Your Cat Would Like Food Puzzle Toys

Food puzzles will help satisfy your cat’s hunting instinct. Here's what they are and how to get (and keep) your cat interested in them.

The benefits of food puzzle toys as enrichment for cats, like the food ball this cat is playing with
Photo: Anna Morgan/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A new paper on food puzzles for cats has plenty of ideas to get everyone started on these wonderful enrichment items. The research, led by Mikel Delgado (University of California, Berkeley; Feline Minds), combines a review of the scientific literature on food toys as feline enrichment with practical tips gained from the authors’ work as feline behaviour practitioners.

Food puzzles are toys that make your cat do some work to get the food out of them. Maybe they have to stick their paw in and pick pieces of food out, or maybe they roll it around with their nose or paw to make food fall out of the holes. There are many different types of food toys, some of which stay in one place and others that the cat has to move around.

“It's a great way to give your cat something to do to keep them busy and get them doing what a predator is supposed to do... Working for their food!!” Mikel Delgado told me. “It's great for their brains and body!

“A bonus is that it's really fun to watch your cat play with a food puzzle!”

Most cats miss out on food puzzles

A study of enrichment for cats found that only 5% of cats have food puzzle toys. An earlier study of how owners play with their cats found just 1% of cats have food puzzles, and only 0.5% of owners hide food for their cat to find.

The benefits of food puzzle toys as enrichment for cats - this ginger cat is dreaming of them

If your cat is one of those missing out, read on to find out why these feline scientists say you should give food puzzles a try.

The benefits of food puzzle toys for cats

Food puzzles make cats engage in part of their natural predation sequence – getting food. This has many benefits, according to the report, including encouraging cats to be more active, reducing stress levels, and making them be less demanding of their owners.

If your cat is overweight or obese, then food puzzle toys can help cats to lose weight. In some cases, introducing food puzzle toys has also helped to resolve litter tray indiscretions (N.B. If your cat is toileting outside their litter tray, they must see a vet to solve any medical issues first).

The report provides several case studies in which food puzzles have been all or part of the solution to feline behaviour problems.

For example, a 3 year old neutered male cat was biting his owners, sometimes without warning. This was considered due to frustration. Introducing a combination of food puzzles led to some immediate improvement. Six months later, the aggressive behaviour had completely stopped.

Food puzzles are also suitable for multi-cat homes, although each cat should have their own toy.

How to get started with food puzzle toys

We all know cats can be finicky. You should expect to try several types of food toys in order to find ones your cat loves. Note that’s plural – your aim is to find (or make) several different food puzzles for your cat.

Some cats that are used to having food freely available at all times may go on strike when they first find out they are now expected to work for their food. Not eating can be very dangerous for cats, so it’s important to make the toys accessible.

Early on, they have to be very easy. You can increase the difficulty later, once your cat has got the hang of it.

The scientists write,
“Initially, obtaining food from the food puzzle needs to be as easy as obtaining food from the food bowl. This means that the cat should have to do very little work for food at first. The puzzle should be filled as much as possible, and should have several, large holes to allow food to fall out easily. The puzzle should roll with little manipulation. For stationary puzzles, cups or reservoirs should be overflowing.”

Mix some treats in with the cat’s regular food at first to help them to get interested in it. For puzzles that move, you can roll it around to show them how it works. It will also help to present it on a surface where it will move easily (rather than carpet as that will make it harder; your cat can build up to this if you like).

To begin with, you should still feed your cat some of their daily food in their bowl. Over time, once your cat has become adept at the food toy, you can reduce the amount in the bowl until they are working for all of their food.

Your cat really will like food puzzle toys

It seems that every cat can benefit from food puzzles and there are few, if any, downsides.

A common reason they are not more widely used, according to the report, is that cat guardians think their cat will not be interested in them. Reassuringly, they say every cat they have worked with has learned to use food puzzles – even those with special needs. So why not give them a try?

Trouble-shooting problems with food puzzles

If your cat seems to be frustrated with the toy, you may need to make it easier for them. Remember that it should be overflowing with food at the beginning. If your cat is what the report calls a 'slow starter', you can hide a small portion of food somewhere for them to find. If it’s canned food, you can put a spoonful in a cup cake holder or on a little saucer to stop it from marking your furniture.

If your cat seems bored, you can always make the toy more difficult (making sure you don’t go too far and make it too difficult). Some toys are adjustable to different difficulty levels. You can also try new toys.

The paper also suggests filling a small food toy and putting it inside a larger one, which seems like a fiendish level of difficulty for expert cats.

If you have a dog, you will need to think of a way to keep the dog from eating the cat’s food. You could use a pet gate to keep the dog away, or feed the cats in a room the dog doesn’t have access to. You may already be doing this to keep the dog away from the cat’s food bowl anyway. And you can, of course, give your dog their own food enrichment toys.

Buy food puzzle toys or make them for your cat – it’s your choice

These days, there are lots of food puzzle toys on the market. It’s also very easy to make your own.

You can make a very simple toy by cutting a hole in a cardboard tube (e.g. from toilet roll), putting food inside and sealing both ends. Remember to make it a large hole at the beginning so that it’s easy for your cat. The report includes a photo of this and several other purchased and home-made food puzzles.

Some of my favourite food puzzle toys for cats include the Trixie Activity Fun Board, the Trixie Mad Scientist for Cats, the PetSafe SlimCat Meal-Dispensing Cat Toy, and Doc & Phoebe's Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder. For wet food, the Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound Dog Tornado Interactive Treat Puzzle Dog Toy has compartments you can put wet food and is easy to clean (and very suitable for cats even though it is designed for dogs!).

Two of the authors of the paper discussed here, Mikel Delgado and Ingrid Johnson, have a website that reviews food puzzles for cats. It has plenty of ideas for do-it-yourself toys too and is an excellent resource for anyone interested in providing more enrichment for their feline friend. I love this example that only requires a brown paper bag.

One of their reviews features a 15-year old toothless, arthritic, three-legged cat enjoying using a toy called the Dog Tornado by Nina Ottoson. Food puzzles are suitable for all cats.

The full paper is open access at the link below. It’s an interesting read and includes photos of food toys, including some DIY options, as well as lots of tips for introducing your cat to food puzzles. And if you have a dog too, you might also like my guide to using food puzzle toys with your dog

Does your cat have food puzzle toys?

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

See also: A guide to using food puzzle toys with your dog

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Dantas, L., Delgado, M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery DOI: 10.1177/1098612X16643753

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