Intro to play
Humans participate in intellectually stimulating play to keep our brains sharp. Why not our pets too?
Pets require intelligence to stalk and hunt prey and hide and evade danger from predators. If pets, like us don’t keep their minds active or get bored then they become deficient in some of those skills.
In the wild, play is dangerous, play is a risk. The risk of getting hurt or attacked by predators is very real while in active play. Play expends plenty energy which could otherwise be saved or spent on seemingly more productive aspects of life. Yet through thousands of years of evolutionary change many animals still spend much of their time in play. While play has definite costs, it also has significant benefits to help animals survive.
The science behind play
Learning creates new neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. The prefrontal cortex of the brain has been linked to planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. Studies show that a play deprived environment results in weaker neural connections. In essence more play results in better brain growth. Although the most significant aspect relating to the quality of life for your pets is emotional development of which play has a monumental impact.
Play mimics real life scenarios, hunting, hiding or stalking to name a few. Prey will often enjoy being chased while predators enjoy doing the chasing. House pets tend to engage happily in both roles because they are sometimes either a predator or prey.
How play affects your pets
Through play, pets fine-tune their own stress response. This allows pets to endure a higher level of stress as an adult without it negatively affecting them.
A realistic real word environment is needed during play. It helps trigger physical or social mistakes. When a kitten falls off a cat tree, it learns to be more careful when climbing. When a puppy is too rough with another dog, it learns how to read body language better. When it bites too hard, it receives a hard bite and learns new limits.
Behavioural issues and play
A restricted environment affords fewer opportunities to engage in the types of play necessary for intellectual, social, and emotional development. When pets don’t have an opportunity to play they grow into a more sensitive, emotionally fragile adult.
Unfortunately early play related behavioural issues don’t surface until pets are adolescents or are fully grown adults. To optimise chances of having a well-adjusted, intelligent, social pet, they need to engage in a lot of play as a kitten/puppy. Make sure you have plenty opportunities for play that closely mimics their natural instinct; places to climb, “friends” to rough house with, and fun to be had around every corner.
Types of play for healthy brain development
There are so many different ways you can provide opportunities for your pets healthy brain development.
1. Finding food
Food forms a key aspect of your pets’ natural lifestyle. In the wild they would normally work very hard for any food they get. Typically after feeding they would groom themselves and take a nap to recover from the strenuous word load.
Food based toys contain hidden treats that can be accessed by completing a puzzle, rolling a ball in the proper direction, or various other pet friendly tasks. Food based toys come with a built-in work load (work required to get food like roll the ball) and then a rewards system (earn a treat/food). Food based toys appeal greatly to their natural hunting instincts and is a fabulous often overlooked form of play for your pets.
2. Obstacle courses
Obstacles or agility courses are a magnificent tool to provide your pet with a physical play environment. A challenging environment that encourages balance, jumping or maneuvering in and around tight spaces mimics your pets natural instincts to scramble over rocks or move around in different types of terrain.
Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes; a cardboard box, laundry baskets, table etc… These simple toys are one of the cheapest ways to stimulate your pets’ brain.
3. Change is as good as a holiday
A changing environment is a common occurrence in the wild. Your pets are naturally curious. Changing your pets’ environment is an exciting form of stimulation for them. Try moving their food bowl (also a form of food based play) or bed into a new location. You can also hide some of their common toys which you might find will spark a new interest in those toys.
4. Interactive toys
We love technology and are very lucky to have such a good understanding of how pets enjoy play that we can use that knowledge to make clever interactive toys. We have toys that detect your pets’ proximity using infrared or motion sensors to automatically interacting with them or just simply a toy that mimics their natural environment. Self play interactive toys are especially desirable for pet lovers who are away often because they help keep your pet engaged during that time.
5. Virtual play
Play involving virtual prey can be fun or frustrating for your pet. The key is how the game. Laser pointers can be great exercise and a really easy way to play with your pet, but there is nothing physical to actually catch. If you want to ensure your pet remains fully engaged and enjoys a virtual play experience simply make certain their natural instincts are being met. In this example we would suggest offering them a physical toy after so they can feel like they have caught something which greatly appeals to their natural hunting instincts.
Pets in pairs are great play companions to each other. Their natural play instincts are much easier to manage while they play with each other. Pairs in play offers exercise, a playmate, and someone who truly speaks their language.