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Boost Your Pet's IQ

Illustration by Federica del Proposto

Sitting around all day can go straight to a pet's head. "When we don't provide healthy ways for them to burn off energy, dogs and cats can become anxious or depressed or exhibit negative behaviors, such as chewing and clawing," says Mikkel Becker, a certified dog behavior counselor and trainer for vetstreet.com, a pet advice website. Even though your furry friends will most likely never be able to help you with 26 down, there are plenty of ways to keep their minds as nimble as ever.

Follow Their Instincts

Instead of punishing your dog's desire to dig or scavenge, tap into these natural tendencies by filling a stuffable toy with treats. Cats need to climb, and they feel most confident when perched up high. "Place a shelf or ledge by the window so they can see what's interesting outside," says Susan Sikule, DVM, owner of Just Cats Veterinary Clinic in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Get Fresh Air

When walking your dog, allow time for leisurely exploration of neighborhood scents. "Dogs see the world through their noses," says Becker. "Sniffing around promotes brain health, like when you do a crossword puzzle." Cats enjoy the outdoors too. Let outgoing and social felines become accustomed to a harness and leash while indoors by rewarding them with treats, then take them out for a supervised prowl.

Keep Your Pets Busy

Experiment until you find a game that piques their interest. If your dog likes to tear up toys, look for items designed for extreme chewers. Cats enjoy Ping-Pong balls, empty boxes and paper bags, and playthings that crinkle or chirp. They also need scratching posts for sharpening nails and stretching. If you don't provide posts, they'll scratch whatever's around, Sikule points out.

Join the Fun

Pets thrive on interaction. Walk your dog on different routes to keep them stimulated. Play fetch, blow pet-friendly bubbles or join an obedience class. Hunt with your cat by using a pole with a feather on the end. Drag it erratically, then make it "die" when your cat pounces. Provide a treat as a reward so they think they've captured the prey, says Becker.

Make Mealtime Engaging

Have your pets work for food as they would do in the wild, says Becker. Hide kibble under paper cups and tell your dog to "find it," which encourages them to use their nose. Place pieces of your cat's food on each stair or inside an empty paper towel tube. Food puzzles, which require animals to figure out how to release a snack, are another creative option.