Q: My busy work schedule doesn’t let me get outdoors with my dog as much as I (or she) would like. How much attention do dogs need to stay physically and emotionally healthy—and how can I combat my pet’s boredom when I’m not home?
A: Attention, exercise, and play help pets (especially dogs) work off nervous energy, tone muscles, and maintain a healthy weight. The quality time you spend with your pet also helps support your animal’s emotional health—whether you’re walking in the woods or just cuddling on the couch. While there’s no optimal amount of attention or exercise that fits every pet, your pet’s physical condition, energy level, and age can help you find a balance that’s beneficial to you both.
The Importance of Pet Exercise
We’ve all probably heard that healthy, regular exercise boosts the mind, body, and spirit. This is no less true for our pets than for us. And while cats are adept at amusing themselves with a cloth mouse or cat tree when their owners aren’t around, dogs often struggle with boredom, separation anxiety, obesity, and other health problems that can result from a lack of physical exercise.
Exercise can take many forms: Walking or hiking with your pet is a great way to keep you both in shape, while reinforcing the emotional bond between you. But there are other ways to get your pet out and about. Many communities offer free dog parks where your animal can not only exercise, but also build its social interaction skills. Some owners choose a more intense path, with behavioral or skills training that challenges your dog’s mind as well as its body.
Whatever mode of exercise you choose, try to set a regular routine so that your dog can count on a romp. Most dogs need between 30 and 60 minutes of physical exercise daily, so you can use that as a benchmark. But remember to consider your animal’s age, agility, energy level, and overall physical health when planning your exercise sessions. For obese or older animals unaccustomed to regular exercise, you may need to start slowly and let your pet dictate the pace for awhile.
Note: Run your exercise plan past your veterinarian and ask questions—especially if you have specific health concerns about your animal.
Keeping Your Pet Mentally Stimulated
Like humans, animals require mental exercise to keep their minds agile and their senses sharp. Most of us aren’t able to play with our pets all day—so finding other ways to challenge their minds is essential. Fortunately there are many brain-teasing toys and gadgets designed to keep bored or anxious pets occupied.
Cats, for example, can be easily engaged by a wand toy or laser pointer. If your schedule keeps you outside the home most of the day, you can leave your cats a toy that conceals a hidden treat, a toy containing catnip, or even a high-tech toy that interacts with your pet.
Dogs seem to require more interactive play to stay mentally agile, so keeping a bored dog occupied (without crating the animal) can be a slightly greater challenge. Be sure to provide an ample supply of both comfort toys and interactive toys. Check online for smart dog toys or dog puzzles. There’s a broad array of styles and varieties, from the basic to the high-tech, all designed to stimulate the curious minds of our canine companions.
How does Insufficient Attention Affect Pet Behavior?
A lack of physical or mental stimulation can lead to both behavioral and physical health problems in pets. Both cats and dogs are vulnerable to obesity, diabetes, and arthritis—which can make your pet reluctant to exercise or play. Keeping your pet on a regular exercise schedule can help to address these issues and reduce the risk for additional health problems.
Boredom affects pets emotionally too. Some ignored or neglected pets become sullen and lethargic, while others become suspicious and reluctant to trust. Many dogs develop separation anxiety when their owners are out of the home, and this stress can cause such animals to become destructive—tearing up cushions, chewing on furniture, or even tearing off door molding. Keeping your pet emotionally engaged can help reduce the incidence of these behaviors.
Listen to Your Pet
Often our pets will provide us with clues that they’re not getting the attention they need. Is your pet exhibiting these behaviors and warning signs?
Listlessness or depression
Loss of appetite
Overgrooming (creating hot spots)
The Attention You Give Your Pet Supports Your Health
One important thing to remember is that interacting with your pets makes them, and you, healthier. Time spent exercising, playing, or cuddling with your pet can help you reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve mood. Contact with your animals also helps bolster your immune system. So, the time you set aside for your pet is also time spent caring for yourself.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.