In the wild, cats spend up to 30% of their day searching for food, eating small meals nine to sixteen times a day, on average. Outdoor cats are stealthy, cunning hunters — foraging for food exercises their bodies and their brains.

Now think about your cat, who sleeps all day and gets a bowl of food delivered to them. It’s no wonder we’re a nation of fat cats with behavior problems. What if changing the way we feed our cats by using food puzzles could make them happier?

Cats are happier when they have to work for their food

Researchers from my alma mater, The University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!), and The University of California conducted a study that suggests cats are happier when they have to work for their food. The study, which appeared in The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, followed 24 cats with behavior problems ranging from aggression to house soiling, and found that using cat food puzzles actually helped calm unacceptable behavior.

Behavior problems in cats often stem from boredom and frustration. Cats are smart. They instinctively like to move their bodies. If your blanket-covered feet have ever been attacked, you know they love to hunt, and one session with a laser pointer will assure you that they love to chase. But, we’ve made cats adapt to our lives — we know it’s safer to keep them indoors, but by stifling their life experiences, we’re actually creating a world of feline obesity and boredom.

How cat food puzzles can help

What’s a caring cat parent to do? The answer, as demonstrated by scientists, is cat food puzzles! Cat food puzzles are devices you can use to allow your cat to “forage” for their normal daily rations. By making your cat work for food, you’re engaging their senses and their brain, all while getting their body moving.

A good example of a cat food puzzle is a simple hollow cylinder with one or two holes in it. Food goes in the cylinder and is released through the hole one kibble at a time as your cat rolls and engages the toy. Other cat food puzzles stay stationary and make your cat work for food by lifting kibble out of tunnels or moving sliding doors to reveal kibble pieces.

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Wet food for cats

I know you have one glaring question, though. I can hear it already: “Hey, doc, you’ve told us over and over that we should feed our cats wet food, and now you’re telling me to switch back to dry? What gives?” It’s true that we already know the benefits of feeding wet food to your cats, and I still want the majority of your cat’s calories to come from wet food.

But it turns out that crunching on a kibble is kind of like crunching on a bone to your cat (gross, I know). In fact, way back in 2007, animal behavior researchers learned that the satisfying crunch that happens when cats bite on a kibble actually increases the level of serotonin (or “feel good” chemical) in their brains. One more point for creating happier cats.

Where to get a cat food puzzle

You can do a quick search on Amazon for “cat food puzzle” to see your options, or if you’re a crafty DIYer, 1,000+ ideas are waiting for you on Pinterest. Start easy — your cat is smart, but they’re also used to eating without lifting a finger. Make the first couple of puzzles easy to figure out before you break out the Kitty Einstein puzzles.

When you have a handful of puzzles that work well, fill them up at the beginning of the week. That way they’re all ready to go each day with minimal effort on your part. Before long, you’ll have a kitty who’s eager to work for food, and is happier to boot!

Nov 1, 2016

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