How to Design a Great Cat Toy
AbstractDo you love animals and want to help keep them healthy? Well, here's your chance to design and tailor a toy that will bring out your pet's most playful nature. In this science fair project, you'll evaluate the skills and activities of your pet and determine what kinds of toys most excite your pet and make him or her lively and curious. So call your furry or feathered friend, and let the frolicking begin!
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
To design and test different versions of an enrichment toy to determine which version most excites a pet both physically and mentally.
What helps keep your pet healthy? Just like people, animals need the right food, clean water, grooming, rest, and exercise. The exercise is best when it uses the animal's natural skills and instincts like climbing, swimming, hunting, fetching, or digging, because exercise in this form conditions the animal's brain, as well as its body.
Figure 1. These photos show pets at play using their natural instincts, like pouncing and fetching.
Animals kept in zoos have special challenges staying healthy, even if their environments are kept as close to their natural habitat as possible. Many zoo animals don't have to work for their food since it is given to them by the zookeepers. Without the challenges of finding food, guarding territory, or avoiding predators, some zoo animals may become bored and even depressed. Zoos try to combat this boredom with enrichment toys. Enrichment means making something richer, fuller, or more interesting. The goal of an enrichment toy is to provide a stimulating activity that exercises both the brain and the body of the animal. If you want to see how two kids got involved with enrichment activities at their local zoo, watch this DragonflyTV video and join Chelsea and Camille as they learned how to design and evaluate enrichment toys for the zoo's tigers and otters.
You don't need to go to a zoo, though, to design and evaluate an enrichment toy. You can do it right in your own home, with your own pet, by thinking about and observing your animal's skills and behaviors.
- First, think about your pet's senses. Does your pet have a good sense of vision? Hearing? Smell? If his or her hearing is good, what frequencies does he or she hear best? High pitches or low? If the sense of smell is sharp, what kinds of odors get your pet very excited? Your enrichment toy should appeal to one or more of your pet's strongest senses.
- Second, observe and list the common natural skills and activities your pet has. For example, when your pet is awake, can you frequently find your pet running, digging, kneading, nesting, jumping, swimming, sniffing, climbing, marking, pouncing, vocalizing, or hiding? Think about what kinds of toys can encourage those skills or activities. A pet store is one place to start looking for toy ideas that you can modify and test to see what appeals to your special animal. Or, you can see what your pet plays with naturally around the home. Shoes, for example, are frequently loved by dogs and cats because of their odor, chewy texture, and flicking laces.
- Finally, you must always think about safety. You certainly don't want a toy to hurt or injure your pet, so when you design a toy, you must think about what would happen if the toy broke, or if your pet ate a piece of it. Toys must always be designed from non-toxic materials. You must always supervise your pet when he or she is playing with a toy, as well.
Possible materials for enrichment toys are unlimited and can be found all around the house and yard. Examples include paper bags; boxes; balls; sticks; shoelaces; pieces of fur or wool; different thicknesses of string or rope with and without knots; clean, empty, plastic containers; cardboard tubes; marbles; mirrors; full-size photos of other pets; crumpled paper; old, clean socks; bells; and dry kibble or treats make great, enticing stuffers for socks and containers for some pets!
Is it possible that an enrichment toy might captivate one pet, but not another of the same breed or species? Yes, absolutely. Just like people, animals have their own personalities, even within the same species or breed. So, what makes a good enrichment toy for your German shepherd, for example, might not make the best enrichment toy for someone else's. Your animal is unique. Whether old or young, shy or social, you will find out what kind of toy captures and holds his or her interest. So, go call your pet! It's time to watch Fluffy or Fido get frisky!
Terms and Concepts
- What does enrichment mean?
- What is an enrichment toy supposed to do?
- What factors are important to consider when designing an enrichment toy?
- What are some warning signs that a zoo animal is bored?
This science fair project was inspired by this resource:
- TPT. (2006). Tigers and Otters by Chelsea and Camille. DragonflyTV, Twin Cities Public Television. Retrieved August 13, 2008.
This source describes popular enrichment toys for hamsters:
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, August 4). Hamster wheel. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 14, 2008.
