Making the Most of Feeding Your Cat: Food Puzzles

Want a super easy way to improve your cat’s life and behavior? Two words: Food Puzzles!

Food puzzles are a great way to support your cat’s physical and behavioral health. They are one of the main recommendations provided by the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ in their recent consensus statement about how to feed cats. These guidelines aim to alleviate common health and behavior issues in cats by better meeting their needs to hunt and feel safe while eating.

Once you get started, feeding with food puzzles requires no extra work from you but can provide tons of benefits. What could be better?

What Food Puzzles Can Do For You(r Cat)

Your cat’s environment and daily stimulation has a huge effect on their behavior. Bored cats can get into trouble or become pests. Lack of stimulation can also lead to stress which in turn can cause a whole host of behavior and health issues. 

Feeding with food puzzles (instead of a bowl) can:

  • Burn excess energy and provide mental stimulation.
  • Create a proactive distraction to prevent demanding or annoying behavior.
  • Reward appropriate behavior.
  • Build confidence in exploring and interacting with the world.
  • Slow down speedy eaters and help with weight management.

Choosing a Food Puzzle

A wide range of food puzzles can be found at your local pet store. Some roll around as your cat bats them; others remain stationary while your cat uses their mouth or paws to get the food out. There are options for wet food as well. When first introducing food puzzles, try a variety including stationary and moving toys. Your cat will likely have a preference. 

Black Cat Playing with Egg Carton
Photo Credit: Jessica Char

You don’t have to break the bank finding your cat’s favorite puzzle. Create cheap options by putting food and treats in:

  • Muffin tins or egg cartons
  • Paper towel/toilet paper tubes (pinch ends to hold treats inside)
  • Tissue or other small boxes
  • Paper bags
  • Plastic food containers with holes in the sides or lids
  • Coffee mugs laid on their sides

There are lots of great products and DIY suggestions on the internet. Try FoodPuzzlesForCats.com which has photos and videos of cats using the puzzles.

Getting Started

When you first introduce food puzzles, you want to make it easy and appealing so your cat is rewarded quickly for trying them. 

When introducing new toys or games for your cat, always carefully supervise to ensure they aren’t eating parts of the toy or creating small pieces that could be swallowed.

  • Open all the holes fully or cut extra large holes if you’re making your own.
  • Start with a very full puzzle so the food falls out easily.
  • Put food around the edges of the puzzle to encourage investigation.
  • Add some extra appealing treats in with regular food to entice your cat.
  • Don’t let empty puzzles sit around. While learning to use them, your cat should find food in the puzzles anytime they check them out.

Over time you can feed more and more of your cat’s daily meals in food puzzles. Continue to monitor your cat’s appetite and daily intake to ensure they are eating enough while they learn to work the puzzles.

Troubleshooting

The Slow Starter

If your cat seems interested in the puzzles but can’t seem to master them:

  • Try different types of toys like those that require rolling vs batting or mouth vs paws.
  • Cut larger holes so food and treats fall out more easily.
  • Offer the puzzles right before mealtime when your cat is most motivated for food.

The Uninterested

Does your cat give you a blank stare when you put a food puzzle in front of them? Start with some very simple “hunting” games to get their instincts going again.

  • Scatter dry food in a thick-pile rug or “snuffle mat” that requires your cat to dig around for the food. Wet food can be smeared on an uneven surface like a "LickiMat."
  • Divide your cat’s regular meal into several smaller portions and spread them around a room so they have to move from one to another. Slowly increase the distance between the bowls, move them onto different surfaces (like cat trees), and into different rooms.
  • Put food in boxes or bags that your cat would normally investigate anyway. 
Cat eating off blanket
Photo Credit: 1238720/Pixabay.com

For some cats, these games are enough to give you all the benefits of food puzzles. However some owners find it harder to monitor how much each cat (in a multi-cat home) is eating when food is spread out. Now that your cat is used to moving around and hunting for their food, go back and try to introduce the puzzles again, using the steps above.

Reap the Benefits

Food puzzles can be filled in advance to make feeding quick and easy. Continue to make the most of your cat’s meal times by increasing the challenge of the puzzles over time. Rotate through different toys to keep things interesting and add new, harder puzzles (smaller holes, harder to roll, new designs). Try hiding the puzzles around your house for your cat to find. Finally, make a few toys ahead of time to use as a positive distraction at times when demanding behavior or inappropriate play are likely.

Congratulations on taking this easy step toward a happier, healthier cat! 

Food puzzles can help with a lot but sometimes you need more. If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation. 

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