Tried & Tested: It's cool for cats - and for dogs

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The Independent Culture
From catnip stuffed burglars to chewy dinosaurs, pet toys come in all shapes and sizes. But will any of them keep the attentions of Fido or Kitty, or even do them good? Our panel sorts the pit bulls from the pussy cats

WHATEVER YOUR reasons for splashing out on a toy specially for your pet, manufacturers (especially those based in the US) seem to have anticipated your animal's every desire. But will any of them really keep your pooch or kitty entertained for more than just a passing play?

THE PANEL

Bruce Fogal, DVM, MRCVS, author of 15 books on animal behaviour and a practising vet, was the expert on our panel. Other testers included Jane Bartlett and her Labrador/springer cross Burford; Emma Bartlett (no relation) and her Devon Rex cat Woody; Claire Blezard and her two moggies Golly and Orlando; Hester Small and her cross-breed dogs Bonnie and Baron; and finally Tina Leake with her menagerie - boxers Edwin and Winnie, Siamese cat Chilli and Burmese cat Norm.

THE TEST

We tried out a range of toys for cats and another for dogs (toys for both creatures don't seem to exist); some were wildly popular with our four-legged friends, others left them cold. While many pet toys are bought with the owners' rather than the pets' amusement in mind, we looked for products which provided safe stimulation for the animals and could stand up to the destructive treatment they inevitably received.

****MOTOR MOUSE

pounds 15.99

Motor Mouse is a battery-powered wheel with a toy rodent that spins around its outer edge; the cat is supposed to perch on the middle and fish for the mouse. It comes without batteries, and many testers were happy to allow their cats to power the toy. Indeed, Claire Blezard said that when switched on, the toy "whizzes round so fast, Golly just looked at us as if we had gone mad, and Orlando's whiskers were plastered flat against his cheeks - he was probably afraid they'd be swept off." Despite this overkill, the toy was the most popular with our cats. It was Woody's absolute favourite according to Emma Bartlett, "although his demented attempts to get the mouse out resulted in our living-room being covered with pink and white fluff". This was nothing: Chilli and Norm succeeded in removing the mouse altogether and burying it in the garden after just one day. Bruce Fogal pronounced this "a good toy," but said, "it's just a pity it's best suited to geriatric cats who haven't got the energy to destroy it."

***FAT CAT INC

Woof Wackers, pounds 10; Kitty Hoots, pounds 5

Fat Cat Inc makes variations of their catnip-stuffed toys for both cats and dogs. Our Kitty Hoot was a tiny effigy called "Vet the Victim", the scent of which is claimed to inspire felines to get their own back on "that dreaded V-person". It struck testers as hilarious - but only certain cats responded to it. Rolling around on their backs, purring and growling and dragging the toy around the house were typical responses in those who did. The toy's attraction lasted between "a few moments" and "two or three days" with Claire Blezard's Orlando devoted to his Kitty Hoot. This toy, however, might not be suitable for all pets: "Woody is such an alien [Devon Rexes are practically bald] that he likes going to the vet as he's always the centre of attention; he'd probably prefer to rip apart an unsuspecting visitor," said Emma Bartlett.

Bruce Fogal offered a scientific explanation: "Catnip contains a substance [nepata lactone] that resembles a sex hormone which is most appealing to unneutered male cats, and to unneutered female cats in season. Most of the cats in the test are likely to have been neutered, so they lose interest quickly. In the Sixties, researchers were keen to attribute hallucinogenic properties to catnip, but that's never been proven. A cat rolling around with euphoria is more likely to be thinking, 'Mmm, sex!' than 'Wow, my mind's been bent.'"

Contrary to instructions (but probably typical of buyers' behaviour) the Woof Wacker - bigger, tougher toys for (soft- chewing) dogs in the shape of a stripey T-shirted "cat burglar" - was given to the boisterous cross-breeds Bonnie and Baron, who finally ripped it apart in a comic tug-of-war. While Bruce Fogal thought this most unsuitable he admitted that floppy arms and legs do appeal to dogs: "They're such jerks, they love holding something like this in their mouths and flipping it so it hits them on one side of the head and then the other. It just needs to be something stronger."

