Come Play with Me!

Play is a mind-body activity

Published: September 18, 2017

horse playing with ball
If the internet has given us anything – besides arguments with long-lost family members and easy access to cheap knock-offs – it’s granted us a look into the world of animal amusement.

From bouncing goats to cats donning costumes and riding robot vacuums into battle, elephants chasing birds, octopi rolling downhill in coconuts, and pandas being pandas, our screens are full of animal absurdity. And don’t forget the kittens, kittens, kittens, bouncing, rolling, chasing, and teleporting everywhere!

It’s easy to think of these YouTube stars of the animal kingdom as minor celebrities, outstanding in their fields (or aquariums), but in reality for every Instagram iguana or Snapchat sloth, there are millions of everyday pets at play – every day.

Most of us know that our animals enjoy play; if we didn’t, companies wouldn’t make nearly the millions they do on the pervasive plethora of pet play products. But, where we sometimes forget that for our animal friends, just like for humans, play accomplishes specific physical and psychological tasks. (This may or may not explain WHY Fluffy prefers the cardboard box to the ultra-splendiferous cat tree.)

  1. Natural Behaviors
  2. Exercise
  3. Social interaction
  4. Mental Stimulation

Back when I was in veterinary school (in the dark ages of writing on slate with sticks of powdered rock), the generally accepted differentiation between human and non-human animals fell into two categories:

  1. Emotions – we had them; non-human critters didn’t
  2. Complex problem solving – humans could; non-humans couldn’t

If you assigned either of these traits to non-human animals, you were guilty of anthropomorphizing (giving non-humans human – anthropos – form – morphos.) and weren’t being a proper scientist.

Turns out the squishy, emotional folks have had the last laugh since recent science has thrown a monkey wrench (not to mention a corvid crescent and a horse hammer) into those theories. We now know that animals such as horses can read human emotions on our faces and that birds are probably better puzzle solvers  than a lot of us.

What does this mean for your animals? Should you buy your cat his own tablet to play video games? Does your horse need the latest treat-dispensing ball? How does any of this help keep them healthy?

Let’s go back to the basics we discussed above.

Obviously natural behaviors vary between species. Your goat doesn’t have a significant biological imperative to shred wood to create a nest; few cats have much of a herding instinct. Horses rarely demonstrate an interest in hunting prey or playing fetch, and pigs aren’t much for climbing.

On the other hand, horses graze; cats hunt; dogs herd or retrieve; pigs root; goats climb; and birds nest. Mostly. Unless they don’t. Putting some time into figuring out your animal’s specific behavioral drives will help cut down on the property damage and make for a happier and healthier pet (not to mention being ultimately easier on your pocketbook).

For instance, not all cats are into catnip or chasing the magic red dot of a laser pointer. Some really just want to hide in that box, and buying expensive toys for them is a waste. My family’s late and beloved German shepherd completely failed to see the point of "Fetch!" She would watch us throw the ball or Frisbee, wander over when it landed, sniff it, and come trotting happily back to us (minus the object of the fetch game). On the other hand, she loved herding her buddy in circles when he was trying to return a caught Frisbee. The world’s greatest cockatoo, Nikolai Moluccatron, has a nesting drive that would put entire flocks of storks to shame; he goes through wood toys faster than your average wood chipper, yet he has to be bribed to fly. He’s also afraid of bugs and occasionally trees, but that’s a different story.

Sometimes breed is a solid indicator of your animal’s needs. You’re unlikely to convince a Labrador that he doesn’t need to jump into every available body of water or a terrier that he doesn’t need to dig. A draft horse might be perfectly happy standing in one shady corner until the cows literally come home; but a Thoroughbred or Arabian is likely to start doing weird things if confined too closely.

That brings us to exercise. Exercise can be fun, and it doesn’t have to be mentally exhausting for you and your pet. Mix it up. Take your dog for walks in different places. Go hiking. Run around the back yard being silly (a family favorite). Turn your horse out in a good sized arena or pasture and let him go nuts. My first horse and I used to play tag when she was turned out. Or I’d pretend to be a steer and let her herd me along the fence line. If nothing else, get out of the arena (how many times can anyone go in circles?) and hit the trails. Make sure your goats have things to climb and jump on/over. Landscaping boulders are pricey, but the empty wood reels that electrical cables come on are great for making a goat playground. Birdy dance parties are a thing. I have video of Nikolai rocking out to Bohemian Rhapsody. Exercise fun for the whole family! Don’t ask me how to get your cat to exercise. No one in human history has ever gotten a cat to do anything against its will. (At least not without hissing and blood-letting.)

Most animals - even cats in their own way - are social beings, living naturally in packs, herds, and flocks. Yet, in the domestication process we’ve tended to disrupt that pattern, housing them alone or with only one or two of their species. That makes us responsible for their social well-being. Play is innately social. Taking your dog for a romp in the park or throwing that tennis ball over and over and over reinforces your pack bond. Dog buddies playing “bitey face” and chasing each other like mad creatures through your dinner party does the same thing. Goat kids and foals butt heads, pretend strike, and bounce all over each other in mock battles, learning the social skills they’ll need later in herd life. For a bird, the unveiling of a new toy or even dinner time is a flock activity. Higher parrots will fluff and preen dramatically during playtime, showing off for the human members of their flock. And as for cats, well, even medieval monks couldn’t keep them off the paperwork. 

Then there are the mind games. Sometimes animal play veers pretty far off of what we would expect to see in the natural world. Unlike ravens and crows, cockatoos don’t make or use tools naturally in the wild. However, when provided with puzzles in captivity, they’ll use or create tools to solve problems in order to obtain treats or even make their “work” (such as splitting wood for a nest pile) easier. Most horses naturally avoid fast moving, foreign things, especially things that are flapping. However, I’ve known a horse whose favorite pasture activity involved removing his buddies’ fly masks and chasing them with the flapping masks. Using treat puzzles can distract even the most destructive dogs from dismembering your couch, at least until they figure out the puzzle.

Play is a mind-body activity for many animals, including humans. Without opportunity for amusement, many animals become ill, aggressive, self-mutilate, and yell at their spouses.

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