How to Keep Indoor Pets Happy

Whether your pets live indoors full-time or are just housebound due to winter weather, these tips will help them stay active and happy.
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Be honest: How many times have you envied your cat for being able to lounge around all day, not a care in the world, not another living being in sight? It sounds like the dream... until you're the one actually doing it and are bored out of your mind. Whether your pets live indoors full-time or are just housebound due to winter weather, they face boredom. “It’s like snow day for little kids,” says dog trainer and author Suzanne Clothier. “Sounds great till you’re the mom who has to keep them occupied all day. They can go as cabin crazy as we can.”

It's important to keep your pets engaged physically and mentally to ensure a happy, healthy life. We talked to Clothier and Lynn Bahr, veterinarian and founder of cat toy company Dezi & Roo, to get tips for keeping indoor pets happy at home. 

Play with Your Pets

Life gets busy, and it can be easy to forget to play with your pets. Bahr likes to build time dedicated to playing with her cats into her routine, and she lets her cat toys serve as visual reminders to do so. “I keep all my wand toys in my closet," she says. "Every morning when I get up and go to get dressed, my wand toys are staring at me." Her two cats know the drill. “I’ll get them running around the bedroom," she says. "Playing before feeding is great because it is more natural to hunt and then to eat.” When Bahr gets home and puts her work clothes away, again she sees wands in the closet and remembers to play. She also keeps a laser pointer in the bathroom. Having reminders in various locations ensures her cats get plenty of playtime. 

As far as specific games to play with your pets, Bahr and Clothier have plenty of ideas. Bahr likes to place scrunched-up wads of newspaper with freeze-dried minnows around the house for her cats to find and "hunt." Her cats will leap onto the mantle, grab a wad, jump to the floor, and tear open the newspaper to find their treat. 

Clothier keeps her seven dogs entertained throughout snowy rural New York winters by playing hide and seek. “I have my husband call them, hold them, then I go disappear and they have to come find me,” she says. She gets creative in her hiding spots, sometimes going in closets, behind shower curtains, or under the dining room table. “It’s funny how some dogs make assumptions and they’re quite surprised to discover their person in a strange and wonderful place.”

When physical exhaustion isn't an option for Clothier's dogs, she looks for ways to tire them out mentally. She especially likes Nina Ottosson’s puzzle games, which require dogs to use their paws and noses to open trick compartments and reveal treats. Be prepared for lowered self-esteem if you have a canine Einstein. “I’ll warn you, sometimes it takes more time for the human to solve the puzzle than it takes the smart dog to work it out,” she says.

Give Your Cats a Place to Scratch

Is kitty ruining your couch? You probably have a scratching-post deficiency. “The number one reason they scratch is communication,” Bahr says. “It’s how they speak. Cats use scratching the way we text.” In the wild, cats scratch along the pathways of their territory. They want to do the same thing inside. The solution? A scratching post in every room. “In each room, they want to announce themselves, ‘Hey, I’m here, hello,’” Bahr explains. Go for variety of posts—vertical, horizontal, cardboard, sisal, loofah. A nice mix of shapes and textures will keep your cat happiest (and your sofa safer). 

Make Meals More Entertaining

Dogs are fast gorge animals. “They’re meant to eat a meal and feel full, not to nibble all day,” Clothier says. Having them work for their food by using a slow feeder is a good way to keep them busy. Get a bowl with ridges, which makes your dog slow down rather than inhaling a meal in ten seconds. Also, use different methods of feeding. Clothier recommends reserving a quarter to a third of your dog’s daily ration for games and treats. 

Cats, on the other hand, should eat throughout the whole day and night. Bahr recommends hiding packets of kibble around the house for your cat to hunt and snack on during the day.

Keep It Fresh

Although pets like routine, they also enjoy new stimuli. Take your dog for a ride in the car and visit a pet-friendly store. When the weather's nice, open your windows and let indoor cats breathe fresh air and feel sunbeams on their fur. Enrich your cat’s life with a catnip or silver vine-scented toy.

Bahr frequently moves her cats’ beds around and closes doors to rooms to stimulate curiosity. “Every morning when I wake up, I say to myself, how can I make today different for my cats?” 

Keep Your Pets Comfortable

If your furry friend is up there in years, be on the lookout for ways to make them more comfortable during their days inside. Invest in a cozy dog bed, get a step to help them onto furniture, or give them a nice massage. On cold or rainy nights, older dogs may be reluctant to go outside and do their business before bedtime. Be willing to put on boots and a coat and go outside with them for as long as they need. It's important to be there for your pets as much as they're there for you!