****TUFF BITE COW

pounds 4.99

This chewable plastic cow, which gives out a bizarrely piggish grunting sound when squeezed, was the surprise dog-toy winner of our trial. All the dogs loved it - and in Jane Bartlett's household, it was a toss-up between Benedict the baby and Burford the dog as to who really owned the toy. Bruce Fogal said: "The dogs really loved the noise the cow makes; there is a quizzical nature to it which implies a slight threat. They were stimulated by it - their hackles went up slightly and they were delighted to chew it." Hester Small's dogs liked it, though she said that it "was possibly too much of a mouthful" for them.

*PLANET PETS GOODIE GRIPPERS

pounds 9.95 to pounds 15.95

A very hard rubber ball with star-shaped holes in to which edible treats can be stuffed, the Goodie Gripper is available in two sizes and two strengths - "regular" and, for serious chewing, "xtreme". The idea is that your dog will chew on the ball until all the food is released. Bruce Fogal approved of the concept in principle but criticised the poor execution. "The holes are too small for anything but a dragonfly's tongue," he pointed out. "It would be much better to have a simple opening," he suggested.

Like other dog-owners in the trial, Jane Bartlett heartily agreed with this complaint. "I put some doggie sausages in, but they got stuck inside and Burford was going nuts struggling to get them out. Meanwhile, all the sausages got horribly manky and I had to clean out the ball." She tried to devise another use for the toy - as an object for retrieval - but found it too heavy for throwing. "Also, sometimes on walks he gets bored with a toy - and this is too big to stuff in your pocket."

PETSMART OWN-BRAND TOP PAW CATNIP FISHING ROD

pounds 1.99

Although claimed to be "designed for hours of safe fun", this flimsy plastic fishing rod with a mouse and bell attached by a very thin thread fell apart almost instantly in our testers' paws. Emma Bartlett's experience was typical: "The first time Woody grabbed the mouse it came off; he then occupied himself by trying to eat as much of the string as possible - I had to fish it out of his throat. He did carry the baitless rod in his mouth instead, but lost interest pretty quickly." Hester Small complained that "the bell is annoying, and the string kept getting tangled up". Bruce Fogal was severe: "This fishing rod is very dangerous. One of the most common causes of intestinal damage in cats is their swallowing needles and thread."

DENTAL DINOSAUR PLAQUE ATTACKER

pounds 4.99

As a toy with a health angle, this suck-it-and-see dental dinosaur appealed to all of the dog owners on the panel, and Bruce Fogal confirmed that if a dog were willing to chew on such a "shapeless jellied lump" (as one tester described this translucent rubber dinosaur) then it would indeed massage the gums and do some good, as promised. One problem: the dogs were entirely unimpressed, with not one showing the slightest interest in this health-giving toy, even though the dinosaur is alleged to taste nice. "It certainly doesn't smell of anything," said Jane Bartlett, "and it doesn't even look exciting. Burford never even picked it up. We kept treading on it right where we'd left it."

*GLOW IN THE DARK FRISBEE

pounds 7.99

A frisbee with an imitation bone on it and the ability to glow in the dark seemed an excellent toy for winter nights. Too bad it doesn't actually glow, leaving it on a par with a regular frisbee, about which Bruce Fogal had some words of warning: "Basically, people shouldn't throw frisbees for their dogs in the dark. It's bad enough during daylight, when a dog will throw itself off a cliff to catch one; doing this at night just raises the probability of the animal landing somewhere awkward." And some general advice: "Frisbees can be good toys but you must throw them low. It's when a heavy dog leaps up high to catch it and comes down hard on its hind legs that it risks tearing a ligament."

STOCKISTS

Kitty Hoots and Woof Wackers from House of Fraser stores, call 0171 963 2000 for branches; Goodie Grippers from NCDL Christmas Catalogue, available on 0171 837 0006; all other toys are available from PetSmart, call 0990 114 499 for branches. Bruce Fogal practises at the Portman Veterinary Clinic on 0171 723 2068. !

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT POWELL 1 COMPILED BY SUE WEBSTER

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