Feline feeding toys
Many cats are subjected to their owner’s choice of feeding times and methods, which is a very artificial situation. Foraging toys can be used in almost any home environment and offer cats both mental and physical stimulation, as Ingrid Johnson describes.
Cats are hunters by nature, and foraging toys can both offer environmental enrichment and mimic natural feeding patterns.
There are many different sorts of foraging puzzle available, but a cat should be introduced gradually to the concept of “feeding toys”.
Offering cats the opportunity to work for their food, just as they would hunt outdoors, is an often overlooked form of enrichment. This is especially true for the indoor-only cat. Giving cats a bowl full of dry food, as so many owners do, or feeding them only twice a day to keep them trim, is frustrating for cats and often results in behavioral problems. Foraging is the middle ground solution between free feeding and strict meal feeding. Boredom, frustration, and environmental stress are some of the most common reasons for feline behavior problems. Foraging provides cats with something to do with their time, offering “positive frustration” by giving them a problem to solve 1. The behavior becomes self-fulfilling as the cat is rewarded with food as it figures out the puzzle.
Dietary needs and eating style
Before foraging toys are offered, it is necessary to understand what and how cats eat. Cats are obligate carnivores, and naturally nibble and pick, eating nine to sixteen small, evenly sized meals throughout the day 2. In fact, there is evidence that meal-fed cats may be more aggressive and less cooperative than cats fed by free choice 2.
Cats are not family-style eaters. They are a social species that live in groups, but they hunt and eat alone 2. Unlike the big cats, our domestic cats prey on small animals which are not suitable for sharing. Cats also prefer — and take great comfort in — controlling their resources and basic needs. When control is taken away, often unintentionally by the owners, this creates stress. Free access to food, water, toileting areas and safe resting places are key to a cat’s wellbeing and mental health. So we need to allow our cats to eat… but make them work for it. This is where foraging toys come into play.
A cat’s first foraging toy should be easy. The cat needs to learn the “game” and be rewarded for the behavior. There are basically two types of foraging toys or food puzzles, rolling and stationary. The toys can either be purchased or homemade, and may be designed to be used with wet or dry food (Figure 1a) (Figure 1b), or a combination of both, although wet food puzzles require a bit more creativity to implement. As a whole, and in the author’s experience, rolling puzzles are more challenging than stationary puzzles, but every cat is different. If weight loss is a desired goal, rolling puzzles will make the cat work harder. Encouraging cats to forage from both types of toy will increased their versatility and add mental stimulation and enrichment.
Stationary puzzles are probably the easiest option for beginners. They can be as simple as an old ice cube tray or muffin tin, where the cat simply needs to reach in and scoop the food out with a paw (Figure 2). It is especially important to offer a stationary puzzle if a cat finds a rolling puzzle too challenging.
For rolling puzzles, start with objects that are translucent so that the cat can see, smell, and hear the food rattling around inside the toy (Figure 3). Spherical toys are easiest for beginners because they roll easily and are less frustrating. The object should have multiple holes where the food can dispense; three-holed objects are sufficient for almost all beginners 3. Some cats who have been strictly meal-fed may take to foraging so quickly that they can almost immediately transition to one- or two-hole puzzles.
Rolling puzzles should be filled at least one-half to three-quarters full, as an almost-empty puzzle can be too challenging and lead to frustration. Initially it can help if the owner sprinkles some dry food around the toy; as the cat eats these pieces it will probably nudge the toy and dispense more kibble. For slow starters the rolling puzzle may be left open in two halves and the cat can pull the food out with a paw. Then, having noted a positive experience with the object, the owner can reassemble the toy loaded with food, again with extra kibble sprinkled around it; most cats will push the toy with their muzzle or paw, knowing that just yesterday the device provided a meal.
Toys can be introduced at almost any point in a cat's lifetime; it is possible to start feeding toys with kittens as young as 8-10 weeks of age, although they often do not have the attention span for foraging at this stage. Whilst they may show little interest at first, given time they will start to engage more fully.
Motivating cats to forage
There may be little motivation for a cat to work for what has been readily available in a bowl for years. In this situation it is worthwhile putting a unique food in the toy to spark some interest. This will encourage a cat to think it is foraging for treats, even though it is just a different type of food.
Some cats do well if the foraging toy is placed in their normal feeding area; for others, putting it in a new and interesting location seems to spark more interest. It is worth trying both options — the ultimate goal is to scatter the puzzles throughout the home, especially in a multi-cat household, although initially it may be necessary to try different tactics to encourage their use.
If a cat is still struggling to use a puzzle it is worth spiking the toy with treats mixed with the normal food. This can be sufficient to stimulate interest. For a very slow starter simply try hiding small handfuls of food around the house for the cat to discover. This will at least get the pet into the habit of starting to search for its food.
