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Pets & their mental wellbeing

When does a pet’s plaything become more than a toy? When it becomes a preventative health tool. Veterinary consultant Emily Folwell explains more about the benefits of a growing trend in pet retail.

It’s a well-documented phenomenon that owning and being around animals is good for our health. Studies have shown that pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.

And the benefits go beyond physical health. Just stroking an animal has been shown to reduce anxiety levels in people (the same effect was not observed when soft toys were stroked), Alzheimer’s patients who dined in front of aquariums ate more, while interacting with horses reduces the symptoms of PTSD.

But what about the animals? In a world where there is (thankfully) an ever-increasing spotlight on supporting mental wellbeing at home and in the workplace, should we be considering the same for our pets?

The idea of improving pet mental wellbeing is shaping a rapidly developing area of pet retail – enrichment toys. These products encourage problem-solving behaviour as a method of providing enrichment for pets.

These toys aren’t exactly a new phenomenon – perhaps the most famous and well-loved example is the ubiquitous ‘Kong’ chew toy. What has changed in recent years, in line with the rest of consumers lives, is the appearance and application of technology to support animals’ mental health.

From game apps for cats that work on the hunt-reward principle, to robots that interact and offer food rewards for your dog, the technology being used to entertain and educate pets is becomingly increasingly (and impressively) diverse.

But do these products actually make a positive difference for pets?

Study results are pointing to a resounding ‘yes’. When dogs partake in problem-solving behaviour to obtain food, this encourages neural pathways analogous to hunting. This can help those dogs be more active, less likely to display stereotypical behaviour, and can improve problem behaviours such as excessive barking.

It even seems to slow age-related cognitive decline, with the learning ability of dogs maintained into old age. So, maybe we can even start to teach old dogs new tricks?

All this points to pet owners considering the mental wellbeing of their pet next time they purchase an accessory for them. As this sector grows and attracts more research, we may not be far away from toys joining anti-parasite products and vaccinations as an established part of the preventative pet healthcare mix.



  • S.Shiloh et al., Reduction of state-anxiety by petting animals in a controlled laboratory experiment, Anxiety Stress & Coping – An International Journal, 2010
  • M.E.O’Haire et al., Animal-Assisted Intervention for trauma: a systematic literature review, Frontiers of Psychology, 2015
  • N.E.Edwards et al., Animal-Assisted Therapy and Nutrition in Alzheimer’s Disease, Western Journal of Nursing Research, 2002
  • L.L.Schipper et al., The effect of feeding enrichment toys on the behaviour of kennelled dogs (Canis familiaris), Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2008
  • N.W.Milgram et al., Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study, Neurobiology of Aging, 2005