Pleased to eat you: Pointers for introducing cats to food puzzles
When you first tried to ride a bike, did you start out with training wheels? And did you use bumpers on your first trip to the bowling alley?
Novel experiences often call for introductory adjustments that ease participants into the full-scale activities. Such modifications help kindle curiosity while avoiding exasperation (and often injury). The same is true when introducing cats to food puzzles.
“You can’t start a new forager out on a really complicated food puzzle,” says CVC educator Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DAVBP (feline practice). “The cat will walk away in frustration and never look at it again.”
The authors of "Food puzzles for cats: Feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing," published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery last year, agree, calling proper puzzle introduction “the most important key to success.”
The article provides several tips for successful implementation to pass along to your clients:
- What interests one cat may bore another, so expect to try several puzzles.
- Introduce the puzzle when the cat is likely to be hungry (i.e. mealtimes).
- If the cat tends to be anxious, introduce the puzzle in a quiet location.
- Start the cat on a puzzle that is clear and has several openings. At first, getting food from the puzzle shouldn’t be more difficult for the cat than getting food from the bowl, and the puzzle should be at least half full.
- If the cat isn’t used to having to work for its food, take its food bowl away when introducing the puzzle. However, if the cat becomes stressed by environmental changes, offer the puzzle as a choice next to its bowl instead.
- If using dry food, place some food on the floor around the puzzle.
- To increase the cat’s interest in the puzzle, fill it with a novel treat and later switch to its normal food once it becomes more comfortable with the device.
- If the cat is especially slow to show interest in working for its food, try putting small amounts of dry food in places that will be novel to the cat (e.g. in its bed, on the windowsill it frequents).
Eventually, the cat should be able to eat all meals from food puzzles. Regular puzzle use will require some extra work on the part of owners. Download this client handout on how to keep these animal apparatuses clean and safe.
Food puzzles aren’t just for at-home play. Your practice can benefit from kibble calisthenics too. Learn about the different types of food puzzles and how they can be used to keep your patients blissfully distracted during veterinary visits. And click on the gif above to see cat-tested food puzzles in action!