Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Playing Or Teasing? Know The Difference

Someone I know was recently laughing about how they play "tug-o-war" with their new sugar glider and carrots. I got to witness one such "game." The glider was chattering angrily as it pulled on the carrot, and was very visibly agitated. To the animal, it wasn't a game.

The owner meant well, and no physical harm was done to the glider, but I suspect he has no idea how much damage he was doing to the animal's trust of him. Some people just don't have a firm grasp on the difference between playing with an animal and teasing an animal.

Being teased is not good for any animal, but is especially bad for more exotic pets like foxes or sugar gliders. These animals don't have the inborn trust of humans that many cats and dogs have; they must learn to trust us, and teasing them works against that.

The difference between teasing and play can vary from animal to animal; one cat might enjoy chasing a laser pointer, while another simply gets paranoid and agitated by it. (I have two of each sort of cat, actually.) So while a game of "chase the red dot" is fantastic exercise for the cat that enjoys it, it is not an appropriate game for the cat that is upset by it.

There is one very easy rule of thumb to determine whether an activity is play or torment:

If the animal isn't having fun, it's not a game.

Does the animal seek out the interaction? A good example of this is when I play with Gizmo's squeaky balls. I grab one of his toys, and he makes a lot of noise and dramatic attempts to get it away from me. I throw it for him, and as he's dashing after it, I get a hold of another one of his toys, and the cycle starts all over again. I don't play "keep-away" with any of his toys for more than a minute or so, and at the end of the game he still gets all of them.

It would be very easy to assume that I'm teasing him with his toys, but Gizmo will frequently initiate this game by walking up and handing me a ball, and then trying to get it back. If in the middle of the game, I quit snatching new toys to play keep-away with, he will start piling his toys up next to me. The fox clearly enjoys "winning" toys back that I stole from him, and it's good exercise for us both.

At the other end of the spectrum with him is tug-o-war. Gizmo gets VERY upset during games of tug-o-war, they generally end with him taking the rope, running to a corner of his pen, shrieking to warn everyone away and peeing on it to make it CLEAR that that is his rope and we're not to touch it. Lots of animals really enjoy a game of tug-o-war, but Gizmo is not one of them.

All in all, you have to know your animal. Watch what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. And if something makes them upset in play, don't do it again or you risk destroying the trust you had to work so hard to build up.


  1. Great commonsense reminders. As I told my children, it isn't a game unless everyone agrees on the rules.

    Just found your site today and truly enjoy the insight into fox behavior. I especially enjoyed the pancake goblins!

  2. More Gizmo will come, I've just recently got a new job and two new puppies (dog pups, not fox pups) that have been keeping me very busy.

    Once the holiday season is over and things settle down, there will be more posts.

  3. Would love to hear more from Gizmo, hope you get the chance to post soon. :)

    Any new stories to share?

  4. It is disgusting how some people do not understand that, yes actually, animal do have emotions and different personalities.

    Just because you want to do something, and that your last *friend* enjoyed it, does not mean that this *friend* will enjoy it.

  5. i have a dog that hates tug-of-war, but my family thinks that she(my dog) thinks its fun, and she now only lets me pet her


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