Keep your furry family members content and engaged with these expert-backed tips.

By Hannah Harper
March 10, 2021
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You can tell when your pet is joyful—your dog wags her tail excitedly as you approach the dog park; your cat curls up next to you and purrs. And it's true, animals have moods too: "Getting to know what things make your dog or cat happy improves their quality of life and also improves that bond between you and your pet," says Sharon Campbell, DVM, senior manager at Zoetis in Madison, New Jersey. Here's how to keep your furry family members content and engaged.

Get them moving

With both dogs and cats, exercise is essential for staying physically and emotionally healthy. Taking your dog for a walk or having a game of fetch on a regular basis will help her burn extra energy. Cats can benefit from 5 to 10 minutes of play a couple of times a day, with a laser pointer or feather wand, and cat trees promote playfulness on their own. "Cats feel more comfortable if they can be at a high vantage point surveying the environment; vertical scratchers [with platforms] allow them to be in this space and work the muscles appropriate for climbing and scratching," says Lillian Ciardelli, associate certified applied animal behaviorist at Behave Atlanta. 

Keep them thinking

Just like people, pets need mental stimulation to stay sharp. "On your walks, allow your dog to sniff every few steps for a few seconds; it's really mentally stimulating for them and will allow them to be calmer at home," says Ciardelli. For cats, tap into their hunter-prey instincts by hiding treats around the house for them to seek out. Training exercises and puzzle toys are also a great way to encourage them to use their problem-solving skills to get rewards.

Give them space

Instilling a sense of choice and autonomy in your pet is important for their ability to relax at home. Designate a quiet space in the house for them to retreat to, and provide them with "escape routes" to exit any social situation, especially while around children or guests. "When the dog or cat chooses to go to these places that are their sanctuary, that's usually a good indication they want to be alone, and that should be respected," saysDr. Campbell. For families that are spending more time at home than they used to, take into consideration that your pet may be more stimulated and isn't getting the off-duty time she needs. Reward your pup for choosing to leave your side while at home by putting a treat in her special spot, says Ciardelli. 

Spot the signs

When stressed, dogs may exhibit a few behaviors that first appear normal, like yawning, licking their lips, and shaking off their coat. Here, context is key: Is your dog being touched and hugged by strangers? Is she surrounded by other high-energy pets? These situations might suggest that her behaviors are stemming from discomfort. Other signs of stress might be excess panting, sweaty paw prints, and the "whale-eye"—when a dog's eyes go wide enough to see the whites. 

Cats typically go even further to conceal their discomfort. They may hide more than usual, over-or under-groom, or stop using their litter box. A good indicator of a cat's mood is her tail; a tail that's low or sticking straight back could signify nervousness. "A comfortable cat has an upright, relaxed tail, in the shape of a question mark," says Ciardelli.

This article originally appeared in the  March 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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