Providing dogs and cats with appropriate toys is an important way to enrich their lives, but almost every pet owner has experienced the frustration of bringing home the "latest and greatest" pet toy only to see it abandoned after a few minutes of play.


The good news is that research shows this process of habituation can be reversed (dishabituation is what it’s called) for both dogs and cats.


In a study involving dogs, 16 Labrador retrievers were presented with a toy until they stopped interacting with it, or a total of ten times, whichever came first. Then, a similar toy that differed only in color, odor (it was washed to remove the dog’s own smell), or color and odor was offered to the dog. The researchers measured the amount of time dogs played with the toys and found that most dogs became bored after being presented with the same toy several times but that changing its color and or odor was enough to rekindle their desire to play.


Varying the times between the initial presentations of the toy and the subsequent introduction of the "new" toy didn’t affect their behavior, however.


The results of a feline study are fairly similar. Cats quickly became bored when presented with the same toys over and over, but if something as simple as the color was changed, they began to play with them again.


For cats, however, the time between play sessions did affect the intensity of their interactions. When the new toy was introduced relatively quickly (five minutes) after the old, boring toy was taken away, the cats played even more intensely than they did initially — like they were just waiting for another opportunity to pounce. After a longer delay (25 minutes) their play was less intense.


The authors of the canine study explain the differences between dogs and cats well in their paper’s conclusions:


In cats, object play appears to be a form of redirected hunting behaviour, which can lead to dishabituation that reaches a greater level than the initial play interaction (Hall et al. 2002). In contrast, object play in dogs may be an extension of juvenile play, resulting from the neotenisation [the retention of juvenile characteristics in adults] of dogs through the domestication process (Bradshaw and Brown 1990; Frank and Frank 1982). This difference between the domestic cat and the domestic dog in their putative motivations for play may explain the differences observed between the species in their responses to dishabituation.


My take home message? Adult dogs and cats can be encouraged to continue to play with toys if very simple changes are made to them. So, toss those stuffies in the washer or tie a new purple feather on your kitty’s "fishing pole" and let us know what happens.


Dr. Jennifer Coates





Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs. Pullen AJ, Ralph J. N. Merrill RJN, Bradshaw JWS. Animal Cognition. Published online: 24 July 2012


Object play in adult domestic cats: the roles of habituation and disinhibition. Hall SL, Bradshaw JWS, Robinson, IH. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 79:3, 263-271. 1 November 2002.



Image: Dog, cube by Ethan Hein / via Flickr