How to Interest Your Pet in Play or Treats

By Suzanne Denk, Dip.FBST, Animal Enrichment Specialist

“My cat is not food motivated … my dog does not like to play or do puzzles.” These are a few assumptions we have, but they may be the wrong expectations of our pets. Enrichment for pets is about offering them the best quality of life. And, determining what food is motivating and what activity or toy brings them enjoyment is key!

First, let your pet decide what is fun and rewarding to them. If a dog does not play tug, that means he does not find it to be fun. Just like my son wants to golf but I don’t find it to be an enjoyable activity. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy something else more. Don’t give up on offering play to your pets because it can teach them skills, expend energy, stimulate the mind and provide a reward.

You can try a simple toy experiment to determine what your pet likes the best. Line up several different toys on the floor so that your pet sees them when they enter the room. Allow them to choose a toy – the first choice is the most appealing toy to them! Trade the toy for treats and remove the toy. Repeat with all of the toy options, noting the order in which your pet chooses to engage with particular toys or when they are no longer interested.

You can also add motion to a toy. A rope toy may become more interesting to your dog when it is wiggling on the ground. A simple cardboard tube with pellets may be more interesting to your bunny if you shake it. Does your cat like a teaser wand with feathers, bells, tinsel, ribbons or a bristly mouse? Or, does your cat like the wand to fly in the air, move slowly or quickly across the floor or come out from behind something? Having toy and play options to engage your pet can be important for rewards if one day different foods are not an option due to medical conditions.

Instead of assuming your pet is not food motivated, try a food preference test. The food has to be appealing enough for your pet to want to offer the desired behavior. Knowing your pet’s preferences can be valuable for training, giving medication, enrichment or even getting your cat into a carrier!

Which snack does your bunny like the best – timothy treats, fresh herbs or bananas? Create a treat hierarchy. Determine which snacks will get your pet’s interest with another experiment. Make a list of the foods your pet may enjoy. Before serving a meal, offer tiny bits of different foods and write down the order in which they eat it or not. For example, say your dog eats the offered bits in the following order: liverwurst, rotisserie chicken, cheese, store-bought treat, snap pea, blueberry but leaves a dry biscuit. Repeat the test a few times, recording the order your pet chooses. If liverwurst is the favorite, you can reserve that for administering medication. The chicken and cheese will be motivating for training or puzzles and the other items for daily snacks. Remember, your pet gets to decide what is rewarding.

These two easy experiments will help you meet your pet’s enrichment needs. Be creative and find the choices to help your pet live their best life!

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