Combatting Cabin Fever


Keeping dogs, cats and humans sane through the winter

I knew that cabin fever had hit hard last February when Pan, my then 3-year-old dog, kept us up late two nights in row.

Understand, Pan is not the kind of dog to stay up. He will sometimes beat my husband and me to bed and tuck himself in under the covers. Once the lights are off, he’s out for the night. So two late nights of him parkouring across our tired bodies, joyfully squeaking a toy, were cause for concern.

Cabin fever isn’t a condition limited to bipeds. Our dogs and cats get bored during long Minnesotan winters, too!

Luckily, there are plenty of great indoor activities to beat the winter blues. I interviewed a handful of local professional trainers and behavior specialists to get their takes on the best ways to prevent boredom.

For Desperate Doggos

From food-based puzzles to games and training, these tips will have your pup wagging for more!

• Quick tips for frosty days (from Carrie Iverson of Paws Abilities Dog Training): “Try some fun enrichment games with your dog. I especially enjoy brain games, such as hide-and-seek [more on this below] or find-it. Puzzle games [that involve sniffing] like scent work are a blast for dogs, and can be played with simple household items, such as empty boxes or muffin tins. Frozen treats are always lovely too, and make your dog work to get the yummies out of their favorite stuff-able toy.”

• A twist on a popular children’s game (from Alex Oldenburg CPDT-KA of Fast Tracks Canine Activity Center): “One of my favorite winter games is hide and go seek! To play, have a friend or partner hold your dog while you hide. Call your dog in a fun and excited voice until they find you. Reward your dog and then hang onto them while the next person hides. This game is perfect
to practice recall, but also super fun for kids and dogs to play together.”

Playing solo? “You can either practice out-of-sight stays or toss a handful of food to distract your dog quickly while you hide.”

• Muffin compares to this (from Lindsay Kinney CPDT-KA of Paws Abilities Dog Training): “Meal times are a great opportunity to spice up your dog’s routine. Rather than feeding from a bowl, you can feed from a commercial puzzle toy or make a slow feeder from a muffin tin. You can place a little kibble in each depression, so your dog has to move from one slot to the next.

“For an added challenge, you can place a tennis ball over each slot, so before they get their snack, they have to do a little manual labor and problem solve. For added variety, you can put a different novel food in each cup.”

Kinney recommends experimenting with different dog-safe flavors, textures and consistencies. Ask your vet if you have questions about the safety of any ingredients, and make sure to check labels for common toxins such as xylitol (an artificial sweetener) or onion (which can cause anemia).

“Some fun ideas to try are melon, snap peas, croutons, mint leaves, jello, peanut butter baking chips, mini marshmallows, cooked sweet potato, blue cheese, yogurt and liverwurst. It’s eye-opening to see which treats your dog goes for first, and which ones they leave behind. Your dog may surprise you with their favorites!”

What if your dog hoovers everything up without tasting any of it? “Add a little water or wet food to each muffin tin and freeze it. Just let it thaw for about five minutes before serving so your dog doesn’t end up like Flick in A Christmas Story.”

Feeling too much like hibernating to do much prep work? Kinney’s got you covered there, too. “Place the muffin tin upside-down and sprinkle kibble between the gaps. Eating around the protrusions makes for a fantastic slow feeder.”

• Find your duck (and other adventures in discrimination) (from Bailey Stickney CPDT-KA of The Laughing Dog): “My favorite indoor activity is teaching dogs to retrieve objects by name. This works best with dogs that already know how and love to retrieve,” she says.

“Choose the object that you’d like your dog to retrieve. Place [it] on the floor. Click and reward your dog when he picks up the object. When your dog is consistently picking up the object, give it a name. Now only click and reward your dog when he picks the object up after you say its name. Once your dog knows the name of the object, make the game more interesting by hiding it among other objects. Click and reward your dog only for retrieving the named object. By the time spring rolls around, you’ll have the smartest dog in the neighborhood!”

• Another use for under-the-bed storage bins: Kinney calls this the “Cheerios game” at her house. “Take a large container in which your dog can stand and spin around. The sides of the box should be shorter than [the dog’s] legs. Now fill the box! You can use shredded papers, crumpled up newspapers, packing paper, tissue paper, or playpen balls.

Now you can sprinkle Cheerios, kibble, or treats into the box and give it a light mix (not too much or the treats will all fall to the bottom). Your dog will have to hunt through the debris to find their treasure. This is a great way to exercise their mind and nose, and it gets them moving.”

For Frazzled Felines

Don’t let your dog have all the fun! Cats can get bored during the winter too, and they’re every bit as intelligent and playful as pups.

•  Your cat’s catch of the day (from Jill Lebrun of Paws Abilities Dog Training and Act V Rescue): “Two of my favorite wand toys are Da Bird and Go Cat Catcher. With only 20 minutes, you can provide play that mimic’s your cat’s natural instinct to hunt. It also decreases boredom and is good exercise, something that is great for indoor cats. Make sure that you move the wand toy so that it allows your cat to stalk and pounce.”

Lebrun advises to plan your sessions strategically to take advantage of your cat’s natural rhythms.

“During each session, occasionally let your cat catch the toy. Ideally, plan these sessions before meal time and after the last catch, feed your cat their meal. Your cat will likely groom after eating, followed by a nap.” That sounds like a perfect winter day for your favorite feline!

• Scents-ational surprises: This is a favorite enrichment activity of the author’s pets, as well as a great way to let indoor cats experience the natural smell of prey animals.

Stop at a pocket-pet-owning friend’s house, Ziploc baggie in hand, and ask for a small donation from the used bedding in one of their small animal cages. Bring this bedding home and place it in a clean, empty tea bag or a toy designed to be stuffed with catnip for your pet to smell and play with. Make sure to supervise as some pets get so excited about the new smells that they want to swallow the whole thing!

Less Pan-demonium

What about Pan? After two nights of too little sleep, we got with the program and started providing him with appropriate outlets during appropriate hours. We mixed his food with plain yogurt and froze it in Toppl toys, providing him with tasty, long-lasting meals.

He learned two new tricks (“hike” – lift a back leg as if you’re peeing, and “say you’re sorry” – put your chin on the ground and look up with puppy eyes).

We enrolled in a fun training class to get out of the house once a week. And best yet (according to him), we invited his cousin Mandy, my brother-in-law’s joyful little dog, over for regular playdates to get his ya-yas out. He quickly returned to his regular routine of early bedtimes and peaceful nights.

Luckily for us, providing fun for our furry family members can be a great way for people to beat the winter blues too. The ideal enrichment for cats and dogs is entertaining and enjoyable. Don’t worry about making things too hard: even five minutes of snuffling for small treats in your shaggy bathroom rug can ward off cabin fever. And hey, watching your pet explore these games sure beats watching the same episode of The Office on Netflix yet again.


Fast Tracks Canine Activity Center:

The Laughing Dog LLC: 

Paws Abilities Dog Training: 

Toppl dog toy:

Sara Reusche CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA CVT, is owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training.