How to choose the right toys for your pets

If you thought that buying pet toys simply comes with the territory of homing a dog or cat, you’d be right; but the reasons why your pet needs toys are fairly complex. Once you understand these reasons – like why your dog prefers squeaky toys to chasing a ball, or flying toys compared to plush toys – it will be easier to choose the best pet toys for your pet. You’ll understand which types of toys best meet your pet’s individual needs for play, physical and mental stimulation, and bonding with you.

Do pets need toys for mental stimulation?

Yes! There are a few critical elements involved in choosing the right pet toys for dogs and cats. Aside from the physical exertion that happens during vigorous play, the mental stimulation is just as important for our domesticated furry friends. Dogs and cats are intelligent creatures – their ancestors developed this intelligence in order to survive. Even if our pets’ every need is already being met by doting owners, their brains still crave mental gymnastics as much as their bodies need physical exercise. One of the best ways to offer our pets mental stimulation is through play and the use of pet toys.

Types of toys for cats

  • Ball toys
  • Wand toys
  • Chase toys
  • Catnip toys
  • Plush/Comfort toys
  • Chew toys
  • Scratchers
  • Puzzle/Treat toys
  • Laser toys

Cat toys serve three purposes: to satisfy cats’ hunting instincts, to provide the opportunity to clean their claws and elongate their muscles, and to provide comfort. It’s important to get to know your cat’s preferences and proclivities in order to meet her toy needs.

Types of toys for dogs

  • Balls and fetch toys
  • Plush toys
  • Squeaker toys
  • Crinkle paper toys
  • Rope and tug toys
  • Puzzle toys
  • Treat toys
  • Teething toys for puppies
  • Dental toys for all dogs
  • Chew toys for aggressive chewers

Each toy type has a very specific purpose for dogs, depending on the dog’s size, breed, behaviour and stimulation needs.

Dog toys for different breeds

All dogs have different energy levels and different stimulation needs. The easiest way to determine your dog’s toy needs will be to look at his breed. Intelligent, energetic dogs such as the border collie or Belgian Malinois need plenty of running, jumping, catching and returning exercises, so a frisbee or flying toy would be perfect for them. Earth dogs like terriers – originally bred to dig into burrows and warrens to flush out small critters – love squeaker toys for a very macabre reason: that squeaking simulates the noise a protesting small animal makes in the throes of a successful hunt. Waterdogs will easily fetch a floating toy in a pool or dam for hours on end. And retrievers will find and return plush toys – fondly ‘remembering’ their ancestors’ job of retrieving downed birds for their hunting humans.

Many dogs need the additional mental stimulation of chew toys or they resort to destructive chewing as a means of relieving their stress. The ideal toy for a highly-stimulated dog with an appetite for chewing is a durable chew toy. This may save your expensive shoes, the remote control, rubber mats and other easily accessible objects. One way to make your extreme chewer’s durable toy even more satisfying is to stuff it with treats so that he gets a tasty reward while reducing his stress.

Of course, mixed breeds count too, but you will need to understand your dog’s personality and preferences before committing to certain types of toys.

Dog toys for different size dogs

It will help your dog’s playtime a lot if he can maximise the fun with his toys, which is where size matters. It may be funny to see a tiny dog with a huge ball, but unless he can fit the ball in his mouth, all he will experience is frustration. Similarly, a big dog with a very small ball won’t get the full satisfaction of playtime, and a small ball can pose a choking hazard, especially when catching it in the air. Most dog toys, chew toys, fetch toys and treat toys come in a variety of sizes, which allow you to pick the perfect size for your pooch. Measure the toy’s dimensions in comparison to your dog’s face and paws to find the right fit.

Do pets need interactive toys?

Generally, pet toys are not a stand-alone solution to physically and mentally stimulating your pets – toys provide a link between you and your dog or cat. Toys help to build a bond of trust, loyalty and love, ensuring both you and your pet get the most out of your furry friendship. Consistent proactive playtime will increase your pet’s self-esteem, reduce boredom, and improve his fitness and quality of life. Yours too!

The pet toy market is huge. HUGE. And every year, many more types of pet toys are being added to pet shop shelves. Interactive pet toys are very popular because they require some kind of input from your pet and are touted as being able to keep your pet busy. What are the benefits of puzzle toys for pets? Interactive pet toys such as puzzle toys, wobblers, ball rollers/poppers, treat toys and bounce toys are great for your pet’s mental agility. Pets need to do something – paw, sniffle, turn an object, press a button, or simply nudge the toy – in order for a treat to be released or for something to happen to stimulate a response from your pet.

These types of interactive toys are great fun for your pet, but they are not a good substitute for interaction with you – your pet’s best friend – while you’re otherwise occupied. These toys are convenient, but should never replace genuine interaction with your pets. It’s also critical that you don’t leave your pets alone with interactive toys. Pets need supervision during play for two reasons:

  1. Some pet toys contain small parts or can be damaged and small pieces can be bitten or broken off. These pieces are a choking hazard, so your pet should never be allowed to play alone with toys.
  2. If your pet does start biting or destroying a toy, you can stop them immediately (since broken toys are useless toys) and give them something else to do to curb their boredom.

