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How to Introduce Your Cat to Puzzle Feeders

how to introduce your cat to puzzle feeders

Why Use Puzzle Feeders?

It’s certainly easier to just put food in a bowl but puzzle feeders can provide multiple benefits for your cat. Here are just some of the benefits:

  • They help combat boredom or separation anxiety when your cat is alone
  • Puzzle feeders encourage a cat to eat slowly
  • Stress relief
  • Puzzle feeders can assist in weight management
  • Helpful in multicat households to distract cats from focusing too much on each other
  • Constructive outlet for cats who engage in destructive behavior
  • Puzzle feeders spark the cat’s instinct to forage and hunt
  • Puzzler feeders provide a good brain challenge

Some cats will need absolutely no introduction to the concept of a puzzle feeder and may even manage to master it before you can get your phone out to take a picture of your feline Einstein. However, some cats need guidance on how the puzzle feeder process works. Even though cats are hunters and were born to work for food, mastering a puzzle feeder is different from hunting a mouse in tall grass.

Pam Johnson-Bennett and four books

Make it Easy for Your Cat at First

Your cat is used to walking over to her food bowl and seeing a meal conveniently displayed for her and now you’re expecting her to work for her dinner? If you make the introduction easy and avoid frustrating your cat, she’ll very likely find the process to be fun. Cats love to seek, discover and paw at things. They’re attracted to objects that move, especially when the movement is enticing. If your cat has ever knocked an object off the table or batted a toy on the floor, she can work a puzzle feeder. She just may need a little Puzzle Feeder 101.

PVC elbow fitting can be a puzzle feeder

A PVC elbow fitting can be purchased at your local home improvement store. Turn it into a quick and easy puzzle feeder. (Photo: Fotolia)

Try Various Food-Dispensing Toys

Every cat is an individual and you may find you have to try a couple of different types of puzzles. Just as with toy selection, you may find your cat has specific preferences. If you purchase puzzle feeders, some are designed for beginners and others are labeled level 2 or level 3. Cats are very smart but since this is supposed to be fun, start at the easiest level (whether homemade or purchased food-dispensing toy) and then work your way up. Don’t be discouraged if your cat doesn’t show interest in the first one you try. It may be too difficult, not the right size or maybe your cat wasn’t hungry enough.

An egg carton makes a wonderful level 1 puzzle feeder

An egg carton makes a wonderful level 1 puzzle feeder

Starting out with a Puzzle Feeder

First, your cat should be hungry but don’t wait until she’s starving because that might lead to frustration when she’s a novice.

The first time you introduce a puzzle feeder it should be as easy as possible for your cat to succeed. If you feed dry food, try using a small water bottled placed on its side and filled halfway with food. Before filling the bottle, cut large holes all around the bottle that are much bigger than the size of the food pieces. This way, all your cat must do is basically touch the bottle and she’ll achieve success. You can even place a few bits of food right next to the bottle. When your cat gets close to the food, her nose will touch the bottle and another piece will magically drop out. As she becomes move proficient, make smaller and/or fewer holes in the next water bottle so she’ll have to put more effort into accessing the food. Just be sure to make holes that always larger than the size of the food piece or else that will most certainly be an exercise in kitty frustration.

plastic water bottle

Plastic water bottles come in all sizes so you can match one to the size of your cat. Cut holes in the bottle that are larger than the size of the food pieces. Cut lots of holes at first so your cat will easily get the food. Be sure the bottle is totally dry before placing food inside. (Photo: Fotolia)

For wet food, start out with something like a plastic ice cube tray, egg carton or a muffin tin. It will get your cat used to the idea of searching in each compartment to forage. For wet food you can also find several commercial puzzle feeders such as the Senses 2.0 Digger by Catit or even a puzzle feeder that was initially intended for dogs — the Dog Tornado by Nina Ottosson.

If your cat isn’t showing an interest in the puzzle feeder, try a different type. You may have to experiment with several. If she still walks away, try using high-value, super-tasty treats and then transition back to her normal food.

Food Puzzle Toys Should Never Frustrate Your Cat

Don’t push your cat beyond her ability. This is supposed to be fun. Even though a puzzle feeder is meant to work the brain, it’s still supposed to be a game that brings enjoyment to your cat. Some cats will never graduate beyond the most basic food puzzle.

An ice cube tray can be used as a wet or dry food foraging toy for beginners. (Photo: Fotolia)

Keep Puzzle Feeders Clean

Even though your cat may get every morsel out of the puzzle feeders, it’s important to wash them after each use. Puzzle feeders can have little bits of food stuck in corners which can lead to contamination. There will also be saliva on the toy that needs to be washed off. Residue or odor of old food may also make the toy unappealing.

Create a Safe Environment When Introducing the Puzzle Feeder

Mealtime, whether it’s by way of a puzzle feeder or a traditional food bowl, should always be a safe and peaceful time for your cat. When you offer the puzzle feeder, make sure it’s in an area where your cat won’t be at risk of an ambush by other companion animals.

In a household with a dog, offer the puzzle feeder in a location where the dog won’t have access. In addition to the stress this could cause the cat, you don’t want a dog eating cat food, and even worse, chewing or swallowing pieces of a puzzle feeder.

Need Some Puzzle Feeders ideas?

There are many types of puzzle feeders for purchase (just Google it and you’ll see how popular they’ve become). You can also make homemade ones that cost next to nothing. Egg cartons, ice cube trays, muffin tins, PVC elbows, water bottles,  and even the cardboard centers from paper towel rolls will work. Be creative and you’ll find one or more that your cat will love. Anything that encourages your cat’s natural foraging instinct will work. Just make sure it’s safe and fun! Even if you just divide up your cat’s meal portion, place a little in several small dishes and then scatter the dishes around your cat’s area. This will at least encourage your cat to forage on the most basic level.

cardboard toilet paper inserts

Attach several cardboard tubes together and place pieces of food or treats inside. You can leave both ends of the tubes open for beginners but as your cat gets more proficient, cover one end of the tubes so your kitty has to work a bit harder. You can even attach the tubes to a base and stand them up vertically. Make some tubes shorter than others. Be creative! (Photo: Fotolia)

Note of caution: Although you can turn many items that are around your house into puzzle feeders, don’t use pill bottles. Plastic pill bottles seem like a natural but I don’t advise this. Your cat may mistake an actual prescription bottle of pills for her puzzle feeder. This is a mixed message you don’t want to send. Stick to safe items.

Need More Information?

For more on puzzle feeders, here is a related article:

Why Does My Cat Need a Puzzle Feeder

For more information on cat behavior and training, refer to the books by best-selling author, Pam Johnson-Bennett, including the latest release, CatWise. Pam’s books are available through your favorite online book retailers, at bookstores everywhere and on our website.

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