Since the beginning of time, cats have grown to be one of our most beloved companions, dominating households in the US as the most commonly kept pet – but in many ways, their behaviors still mirror those of their closest wild ancestor, which is the African wildcat.
While keeping domestic cats indoors is highly recommended for their health and safety, along with that of the local ecosystem, this lifestyle takes away from some of their natural, predatory behaviors.
However, in a new study, veterinary experts are now revealing how implementing ‘food puzzles’ can help indoor cats take advantage of their instincts to fight the issues which are associated with captivity, from obesity and diabetes to aggression.
Food puzzles are contraptions which require direct interaction from the cat in order to release the contents, giving them an active role in the acquisition of their meal.
This technique has been used in many zoos and sanctuaries to help large cats adapt to captivity, and has been shown to reduce pacing, improve body condition, and also increase their exploratory behaviour, researchers explain in a paper published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.
Puzzles present a challenge which appeals to their natural instinct to work for their food, the researchers explain.
‘Cats are natural predators that tend to eat multiple small meals each day in nature,’ the authors write.
‘When able to hunt, cats make several hunting attempts each day, only approximately half of which leads to a prey item.’
WHAT THE STUDY FOUND
Food puzzles were found to have a large number of physical and emotional benefits, as they allow cats to tap into their natural predatory instincts.
In one case, an obese 8-year-old male lost a whopping 20 percent of his body weight after a year of using a food puzzle.
Along with this, a 3-year-old British Shorthair male cat resolved his aggression toward his owner within just six months.
Also, a 2-year-old domestic shorthair cat who feared people, including his owner, eventually came when called and relaxed for cuddles following the use of mobile and stationary puzzles.
In the study, the researchers investigated the benefits of food puzzles over 30 cases, including that of an obese 8-year-old male cat, a 3-year-old male with frustration-based aggression, and a 2-year-old with a fear of people.
Implementing food puzzles, they discovered, definitely led to significant improvements in many areas, resulting in weight loss, decreased aggression towards both humans and other cats, reduced anxiety and fear, and an end to attention-seeking behaviors and litter box avoidance.
Puzzles can take the form of mobile, stationary, or even homemade containers, and can easily be made suitable for both wet and dry foods.
HOW TO CREATE A FOOD PUZZLE FOR YOUR CAT
Food puzzles will allow your cats to work for their meal, a behavior which isn’t always taken advantage of in an indoor lifestyle.
While these puzzles may be purchased in numerous styles, the researchers say they can also be built using household materials.
For dry food:
The researchers claim that puzzles can be made by cutting holes in various objects that can be found around the house, including yogurt containers, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, margarine tubs, or water bottles.
For wet food:
Food puzzles aren’t only used for dry kibble food. To make a wet-food puzzle, simply use an ice cube tray or muffin pan, and place yogurt lids over the individual reservoirs or cups to increase difficulty.
Mobile puzzles often come in the shape of a ball, egg, or tube, and may be rolled around by a nudge from a paw or nose.
They usually have one or more holes in them, but can often be modified to change the difficulty level.
Stationary puzzles are usually larger and may contain holes, cups, or channels.
‘Food puzzles enable cat owners to provide mental stimulation and exercise, and increase the activity of their pet cats while taking advantage of the domestic cat’s natural inclination to work (hunt) for their food,’ the authors write.
‘Food puzzles are relatively easy to implement, and there are few risks associated with their use.
‘In fact, there are likely many health and behavioral benefits from implementing food puzzles.’