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Try this little experiment: Ask a four-year-old to lie very still in a room by himself for six to nine hours, with no games, no books and no human interaction. Sure, he can look outside and watch other kids play — but he has to stay indoors.
When you return home, tell that child he can walk outside for 10 minutes, but then it’s back in for the night. Repeat this routine daily.
Ridiculous, you say? Of course it is. Yet this is often exactly what we ask of our pets, causing them undue emotional stress in the process.
Believe it or not, one of the chief stressors for many homebound animals is idle time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for indoors-only pets. My two dogs and cats live inside, but they also go outside for an hour or more every day. Not only do my cats have access to a screened-in porch, I’ve also trained them to explore the backyard during supervised “walk-n-stalks.”
If you want to mitigate the damaging effects of stress on your pet, take your dog or cat (I know, this is sometimes easier said than done with felines) for a 30-minute walk each day — or, at the very least, two 15-minute jaunts.
Fact: Our pets need and deserve exercise, stimulating interaction and a dose of fun each day, which is why one of my greatest pet peeves is an owner who never does anything with his amazing animal. I call them “pasture ornaments” because these animals look good on the landscape, but they rarely enjoy ample human interaction. They get playtime when their owner has the time and energy — and walks only happen when conditions are ideal.
Bottom line: In my practice, many pets with behavior problems improve considerably when a regular aerobic exercise program is part of their treatment. And it takes only a little activity each day to keep this doctor away.
In my experience, the majority of feline overeating is linked to boredom and stress — they simply have nothing better to do than eat all day. When pets are stressed, they tend to overeat. And since they don’t get enough exercise, they gain weight. All that extra fat secretes harmful hormones, which lead to added physiological stress. The cycle repeats itself until I eventually diagnose a disease like crippling osteoarthritis or deadly diabetes.
When it comes to cats, you need to tap into their natural predatory instinct to help break boredom. Felines are designed to stalk and pounce, leap and sprint. If you only have one cat, play “hide the food” by placing a small amount of chow in a few soy sauce bowls scattered throughout your home.
Many felines also love interactive toys, such as remote-controlled lasers and rotating chasers. My own cats enjoy chasing wadded-up pieces of newspaper. In fact, sometimes just leaving out an empty box for some hide-and-seek play is precisely what this doctor orders for many stressed-out kitties.
Of course, nothing replaces the best toy in the world — you. Try to teach your cat to play fetch, use a food puzzle or follow a feather dancer to help relieve stress.
As for dogs, in addition to daily walks and play, aim to teach your canine new tricks and games, such as using a food puzzle.
Mystified as to why your pup doesn’t want to play with the dozens of toys you’ve left out for him? The reality is that pets can also get overwhelmed by too many choices, so rotate your dog’s toys daily to turn every day into a “new toy day.”
If you try these easy steps to enrich your pet’s environment, you’ll keep life lively for him — and stress at bay. It will change both of your lives for the better.
Other articles in this series by Dr. Ernie Ward include Don't Stress Over Pet Stress — Combat It and Sights, Smells and Sounds That Stress Your Pet.
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