According to the PDSA, more than five million cats in the UK are overweight. Vets are now reporting that 40% of all the cats that they treat are obese or overweight. With 48% of owners feeding them treats more than twice a day one way of tackling this feline obesity epidemic is with puzzle feeding.
What is Puzzle feeding in cats?
Puzzle feeding is simply a way of feeding your cat in a more rewarding and stimulating manner than the ordinary bowl method. Your cat has to figure out what movement of a toy is required to get the food out, creating a game!
Many owners wish to keep their cats indoors due to safety or health reasons, however, it is important to remember supply them with enough environmental enrichment to keep them mentally stimulated and physically fit. Using a puzzle feeder can provide this enhancement into their daily life.
Cats are natural born hunters and they normally get their meals by stalking, pouncing and capturing prey. In the domesticated lifestyle, we are simply serving beautifully prepared birds and mice in a ceramic bowl, usually two times a day, which causes them to become lazy and bored. For this species, a successful meal requires mental and physical stimulation.
Types of puzzle feeders
Puzzle feeders come in many shapes, sizes and complexity. If you’re just starting out using them then consider a simpler puzzle and then move onto more complex designs.
You can choose from stationary puzzles where the cat has to use his/her paws to knock, push or pull the food to where they can eat it, or a moving puzzle they have to chase or bash around to get the tasty reward out.
You can make your own inexpensive, homemade puzzle feeders easily using toilet rolls and bottles making them as simple or complex as suited to your cat.
Puzzle feeding is simply a way of feeding your cat in a more rewarding and stimulating manner than the ordinary bowl method.
Why do we need them?
You cat doesn’t technically “need” a puzzle feeder but for many cats, it can be a very effective tool for adding mental stimulation into daily life and helps prevent a variety of different behavioural and health issues seen in homes. These include obesity, especially in indoor cats, diabetes, joint issues and urinary tract issues.
In practice we often see cats that eat too quickly, causing them to vomit, which can be very annoying for an owner but also for the cat itself, sometimes this can be from living in a multi-cat household and feeling the need to eat their share of food as quickly as possible. Puzzle feeders will keep greedy cats busy and cause them to eat at a digestible pace, encouraging weight loss!
Puzzle feeders provide the cat with a reward based playtime, giving them something to do during the day instead of gazing out of the window or simply cat napping! This eases boredom reduces stress and unwanted behaviours such as destroying sofas, carpets and walls, encourages them to think about how to get the food and provides them with exercise.
Physical benefits of puzzle feeding?
More movement and exercise is always beneficial especially for indoor cats and overweight cats. The use of puzzle feeders makes its more challenging to get the food normally offered from a bowl. Not only does it help with weight loss and keeping cats active it also simulates the natural feeding behaviour of cats. As natural hunters they will normally eat little and often helping with digestion and energy levels. In the domesticated lifestyle they get 2/3 meals a day and eat it all at once and then are too full to do anything else but sleep.
Case Study : “Coco” 7yr Female DSH (domestic short- haired cat).
Mental benefits of puzzle feeding in cats
Many unwanted behaviours that cat owners face, are due to the cat not getting enough stimulation from their surroundings; they are bored and become destructive, lazy and start to resent their environment causing a lack of bond between pet and owner. This usually results in owners thinking there is something wrong with their cat and rehome/euthanise them. Where in fact the problem lies within their surroundings and what the owners can do to make the cats life more interesting and stimulating.
Preventing behavioural problems before they arise is the ideal, however it can be helpful to know what signs to look for in your cat so you can recognise if they are stressed, bored or frustrated.
Although urinary tract problems are a physical problem there are clear links between stress, indoor cats and multi-cat households. Signs that your cat may have a urinary problem include urination outside the litter tray, straining when trying to pee or producing blood or small amounts of urine when going to the toilet. In male cats, some types of urinary conditions can be fatal so immediate veterinary attention should be sought.
Frustrated cats might become attention seeking and will constantly meow at their owner, follow them around, wake them up or steal food from counter tops or tables. They may also bite without warning, including pouncing on toes or fingers! Encouraging this type of play by wiggling you fingers when the cat is a young kitten is therefore not recommended.
Some cats go the opposite way and instead of being bold and loud they may shy away. Nervous or anxious cats may hide from their owner, try to avoid being picked up and may even show aggression if touched. Aggression can be through fear and may be directed towards the owner or towards other pets in the household.
Although, each pet should be assessed individually and solutions worked out on a case by case basis, puzzle feeders and positive changes to the environment have been shown to help all of these problems to some extent.
Indoor cats especially, need to have some form of enrichment in their lives; puzzle feeders are a great way of doing this, and making eating a game like it would be if they were outside hunting. As discussed above, this mental stimulation also has physical health benefits making them lower risk of getting cystitis; a urinary tract disorder which is commonly seen in stressed cats.
Case study: “George” 1yr Male DSH (domestic short-hair).
George started off life as a hand rear with his two brothers after being abandoned. As George was a hand reared kitten, he is very needy for human interaction but also being the typical young, active and hyper cat most cats are at that age, it was obvious he needed a lot more stimulation than the other cats in the household. Puzzle feeding is a great way of keeping George interested and mentally stimulated to keep him distracted from wrecking the house. He enjoys the more complex puzzle feeders like the Catit senses tower (see picture) which requires him to knock kibble down from the top level through two lower levels to get the reward. He also enjoys the puzzle feeder ball which he has to bash around to make the kibble fall out of the size adjustable hole. (see picture). This type of play and feeding style has also helped with the bond within the multi-cat household. He is a great teacher to Lexi his 10yr old sister who didn’t really understand this method of getting food.
How to use them
The best way to start using puzzle feeders is to start off easy, sometimes making your own can be more cost effective as eventually your cat will progress to the more complicated styles.
Before even putting food into your chosen style of feeder just try to feed your cat bowl free, i.e. just scattering the food in different areas of a room. This will get them used to eating somewhere different and not from the normal bowl. It’s really important to make cats feel successful in the beginning of puzzle feeder training otherwise they will lose interest.
Then progress to filling a puzzle feeder to an accessible amount that they don’t have to work too much out to get the food. This picture shows a stationary puzzle feeder overfilled at the edges and easier places to reach. As time goes on you can make it more difficult by placing the food in the middle or spacing the food amount out.
Sometimes cats really won’t be impressed with this idea of eating but persevere and it will be worth every second.
More Skilled cats will figure things out quickly so it’s best to swap puzzle feeders around every few days to give them a variety of tasks to keep them interested. Be careful they don’t cheat too, Some cats figure out if they knock the whole tray/tower over all the kibble falls out so these cats may be better with puzzle balls which you can get in different levels of difficulty.
Stick with it, it can have a great impact on your cat’s physical and mental wellbeing adding the environmental enrichment they need to be happy cats. Not only will this benefit your cat but you will see a remarkable difference in the bond you have with your pet if you help stimulate good natural behaviours rather than destructive boredom behaviours. There are so many different types of puzzle feeders on the market now that you can purchase or get inspiration to make one yourself - there’s no excuse not to try it.