What if you could turn something you already do into a fun and engaging enrichment activity for your cat? I’m here to tell you that if you feed your cat (and I hope you all do), then you can provide entertainment for your cat – in the form of food puzzles.
Food puzzles are objects that require your cat to interact with them to obtain their food, with the benefits of slowing down eating, providing mental stimulation, and hopefully increasing activity. This can be something as simple as a ball with a hole in it, that you place kibble inside, or an elaborate stationary board with holes, tunnels, or cups that your cat can manipulate for food rewards. These rewards can be treats, or even your cat’s regular diet.
But, yes, I am suggesting that you make your cat work for his or her food. Hold on!! Aren’t we cats’ “staff”? Since when do cats work for anything? Well, if you think about your cat’s natural lifestyle, not so long ago, cats relied on hunting to survive. That’s right, they all had to work for their food. It wasn’t until the last 50 years or so that the trend has been to keep cats exclusively indoors, and now we hand them all their food in a bowl. But that hunting instinct is still there. You can take advantage of that instinct.
Those of you with dogs are probably familiar with the Kong. The Kong was invented over 40 years ago, when one thoughtful dog owner came up with a solution for his dog’s destructive chewing. The snowman-shaped rubber toy can be stuffed with food and gives dogs a chewing outlet that can keep them busy for hours. Since then, several companies, such as Nina Ottoson and Outward Hound have designed specialized food bowls and puzzles marketed for dogs.
Cat owners were a bit late to the game, but over the last 15 years, the offerings for cats have increased. From the classic Slim Cat Ball, to the Trixie 5 in 1 Activity Center, to Doc & Phoebe’s Indoor Hunter Feeder system, there are many choices out there, one to match every cat’s needs and activity level.
How do you get started? Like anything new, it’s best to give your cat time to adjust. Offer the puzzle in addition to the cat’s regular food bowl at first; but try tempting treats or introduce the puzzle before you put the regular meals down, to increase the likelihood that the cat will be hungry and check the puzzle out.
Always make the puzzle easy at first — in other words, fill the puzzle so food is released with little interaction. Place some food around the puzzle so that your cat associates it with food. Your cat may even nudge the puzzle with her nose and roll it, allowing food to be released. Voila! The cat will make the connection between touching the puzzle and receiving a delicious snack. What you want to avoid is the frustration or boredom that will arise if the puzzle is too tough.
As your cat gets better at working the puzzle, you can increase the challenge; introduce a more difficult puzzle or increase the difficulty of the puzzle you already have. For example, the Slim Cat ball, an adjustable ball with several holes in it, allows you to decrease the size of the holes to make it harder for food to fall out. You could also place some tissue paper, or a fuzzy mouse inside the ball along with the food; the obstacles will require your cat to interact more with the toy before the treats are released.
If you’re a wet/raw feeder, no worries, there are puzzles for your cats too. The Dog Brick and the Lickimat are both good options. And if you hate buying your cat toys you know she won’t use, why not try a homemade puzzle? Punch a few holes in a small, clean yogurt container with a lid, put some dry food inside, and you’re good to go.
Some people feed their cat all food from puzzles; other owners save puzzles for their own meal times to decrease begging or counter surfing or use them only with treats. However you incorporate food puzzles into your cat’s lifestyle, I think most of you will find that your cat enjoys them — and that for us, it’s pretty fun to sit back and watch our cats work for their food.
For more information, I recommend the website FoodPuzzlesForCats.com.
Mikel Delgado, Ph.D., has worked professionally with cats for almost 20 years, starting in the Cat Behavior Program of the SF/SPCA, and more recently through her cat behavior consulting partnership with Dilara Göksel Parry, Feline Minds. She is currently is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, where her research explores the behavior of cats in multicat households and the health and development of orphaned neonatal kittens. Delgado is also co-author with Jackson Galaxy of the recent book Total Cat Mojo. Learn more at FelineMinds.com.
Main article photo by: courtesey Feline Minds; inset courtesy Feline Minds