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Free Things to Do for Your Pet This Holiday Season

Fun and enriching activities for your cat or dog

Whether or not Santa has goodies for your pet, there are plenty of free ways to help them have fun this holiday season.

Are you one of those people whose dog or cat will get a cookie and a toy this holiday season? If so, you’re in good company: according to the American Pet Products Association, 39 percent of cat guardians and about half of dog guardians will give their pet a gift for Christmas or Hanukkah, with a cost of $12-14.

Whether or not Santa is visiting your pet this year, you might like to enjoy some quality time together. We’ve all heard the saying “the best things in life are free” so here are some ideas to provide fun and enrichment for your cat or dog. It goes without saying that you know your pet best, so consider them as an individual before deciding what you think works best for them. What are their favorite toys, treats, and activities?

1. Make time to play

First of all, your cat would love it if you made more time to play with them. Play satisfies the cats’ natural hunting instinct. One study found that if people play with their cat for 5 minutes at a time, as opposed to just 1 minute, the cat was less likely to have behavioral problems (Strickler and Shull, 2014). You don’t have to go out and buy a new toy: one way to keep toys seeming new is to rotate them, so you could bring out a toy your cat hasn’t seen for a little while. Wand toys are a big favorite and also keep your hands safe, and anything with catnip is good if your cat responds to this.

Your dog too would probably like more playtime, whether it’s fetch or tug or simply running around together. If there’s a game your dog likes, why not make more time for it? If your dog has trouble dropping the ball after fetching it, use two balls so you always have one in hand for when they bring the ball back and can’t let go. If they like tug, let them win since the point is for them to have fun (and research shows that dogs who win at tug are more involved in the game (Rooney and Bradshaw 2002)).

David Gomez/Unsplash
Source: David Gomez/Unsplash

2. Provide opportunities to smell

When you take your dog for a walk, give them lots of sniffing opportunities. Dogs have impressive noses and sniffing is important to them. In Being a Dog (p.62), Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College, NY, describes smell-walks with her dogs:

“On these walks we are not trying to make good time. Never do I pull them away from that spot they’ve been at for impossibly long; I celebrate rather than worry over their abiding interest in other dogs’ rumps. We do not hurry to get around the block, to get home, to get anywhere but wherever their noses lead us.”

So make at least some of your dog walks smell-walks.

If you have an indoor cat, you can bring smells in to them. In The Trainable Cat (p.282), Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw write about the idea of a sensory box to bring things from the outdoor environment to the cat for them to explore:

“Dried leaves, feathers, pebbles, grass, bark chippings, branches, twigs and herbs can all be placed in cardboard boxes, some large enough for your cat to jump into and have a good rummage around. Plastic balls, as found in children’s ball pits, can add interest: I have seen cats literally “having a ball” as they toss these out of a box.”

They say you can also add some of the cat’s toys or treats so they have to hunt for them in the box.

3. Hiding treats for your dog or cat

Hiding treats for your dog or cat to find is another fun game to play. You could hide some of their favorite treats around a room, then let them in to search for them; or you could scatter treats or kibble in the grass (if they have access to a yard) or on a rug for them to find. If you prefer to use wet cat food, put small amounts in cup-cake holders to hide in your house. You can even make a snuffle-mat by tying strips of old fleece to a rubber mat, so your dog has to nose around between the bits of fabric to find their treats.

4. Holiday safety

Finally, don’t forget to keep your pet safe this holiday season. Make sure things they shouldn’t eat or chew (like tinsel and chocolate and electrical cords) are all kept safely away from them. Try to stick to your pet’s normal routine as much as possible, so they don’t have to tolerate too much change. And if there are lots of people in the house, make sure your pet has a part of the house where they can feel safe if they need to be away from all the excitement – for example, use a pet gate to keep visiting children and pets away from your pet, make sure your cat has access to a hiding place in a quiet room, and always give your pets a choice of whether or not to greet people. Even a normally-confident-and-friendly pet can find a house full of people overwhelming.

Turn holiday ideas into enrichment habits for your pet

Of course, these ideas for play and smelling and food-finding aren’t just for the holidays. They could become New Year’s resolutions, and then habits that you use to keep your pet entertained all year round…

Season’s greetings to you and yours!


Bradshaw, J. and Ellis, S. (2016). The Trainable Cat. Basic Books.

Horowitz, A. (2017) Being a Dog. Scribner.

Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2002). An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 75 (2), 161-176 DOI: 10.1016/S0168-1591(01)00192-7

Strickler, B., & Shull, E. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.005

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