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Holiday Gifts for Pets

Tips for Interactive, Inexpensive Games and Toys

by Sandra Murphy

NP_1114_HolidayDogWhat’s on the family pet’s wish list this year? Family members can have fun creating interactive toys and games that are easy on the holiday budget.

According to a recent American Pet Association survey, three out of four owners buy gifts for their pets during the holiday season, to the collective tune of $5 billion. Dogs and cats receive new sweaters and boots, collars and leashes, toys and treats. Yet, what they really crave is attention.

“Too often pets are left alone for eight hours a day, leading to anxiety, frustration and unwanted behaviors. It’s important that they’re mentally challenged, learn new commands and have fun,” says Dr. Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, in Los Angeles. “Cognitive decline and muscle wasting, common in older pets, can both be thwarted with games personalized for age and ability.”

Special Dog Treats

Look for sturdy wooden puzzles that hide a treat behind doors that pull or slide open. Advanced puzzles involve a multistep solution. Following dog treat cookbooks will keep dedicated bakers in a canine’s good graces throughout the year.

“Dogs are social, emotional beings. Companionship is far more important than any material object. Interact with your dog, play with him or take him for a walk.”

~ Dr. Clare Wilson, pet behavior counselor, St. Petersburg, Florida

Write an activity—a walk, trip to the dog park, game of fetch or a doggie/human dance party—on a few index cards. “Teach the dog to choose by rubbing one card with a sodium-free bouillon cube,” suggests Eileen Proctor, a pet lifestyle expert in Denver. “As soon as the dog sniffs the card, reward with praise and the designated gift. Once the game is learned, there is no need to keep scenting the cards.” Turn up a corner of all the cards for easy pickup.

Purrfect for Cats

NP_1114_HolidayCatCats may like to play it cool, but bring out a laser pointer and they act like kittens again. To mimic hunting instincts, play hide-and-seek with kitty’s food; put holes in a closed box with special bits of dry food inside, then let her paw it out or roll the box.

Place a too-large-to-swallow jingle bell inside an empty toilet paper roll and tape the ends shut for a charming-sounding toy. An orphaned sock filled with crinkly cellophane and sewn shut makes an intriguing toy to drag around. Improvise a fishing pole from a colorful dowel rod and heavy twine with a pet- and planet-friendly toy tied on the end for a pet to chase.

Older animals can benefit from new bedding; a mattress that resembles an egg carton is easy on the joints. A warming pad feels good on cold nights. Placing short steps beside a family bed allows co-sleeping to continue. A ramp helps senior dogs get into the car.

Cats love to squeeze themselves into small spaces or relax in larger ones, so pass along gift boxes. 

Pretty-Bird Specials

NP_1114_HolidayBirdIn the wild, birds spend most of their time foraging for food. Mimic a wilderness search by hiding food beneath an unused, unbleached coffee filter or a large lettuce leaf. Cut food in pieces big enough to hold in a claw to help hone balance. Hide seeds in a made-for-birds piñata, available at pet supply stores. Puzzle boxes range from reach-in-for-food versions to slide-a-door or pull-a-knob difficulty levels.

Fun for Fish

Betta (Siamese fighting) fish love to rest near the surface, so provide a leafy hammock, available where supplies are sold. Finned friends get exercise as they chase a laser pointer’s red dot through the water. A new plant or ping-pong ball floating on the surface provides added entertainment.

Moss balls are a good place to hide food and also help keep the water clean. A ceramic log lets fish hide inside.

Climbing Crabs

Hermit crabs are social animals, both curious and amusing. The gift of a new shell or two during molting season is appreciated. Flat-topped rocks with textured sides, large enough to not tip over, provide a different view. Fibers like those used for macramé, hung from the lid of the tank almost to the floor mimic rope climbing. Upside down terra cotta flower pots, in different sizes and covered with netting, provide more surfaces and heights to explore.

“Time spent together is a gift for both the giver and the recipient,” says Proctor. “It’s more thoughtful than anything you can find in a store. You always get back more than you give.”

Sandra Murphy is a freelance writer in St. Louis, MO. Connect at StLouisFreelanceWriter@mindspring.com.

Pet Precautions

As with kids, don’t shower all the surprises on a pet at once. The choices will be overwhelming. Rotate them while keeping one favorite at hand.

  • Check for loose knobs or small parts on toys and around the house; anything that can break off from a strong bite. Favor smooth, rounded edges.
  • Puzzles and other toys are for supervised play only.
  • Never point a laser light at a pet’s eyes—it can severely damage their vision.
  • Poinsettias can be poisonous to pets—keep them out of reach or out of the house.
  • Because a dog or cat’s tongue is rough, if they chew on tinsel, ribbon, yarn or other textured wrappings or decorations, it’s likely to get swallowed, which can lead to a medical emergency.

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