This source describes animal enrichment strategies at home for all kinds of pets, from cats and dogs to rodents, birds, and exotic reptiles:
- Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Animal Enrichment at Home-Pets. Retrieved August 14, 2008.
Materials and Equipment
Note: The Materials & Equipment and Experimental Procedure provide one example of an enrichment toy with variations for a pet cat, but this basic procedure can be applied to any kind of pet, and the list of possible toys is endless, so watch your pet around the house and yard for clues as to what he or she enjoys playing with the most, then modify this science fair project accordingly.
- Stick, pole, or wand, about 2 feet long (4)
- Shoelaces (4)
- Cotton socks (3), infant or toddler-sized
- Dry, fresh, cat food (handful)
- Loose, dried catnip (handful, approximately 0.25 oz.); available at pet stores
- Small jingle bell; available at craft supply stores or online at Amazon.com
- Stopwatch, or watch with a second hand
- Lab notebook
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Making Your Basic Enrichment Toy and Its Three Variations
- In this example, your basic enrichment toy is a shoelace attached to a stick or pole, for which you will make three variations. Tie one end of the first shoelace tightly to the end of the first stick or pole.
- Repeat step 1 three more times so you have four sticks with a shoelace tied to the end of each one.
- Place a handful of dry cat food inside one of the cotton socks. Tie the loose end of one of the shoelaces that is tied to one of the sticks around the top of the sock so that no cat food can escape.
- Place a handful of dried catnip inside another one of the cotton socks. Tie the loose end of another one of the shoelaces around the top of the sock so that no catnip can escape.
- Place the jingle bell inside the last cotton sock. Tie the loose end of another one of the shoelaces around the top of the sock so the bell cannot fall out. You should now have three sticks and shoelaces with socks attached, and one that is just a shoelace tied to a stick.
Testing Your Basic Enrichment Toy and its Three Variations
- Pick a time to test your toy when your pet is normally alert. Cats, for example, are crepuscular. They are most active during dusk and dawn, preferring to laze about or sleep most of the day and night. Testing is best done around sunset or early morning when they are typically most frisky. Test your pet at the same time each day. Record the time of day for testing in your lab notebook.
- Choose a test area that is free from distractions like other people, other animals, or loud noises.
- Make a data table in your lab notebook, like the one below, in which you describe the basic toy, and each of its variations. Also write down two or three natural behaviors that you are going to watch for and count.
- Start the stopwatch or note the time on your watch with the second hand in your lab notebook.
- Drag the basic enrichment toy along the ground beside your cat.
- Count the number of behaviors you observe as you play with your cat.
- Stop counting at the end of 3 minutes and write down the number of behaviors that you observed in your data table.
- Repeat steps 4-7 for the first variation of your toy.
- Repeat steps 4-7 for the second variation of your toy.
- Repeat steps 4-7 for the third variation of your toy.
- Repeat steps 3-10 on two more days, starting at approximately the same time.
|Data Table: Day 1|
|Enrichment Toy||Behavior 1: Pouncing||Behavior 2: Biting||Behavior 3: Tossing|
|Basic Toy: Stick with a shoelace|
|Variation 1: Addition of a cat food-filled sock|
|Variation 2: Addition of a catnip-filled sock|
|Variation 3: Addition of a bell in a sock|
Analyzing Your Data Charts
- Create a fourth data chart in which you average the results of your three days' worth of data for each toy. Was there one version of the toy that excited your pet the most for all behaviors? Was there one version of the toy that was better for some behaviors, but not others? Were there any versions of the toy that your pet completely ignored?
Ask an Expert
- Compare responses to an enrichment toy among three or more pets of the same breed or species.
- Compare variations on an enrichment toy that focuses on one of the senses, such as touch. Determine what types of textures your pet prefers to play or chew on. Or create enrichment toy variations that focus on sound. What frequencies attract your pet? If your focus is vision, what colors of toys interest your pet the most? How about shiny or dull toy surfaces?
- Try repeating your tests at different times of the day. What times of the day (or night) is your pet most interested in play?
- Evaluate whether your pet prefers playing with enrichment toys solo or with a human involved.
- If you'd like to test various dog toys to find the most appealing for your dog, see this Science Buddies science fair project: Dog Toys: What Makes One a Favorite or a Flop to Fido?
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