Can you use toys to train your pet?

A toy is a great tool to use when training your pet – especially dogs. Some dogs are not particularly food motivated, but they will do almost anything for the opportunity to play with a toy. The trick is to maintain the toy’s value as a reward. If your dog has access to his special toy at any time of day, he won’t feel very motivated to obey commands, so retain a high-value toy only for training purposes. When he does what you ask of him, say “yes!” and give him access to the toy for a few seconds – give it a tug, let him shake it – before moving on to the next command.

Keep training sessions quick, energetic and enthusiastic (not too repetitive) and your toy-motivated dog will do exactly what you want when access to his favourite toy is at stake.

Do pets need lots of different toys?

Absolutely! It can help your pet tremendously if different toys serve different purposes. Cats will ‘hunt’ a laser light and/or a feather toy on the end of a wand – this satisfies their hunting needs. They will chase and play with a mobile mouse toy or a topple treat toy. These toys’ unpredictable movements will keep your cat agile and flexible. And cats will also get their jollies from a catnip toy, which will either energise or relax them. Having such a varied experience with different toys is enriching for your cat – giving her plenty of boredom-busting value and ensuring a better quality of life than a cat with fewer toys.

Dogs’ brains will similarly be stimulated if they have a distinct toy for each activity such as a plush toy to retrieve, comfort and carry around – a ball toy or frisbee to play catch or fetch with – a squeaky toy to ‘kill’, a rope toy to tug. Observant owners will quickly be able to distinguish which toy is their dog’s favourite – making the preferred toy the perfect one to use as the training reward.

It’s also wise to not let your dog have access to all their toys at once, as this may decrease the perceived value of the toys and result in boredom. Retaining toys at different times of the day and offering structured play with specific toys will offer your dog a novel and exciting experience that’s bound to keep him engaged and excited.

What are safe and durable materials for pet toys?

Our pets could probably make a toy out of any object (when left to their own devices), but this is not always the safest option. Manufacturers of high-quality pet toys only use materials that are safe for pets and durable enough to withstand play. These materials include:

  • TPR (thermoplastic rubber)
  • SST (Safe Soft Technology) foam
  • natural rubber
  • silicone
  • natural fibres (hemp, sisal, cotton)
  • nylon fabric

And, when we’re talking about safe and durable, you may be tempted to ask: What about plush toys? Won’t my dog destroy a plushie? Again – it depends on the dog. Some retriever-type dogs are described as ‘soft-mouthed’, meaning they are very gentle with their mouths. Historically, these hunters’ companions would need to retrieve birds and fish without puncturing their quarry with their teeth. Examples of soft-mouthed breeds include retrievers, spaniels and some poodles. These dogs should typically not show destructive tendencies towards plush toys – something that can easily be trained with the “drop it” or “leave it” command.

Ratters and terrier breeds, on the other hand: watch out. They were bred and trained to flush out and kill small prey. They have a strong bite, which they use to kill prey with a quick and deadly shake of the head. Rather don’t tempt fate with beautiful plush dog toys, where fetch, tug and ball toys would suffice.

How do you clean and sanitise pet toys?

Pet toys can get pretty gnarly with germs. When plush toys start looking a bit ratty, pop them in a pillowcase and tie up the corners, then send them through a wash and rinse cycle in the washing machine. Hang them outside in the sunshine to dry thoroughly before allowing your pet to play with them again.

For pet toys with hard surfaces or durable chew toys, remove any dirt and debris with an old toothbrush. Use a pet-safe disinfectant spray to thoroughly clean the toy – leave it to soak for a few hours if necessary. Scrub and/or wipe the toy and rinse it thoroughly to remove any soapy residue.

When should pet toys be replaced?

No pet toy is completely indestructible, especially if your pet is a high-energy breed who loves intense bouts of vigorous playtime. Whether your pets’ toys suffer from natural wear and tear or if they get damaged in the course of play, they will need to be replaced if:

  • pieces of plastic or rubber start breaking off
  • threads come undone
  • stuffing comes out

Most toys will easily show visible signs of wear-and-tear, but before they become a health hazard, it’s better to replace them. A new toy is a lot cheaper than a hefty vet bill to remove intestinal obstructions from bits of toys that have been chewed off and swallowed. Always read the instructions and warnings that are on dog toy packaging.

It may take some trial-and-error to find the pawfect toys for your pets, but that’s all part of the fun! As you get to know their habits and behaviours better, your cat’s and/or dog’s toy box can be filled with all the right goodies and gadgets that get their bodies moving, stimulate their intelligent brains, and improve their health and wellbeing.

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