It is also helpful to mimic a cat’s natural habitat and feeding practices. So for example a textured toy can mimic what a cat would experience if it was rooting through grass searching for food (Figure 4), and using a dental diet can mimic the masticatory action of a cat eating natural prey — although the choice of diet will in part be dictated by the animal’s health status. Owners can be encouraged to incorporate such foods when introducing the concept of foraging; most will want to use something unique in the toy that is also good for the cat, rather than just filling the toy with treats.
It is never appropriate to starve a cat into eating a new food or to adopt an “if they are hungry enough, they will eat it” attitude. This will not work, and could make a cat unwell. Cats are excellent hunters and, when outdoors, would generally not go nearly as long without eating as a dog would. It is imperative that cats eat every day.
Staging the difficulty level
Once a cat gets the hang of foraging toys, gradually begin increasing the challenge. Decrease the number of openings in the object, so it becomes more difficult to dispense food. Start by offering objects that do not roll as predictably as a ball, or objects that are opaque so that the cat has to be motivated by scent and previous learned experiences. Larger heavier objects present yet another challenge: these are generally more difficult to push, and although such puzzles can be more challenging for some kittens, such toys are great for multi-cat households.
Combining toys is another way to increase the challenge. Take a smaller object that the cat has mastered and place it inside another object so they have to manipulate it twice to achieve a reward (Figure 5). Most cats can learn to cope with this level of foraging sooner or later 4.
As mentioned above, stationary puzzles serve as great beginner toys for many cats, helping them learn the concept of foraging if they do not grasp how to use rolling puzzles. Stationary foraging toys can also be made more complex 5, so that a cat has to use its paws to reach into the object and extract the kibble rather than rolling a loose object with their paws or muzzles (Figure 6). To make things more difficult a rolling, food-filled toy can be inserted inside the stationary puzzle.
Home-made devices can be very effective (Figure 7) and are often easily made utilizing everyday items; for example, an old shoebox with holes cut in the top and sides of the box, filled with toys and food and with the lid taped securely shut — most cats are smart enough to flip off the lid otherwise. If used with rolling toys inside, the holes should be a little larger than the toys so that the cat can pull the toy out if desired.
Cube-shaped objects are one of the most difficult objects for cats to manipulate. Start by offering transparent cubes, as this allows cats to see the kibble as well as using scent and sound. Introduce cube-shaped toys on carpets or rugs where the pile makes it easier for the cat to learn how to flip the object. On hardwood floors, cats tend to simply push the toy around and become frustrated, but eventually they will usually learn to use the cube on any surface, and at this stage opaque cubes can be introduced as the next level of challenge.
The ultimate goal is to employ the most difficult toy that an individual cat can learn to use. Owners should not have unrealistic expectations or be disappointed; just as individual people vary in their abilities, so do cats. However, almost every cat can acquire the ability to use food puzzles. The author has had three-legged cats, blind cats, geriatric cats, and cats with hindlimb paralysis who have learnt how to forage. Do not underestimate a cat’s ability!
Setting up for success
So how do owners comply with feeding cats long term using puzzles? It may be necessary to encourage reluctant owners by reminding them that such puzzles are not just a feeding protocol but also offer environmental enrichment. Time-poor owners can be advised to acquire lots of foraging toys and pre-fill a week’s supply, storing them in an airtight container until required. This also allows a new toy to be offered to a cat each day. Note that, while no clinical studies have been undertaken, the author believes that cats need a selection of puzzles; it would seem to be less rewarding for a cat to tackle the same puzzle every day.
Foraging offers cats something to do all day and allows for a variation of free feeding, which can in particular be very helpful in a home with multiple cats who are being meal-fed, a practice that can cause fighting or aggression due to increased competition and lack of environmental control. Foraging also allows cats to eat when and where they choose and creates much less stress by eliminating “meal time” — and can also potentially be an effective dieting aid for overweight cats.
- Neville P. An ethical viewpoint: the role of veterinarians and behaviourists in ensuring good husbandry for cats. In Proceedings. AAFP American Association of Feline Practitioners Congress 2002; 156-157.
- Beaver BVG. Feline behavior: A guide for veterinarians. 2nd ed. St. Louis: Saunders; 2003:219-221.
- www.fundamentallyfeline.com/implementing-foraging-as-a-feeding-protocol. Accessed September 25th 2018.
- www.fundamentallyfeline.com/so-you-think-you-have-a-master-forager. Accessed September 25th 2018.
- Johnson I, Delgado M. Food puzzles for cats. http://foodpuzzlesforcats.com. Accessed 12th January 2019.