These family-friendly and boredom-busting games to play with dogs and cats will give everyone a chance to get their ya-yas out, cooped-up kids included.

By Jenny Comita
January 08, 2021
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Indoor get-togethers may still be on pause, but there's an untapped playmate for your kid wagging its tail by the couch right now. "Pets can get kids off their screens and playing in a healthy, physical way," says veterinarian Diarra Blue, D.V.M., a father of three in Cypress, Texas, whose own menagerie includes two dogs, a turtle, a bearded dragon lizard, and a whole bunch of fish.

Credit: MaaHoo Studio/Stocksy

Playtime between species is generally best for kids ages 3 and up who have the maturity to know they should never pull a pet's tail, and it goes best with a little supervision from you, at least at first. Grab some pet treats to smooth the way (it's a lot like serving cookies to a friend to set the mood), and you'll be ready to get the ball–or the jingly stuffed-mouse thingy—rolling!

Games to Play with Dogs

Hide and go sniff 

The canine nose is up to 100 million times more sensitive than ours. This game puts that superpower to work. Have your child put a treat into an open box on the floor while you hold the dog. The dog should see them do it and get energized. Once the bait is set, release the dog as your kid says, "Find it!" The pup will run and grab the goody. After a few rounds, try two boxes, hiding something yummy in only one while the dog is not looking. If Sparky sniffs out the correct container on the first try, he scores a bonus treat. Once the dog gets the object of the game, keep hiding treats when the dog is not looking, and increase the number of boxes, spreading them throughout the house or even outside. "Eventually, just the appearance of the boxes will get the dog excited, and you can play so many variations," says Chester, New Jersey–based dog trainer Justine Schuurmans, whose business, The Family Dog, specializes in helping young families live happily with their canines. "It's especially good for scaredydogs because it teaches them to be adventurous," she says, adding that it's gotten her through many a rainy day stuck at home with her own kids and pups. "This game is a confidence builder."

Catch me if you can 

"This is a great game for completely untrained kids and completely untrained dogs," says Schuurmans of this four-legged take on tag. First, load your kid up with a handful of little treats. "You want something extra delicious, like bits of string cheese or hot dog," says Schuurmans. Then have them run away and call the pet's name. Daisy (or Buddy) will inevitably follow—the power of food!—and as soon as the dog comes close to the child, they should drop a treat on the ground, run in a different direction, and yell "Daisy!" again. Eventually, the game can evolve into a version of hide-and-seek, in which the parent holds the dog while your kid hides and then lets the pup go "seek" when it hears its name called. "This game makes the child, who doesn't usually dole out feedings, relevant in the dog's world," Schuurmans says. "Like, 'Where's the kid going? What are they doing? I better follow them!' It's a great tool to help your dog learn to listen to the child's voice rather than ignoring them."

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Ice (cube) hockey 

Sometimes you don't even need a treat or a squeaky toy to get a dog running. "Believe it or not, most dogs love ice," says Sarah Hodgson, of Katonah, New York, who is a pet trainer, an author, and a mom of two kids, seven cats, four dogs, six rabbits, and a tortoise. One easy way to encourage kid-on-canine play, especially if you have only a couple of minutes, is to throw a few cubes on the kitchen floor, give your child a long-handled spoon or a spatula, and let them whack the frozen "pucks" around like Wayne Gretzky while the dog gives chase. Wary of puddles? Try it outside on a patio instead.

Over, under, and through 

Training pups to traverse tunnels and jump hurdles is a highly competitive sport known as dog agility—as you probably know if you've ever channel surfed through the various ESPN offshoots on a Saturday afternoon. While most of us aren't ready to commit to the level of training required to go pro, teaching pups to do tricks, such as walking through a Hula-Hoop or crawling through a collapsible toddler tunnel (like the one gathering dust in your playroom), can be a great bonding experience and confidence builder for kids and canines alike. "You can set up a mini obstacle course in your house," Schuurmans says. "Start by throwing a blanket over your coffee table and having your child lure the pet from one side to the other with a treat." Who knows, maybe your family will even advance to getting your dog to take a leap through a hoop like they do on TV!

Games to Play with Cats

Fishing for feathers 

"Cats are natural hunters, but they don't get to use those predation skills much when they're inside the house," says Alexandria, Virginia–based Katy Nelson, D.V.M., senior veterinarian at Chewy. "Triggering those instincts for a period of time can be good for a cat mentally and physically." If predator plus kid sounds like a disastrous combination, never fear—that's where a teaser pole comes in. Like a feline fishing rod with a feathery toy attached to the end, this clever contraption allows for plenty of distance between little hands and sharp teeth or claws. "Your kid holds up the pole while the cat jumps and twists around, using its paws to catch the feathers," Dr. Nelson says. "It's great fun for the kid because they get to watch the cat do all these acrobatics, and it's good exercise and mental stimulation for the cat." Win-win. 

Kitty kickers 

Cat owner Tracy Benjamin's 12-year-old son, Cooper, is all about baseball. But he and his mom noticed that their three cats prefer soccer. "The cats love to kick things back and forth with us using their paws," says Benjamin, a photographer in Marin County, California. Ping-Pong balls work well, but almost anything, even a wadded-up ball of paper, will work. "One of our kitties plays soccer with my LEGO heads," Cooper says. "She's obsessed with them."

Credit: Melanie Defazio/Stocksy

Laser tag 

When it comes to laser pointers, "certain cats love them, while others are like, no thanks," Dr. Nelson says. In Benjamin's case, two out of three cats love to chase a red dot. "It helps them get their zoomies out," Benjamin says. While this is an ideal game for kids to try, it's crucial, Dr. Nelson says, to respect an animal's natural rhythms. "It's a much shorter play session for cats than for dogs," she says. "Dogs might fetch for as long as you'll throw a ball. Cats want their space after 30 seconds or up to about five minutes."

Sock it to me 

Cats are always looking for new prey, says Hodgson. Reach into your collection of widowed socks and have your kid put a few rolled ones into a tube sock, add some loose catnip, and tie a string at the end. Then let your child shake it around on the floor in front of their kitty or drag it by the string, and let the cat attack it. After a few rounds of pouncing on the sock, your hunter will be ready to chill.

Two-toy tango 

This, from Hodgson, involves a pair of stuffies and a bit of acting. First, give your cat a fuzzy mouse or a jingly ball. "Then give your child a second cat toy, identical if possible, and have the kid pretend to have so much fun with it, flicking it all over the floor," Hodgson says. When the kitty ditches its stuffed mouse to try to get its paws on the other one, have your kid hand theirs off to the cat, pick up the abandoned toy, and pretend that toy is now the best doodad on the planet. Watch, laugh, repeat.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2021 issue as "Playdate With Your Pet." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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