Most cats are fed their food in a bowl in the same location day in, day out, meaning little or no exertion is needed in order to obtain food. Gone are the opportunities to search for, capture and kill their food – all of which involve mental and physical exertion. For the cat, hunting is problem solving – firstly, the problem of finding the prey needs to be solved, then the problem of successfully capturing it and killing it has to be accomplished before eating can commence.
A chronic lack of opportunity for a cat to interact with the environment and be mentally stimulated can lead to boredom, which may result in apathy or anxiety, and can even lead to the development of problem behaviours. For cats who only need to walk to their bowl for food, it is more likely that the calories they take in through eating will outweigh the calories they use up through exercise, resulting in weight gain.
Therefore, to encourage mental and physical stimulation of cats during feeding, and to allow them to express their natural hunting behaviour, cats should be fed several, if not all, of their food portions in puzzle feeders (also known as food puzzles). Puzzle feeders are objects which hold food and must be manipulated in different ways to release this food. These help meals last longer, increase physical exertion needed to obtain food, and provide a fun 'brain-teaser' for your cat!
A recent review* of the scientific literature provides evidence for many benefits of using puzzle feeders with cats. These include: reducing signs of stress, contributing to weight loss, decreasing aggression towards humans and other cats, reducing anxiety and fear, and eliminating attention-seeking behaviour and inappropriate toileting problems. The authors found that all cats can use puzzle feeders, even senior cats, kittens, three-legged cats, blind cats and cats with other disabilities! This review was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, the flagship journal of International Cat Care’s veterinary division.
The following website was created by authors of the scientific review discussed above and gives information about different types of puzzle feeders available, how to make homemade ones, tips on introducing puzzle feeders and more: http://foodpuzzlesforcats.com.
Types of puzzle feeders
Puzzle feeders can hold both wet (ie, food from tins or pouches) and dry food (ie, kibble). There are many types of puzzle feeders that are available to buy, as the following pictures show. Some puzzle feeders require cats to fish food out with their paws, or manipulate the object with their paws or nose to release the food; others require cats to extract food with their tongues and jaws (especially when wet food is used).
In addition to commercial puzzle feeders, puzzle feeders can be made at home, easily and often very inexpensively. The following pictures illustrate examples of homemade puzzle feeders. Again, puzzle feeders can be constructed where cats have to fish food out with their paws, or manipulate the object with their paws or nose to release the food; others require cats to extract food with their tongues and jaws. International Cat Care have put together a ‘feeding plan’ which gives instructions on how to construct the puzzle feeders pictured below. The feeding plan also outlines a few simple changes to the way owners feed their cats, which can help improve the health and welfare of cats.
For a short version of this feeding plan with instructions on how to build the puzzle feeders, click here.
For the full report behind the development of the feeding plan and a more detailed version of the feeding plan (including instructions on how to build the puzzle feeders), click here.
Everyday household items can also be used as puzzle feeders; for example, try putting dry kibble in an egg box, or wet food in an ice cube tray.
How to introduce puzzle feeders
It is best to introduce puzzle feeders gradually, to give the cat time to learn how to use them and to avoid causing frustration. Therefore, when introducing puzzle feeders, you should:
- Continue to feed some of the cat’s daily allowance of food in a bowl, as well as offering some of it in the puzzle feeder
- Adjust the settings of the puzzle feeder so that obtaining food is easy. Filling the puzzle feeder with plenty of food (eg, so the device is at least one-half to three-quarters full) will mean food is released more easily
- Use clear puzzle feeders and/or ones with lots of openings so the cats can easily see, smell and hear the food
- Sprinkle some dry food around the puzzle feeder, to encourage interest in the device, and to help the cat make a connection between food and the puzzle feeder
As the cat becomes more proficient at using the puzzle feeder, and if they are showing no signs of stress, anxiety or frustration, increase the amount of the cat’s daily food allowance provided via the puzzle feeder. International Cat Care recommends that as much of a cat’s daily food allowance as possible is fed using puzzle feeders, and ideally 100% of a cat’s food would be provided via puzzle feeders, especially for indoor cats that have reduced opportunities to express their natural hunting behaviour. The difficulty of the puzzle feeder should be gradually increased. The difficulty can be increased by using devices with fewer and/or smaller holes, opaque devices, and devices which are more challenging to manipulate. This will ensure that the puzzle feeder continues to be stimulating – the device should pose a challenge to the cat, without causing frustration.
You can make puzzle feeders really hard by placing a smaller puzzle feeder inside a larger one. Try also placing extra items inside the puzzle feeder which the cat must move out of the way in order to access the food, or which make the puzzle feeder harder to move around, so that the cat has to work harder to release the food.
Cats have individual preferences and abilities, so try a variety of different puzzle feeders to identify ones that the cat enjoys using. Furthermore, a variety of puzzle feeders should be offered so that cats remain challenged when trying to obtain their food, and to prevent boredom through continuously using the same puzzle feeder. This will ensure that the use of puzzle feeders will continue to be enriching and entertaining for your cat, allowing them to express their natural hunting behaviours, exercise their bodies and minds, and potentially live happier and healthier lives.
*Dantas LMS, Delgado MM, Johnson I and Buffington CAT. Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. J Feline Med Surg 2016; 18: 723-732.