something else.
Wooden toys are the ideal choice for your smaller pets, especially a wood which they can chew on. For example, rabbits like to gnaw on willow so you can get specific toys made from willow. Chewing is a normal, necessary and thoroughly enjoyable activity for rabbits so we recommend encouraging this natural behaviour. A great example is the Willow Twig Tunnel, priced at $9.29, from The Bunny Chick, an online store.
Many of the small ‘animal kingdoms’ or assault courses you will find for the smaller pet’s cages will be made from wood. Again to be used for play or for gnawing, these toys are beneficial for their teeth and also for their nails as climbing over the wood will keep them filed down.
Wooden toys are a no go for dogs and cats however as chewing wood is not natural for them, and they might end up with splinters or bits of wood lodged somewhere. Vets recommend that dogs do not play with sticks either as swallowing parts of it is not good for them. Kong’s Safestix is the perfect alternative for those stick loving pets.
Rope toys are a great choice of toy for your dog as they are so strong. These particular toys are also beneficial to your dog’s teeth. The coarse action of the braided rope, helps to keep the gums healthy and the teeth clean.
Rope is an ok choice of material for your cats and smaller pets too. Due to their durability, they can be chewed on and not destroyed easily.
Bones are also popular amongst dog owners. Some dogs like to chew their bones and some just like to go and bury them. Make sure you check with your vet first though to find out which brands are suitable as not all of them are good for your dog’s health.
Choosing the right toy for your specific pet
When it comes to pets, there are so many different breeds and personalities, that sometimes it can be a bit tough making a decision as to what is the best toy. So how can you know which one is right for your pet?
Puppies – Puppies get bored very easily and are always on the lookout for something they can play with or even worse, chew. Making sure they have more than one toy is a necessity as if they get bored with one, they will have other ones to move on to. Puppies get bored very easily so this is likely to happen. You don’t want toys which are too hard as they have sensitive gums and teeth when they are growing up, as they haven’t fully developed yet. Most brands tend to do specific puppy toys, so make sure you get these ones instead of the adult ones. Any puppy toy which you can stuff with treats or food is a great distraction for them and honestly keeps them busy for a long time.
Energetic dogs – Balls and tug of war toys are a great for the energetic dog. You can also get electronic toys which move on their own. These are great toys to have for when you are out the house, keeping your dog focused on something.
Intellectual dogs – Some dogs need to keep their minds active, maybe more than others. There are some fabulous toys for these dogs. There are activity toys which you can get where the pet has to do something in order for the toy to release a treat. This will certainly keep your dog’s mind busy, whilst rewarding them at the same time.
Elderly and tame dogs – Elderly and tame dogs might not need so many active or playful toys, and are more likely to look for comfort in one. Soft toys and blankets are great for them to snuggle up with and feel at comfort and ease. However even though they are older or tamer, they do still require exercise, just maybe not as much. Exercise is important for health and ensuring they don’t become overweight.
Kittens, energetic cats and indoor cats – Kittens, energetic cats and indoor cats require a lot more exercise than the mature cat. Toys which encourage movement would be the best for this bunch. Electronic mice which move throughout the house, motion toys, which don’t move as much but will still encourage movement. Teasers are a great way to get your cat moving. Some might even chase balls.
Outdoor cats – Each outdoor cat can be so different to another one. Some like to venture far and spend their days running and pouncing trying to catch prey, however some literally like to find a spot and spend the day basking on the lawn. Regardless of the fact that they are outdoor cats, you should still have toys around the house encouraging them to put their unused energy to good use.
Elderly and less energetic cats – Obviously as a pet gets older, they become less energetic, the same as humans. However, in order for them to keep healthy, they should still maintain a certain amount of exercise a day. In this instance it’s finding out which toys they prefer. It is unlikely they will want to be chasing an electronic mouse around the house, but they might still be swayed by treats, so a toy which dispenses treats whilst they play with it might be a more suitable option. This goes for the less energetic cats too.
When it comes to the smaller pets, there aren’t as many different types of toys as there are for dogs and cats, but pet stores (and online) do such a broad range nowadays that there are still plenty of different options. When buying a smaller pet, we recommend that you get them a decent size cage or hutch, so that it is not too cramped for them. Encourage play by getting them bits for their cage or hutch which will keep their minds busy. Activity courses, chew toys and home-made assault course are all fantastic ways of ensuring your pet is happ