By Dr. Becker
When you imagine a wolf or a big cat in its natural habitat, what do you see in your mind's eye?
Chances are you picture a wild creature in motion – walking, stalking, hunting – or perhaps standing stock-still, prepared to pounce or flee.
The reason most of us conjure up images of wild canines and felines engaged in physical pursuits is because that's what these animals were built for.
The pictures and film clips we're most mesmerized by show these magnificent beings actively engaged with their environment.
Picture Your Pet in the Wild
Now think about your own dog or cat – a descendant of either a wolf or a wild feline.
It may be hard to swallow the fact that the fuzzy creature in your lap or at your feet has similar wiring to his wild cousins, but it's a fact I wish more pet owners would embrace.
Yes, your dog or cat lives indoors with you as a member of the family (hopefully).
But that doesn't change his natural canine or feline design -- his drive to be as muscular, fit and physically active as his counterparts in the wild.
Or … Think of Your Dog or Cat as a Young Child
Another way to view your pet's need for mental stimulation and exercise is to think of her as you would a young child (this is especially true if your companion is a dog). Picture leaving a toddler or preschool age child alone for several hours a day, with nothing to do but lie around (of course, this falls into the category of child neglect).
Or imagine expecting that child to lay around all day doing nothing, never asking for attention or getting into mischief.
The images those scenarios conjure up are disturbing, aren't they? How stressful would it be for a young child to be forced to spend hours every day alone, or simply laying around doing nothing?
Yet that's the boring life many family pets are expected to accept without complaint. And boredom creates stress-related illness and behavior problems in dogs and cats.
Pets Aren't Lifeless Possessions
Though technically we 'own' our pets, it's a mistake to view them as just another possession. People with this outlook often don't understand or acknowledge their pet's need for exercise, mental and physical stimulation, playtime, and interaction with human family members.
Dogs, cats and other household pets are sentient beings. Unlike your car or your couch, your pet is a conscious, living creature with feelings. And she has species-specific lifestyle requirements that include biologically appropriate nutrition, exercise, social interaction and health care.
Most vets will tell you that many of the pets with behavior problems we see in our practices show dramatic improvement when 'treated' with regular sessions of aerobic exercise.
Many pet owners who try this 'therapy' are amazed at the difference just a little daily physical activity makes in their dog's or cat's behavior.
How to Relieve Boredom-Related Stress and Behavior Problems
If your pet is a cat …
What you have in your home is a captive animal. Housecats remain closer to their wild nature than most family dogs do.
Of course, kitties living indoors are much safer and generally healthier than cats who live part or all of their lives outside, but it's far from a natural situation for them.
There are many things you can do to enrich your kitty's indoor environment, and one of them is to set aside time for a few short play sessions each day. Discover what type of cat toys he responds to and engage him with them. Use toys that encourage stretching, reaching, jumping and running. This type of activity is both physically and mentally stimulating. Your cat is answering his natural drive to hunt and pounce, and getting good aerobic exercise in the bargain.
If you're lucky enough to have a safe, fully enclosed outdoor area that contains your cat and keeps other critters out, your kitty will probably really enjoy being outside in good weather.
You could also consider leash training your cat to provide some additional sensory stimulation.
If your companion is of the canine persuasion …
If you have a dog it can be more challenging to keep her active enough to prevent boredom and stress-related behavior issues. The good news, however, is there are also many more ways to keep a dog well-exercised.
Daily walks are very important for your pup, and they can improve your fitness level as well. Other great activities to enjoy with your dog are hiking, jogging, swimming, and fetching a ball or playing Frisbee.
Even during winter months there are ways to keep your dog active. There are hydrotherapy and warm water dog pools for swimming, indoor dog parks, and indoor agility and tracking training. An outdoor winter sport you can include your dog in is cross-country skiing.
Obedience training or a nose work class is an excellent resource to keep your dog challenged and mentally sharp. And so are treat-release puzzle toys like the Clever K9.
Most dogs prefer interactive toys that involve their humans in the game. So don't assume a pile of dog toys is all your pet needs to amuse herself. In fact, if you leave your pet with toys to entertain herself, it's best to give her one and put the rest aside.
Rotate through all the toys one at a time and your pup will think every day brings a 'new' toy to play with.
For the health and quality of life of your pet, I hope you'll give some thought to how you can offer your dog or cat opportunities to be the active, athletic animal she was destined to be.