You can take the cat out of the wild, but you can’t take the wildness out of the cat. This sentiment can be echoed by the fact that cats (one of the most commonly kept house pets) despite living in the lap of luxury at home, may feel like they live in “suboptimal” conditions. What do we mean by this?
Cats are natural-born hunters and predators with an innate instinct to work for their food. It’s not uncommon for most cat owners to simply pour their cat’s food in a bowl; leaving them to indulge. This ‘set it and forget it’ approach (though with good intent), may not be the best and in fact, could be harmful to your cat’s overall health. Here’s why:
Free roaming and non-domesticated, cats are used to naturally having small multiple meals a day as they hunt for their food. When this routine is disrupted by the feeding habits of domestication, it can diminish their natural hunting behavior and thus create a heightened dependency to be fed without any work (promoting laziness). In multi-cat households, there may be a tendency to overeat and finish the food before other cats in the home (talk about sibling rivalry). Continuing to feed cats in this manner often leads to health issues such as increased obesity, joint problems, diabetes as well as anxiety, aggression, and overgrooming.
How can you minimize these risks to keep your cat healthy and happy? One way is to create an environment that fosters your cat’s inner ability to work for their food and “put the hunt” back in mealtime. It’s a win-win for both cat owners and their cats. Does this sound puzzling to you? Well, it should..because we’re talking food puzzles for your cat that you could even do on your own!
Initially developed to provide environmental enrichment for captive or laboratory animals, food puzzles contain food that is manipulated to release food when an animal interacts with it. They can either be purchased or homemade, stationary or mobile. The mobile surfaces are normally round or tubular with a few holes – this makes it easier for the cat to push with their paws or nose to roll out the puzzle.
The stationary puzzles are larger with sturdy bases and have holes and compartments where cats would normally use their paws to fish out the food from the wells. Normally in stationary puzzles, wet food is served while dry food is normally served in both mobile and stationary puzzles. You can also adjust the delivery of the food/difficulty of the puzzle by the number of holes or open spaces in the puzzles if using a homemade device.
Food puzzles are a fun, interactive, and healthy alternative to feeding your cat. Firstly they can slow down your cat’s eating because more time will be allocated in searching for their food rather than eating. For cats, this may increase mental stimulation and reduce boredom. Food is an intrinsic motivator and thus allowing your cat to work for their food is rewarding.
“Implementing enrichment by providing foraging opportunities and food puzzles offers several benefits to captive large cats, including reducing stereotypes such as pacing, improving body conditionand increasing exploratory behavior.” 1
Studies have also shown that cats who use food puzzles had fewer behavioral problems and tend to be more physically fit and happier than cats who use a regular food bowl. 2
Weight management is another key benefit here. Slowing down your cats’ eating frequency will help manage their daily caloric intake. By reinforcing a regular habit of exercise and mental stimulation, the results may alleviate some of the aforementioned health and behavioral issues of domestication. (i.e obesity, aggression, and diabetes).
So how do we introduce these feeding apparatuses to your feline friend who probably has their mindset on heading towards their third helping of food from their personalized bowl in the kitchen corner near the scratchpad? Like anything new, one should start slowly by continuing to offer food in the cat’s bowl while introducing the food puzzles. The difficulty levels should be set to a minimum in the beginning and the food puzzle should be at least ½ to ¾ full so that the food dispenses easily. This will prevent frustration for both the cat and the owner. Look for puzzles with more openings if you’re purchasing one.
Protip – For beginners, if you’re using dry food, sprinkle some around the puzzle to encourage your cat to nudge the puzzle for more. This way your cat will make the connection between the moving puzzle and getting food. You can gradually increase the challenges as your cat becomes familiar with the puzzle.
Here’s one simple DIY project (courtesy of Cat Healthy feline specialist, Dr. Liz Ruelle):
A simple egg carton can also serve as a food puzzle. Ensure your styrofoam or cardboard carton is clean, place food or treats inside the cups, and close the carton. You can help your cat out by adding holes in the top of the carton for easier access to the yummy feast inside.
Here are a few other very simple DIY food puzzle ideas with the puzzles ranging from easy to difficult:
Domestication should not be a bad word when it comes to caring for your cat. Now that we’ve explored other options for feeding your cat, you can still provide a nourishing, stimulating environment for your cat while ensuring your cat is safe, happy, and most importantly healthy.
Bring out the natural hunter in your cat. After all, curiosity can only feed it, right? Give puzzle feeders a try (whether you purchase one or decide to DIY), we’d love to hear your journey!
1. Food Puzzles for Cats: Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery
2. University of California – Leticia MS Dantas, Mikel M Delgado, Ingrid Johnson, CA Tony Buffington