Letting Your Cat Work for Food Makes Her Happier, Healthier

Work it Kitty! Experts say food puzzles improve the well-being of indoor cats. Diana Lee Angstadt/Getty Images

Keeping your cat permanently indoors might be good for her safety and physical wellbeing, but not necessarily for her mental health. Ever seen your cat staring out the window intently or lying on the carpet looking bored? There's a good reason for that.

The closest wild ancestor to the domestic cat is the African wildcat. African wildcats are predators that hunt several times a day to procure small meals for themselves. When domestic cats are deprived of this basic instinct — to frequently hunt for their food — they can become ill or misbehave. The indoor housing of cats has been linked to problem behavior, such as aggression and health issues, such as obesity.


So what's responsible pet owner to do? A new report, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, says the answer to happy, healthy indoor cats may be as simple as a food puzzle.

A food puzzle is an object that can hold food and then release it when the cat interacts with it. It can be mobile or stationary. One of the more common mobile puzzles is a ball-type object with holes. After placing treats inside the ball, you give it to Fluffy. As she bats the ball around, little bits of food will drop out of the holes. A stationary version would be a structure with a sturdy base and cubbyholes for your feline friend to fish out her food.

Food puzzles were originally created for animals housed in zoos and labs. While few studies have been done on using food puzzles with pets, the report authors say that at least one study showed food puzzles reduced problem behaviors in dogs. In their own veterinary and behavioral practices, the authors write that they have observed many benefits using food puzzles with cats including "weight loss, decreased aggression toward humans and other cats ... cessation of attention-seeking behavior and resolution of litter box avoidance."

Here are two types of food puzzles you can easily create for your beloved pet.

Water Bottle Food Puzzle

Take an empty water bottle and cut numerous holes in the sides. The holes should be larger than the size of your cat's kibble or treats. Put treats inside via the bottle's opening, then place the cap back on. Voilà, you have created a food puzzle. Once your cat has mastered the puzzle, you can create more difficult versions by making the holes smaller and making fewer holes overall.

Muffin Tin Food Puzzle

If your pet prefers wet food, the simplest food puzzle you can create starts with a household muffin tin. All you need to do is fill each cup with a tiny amount of her food. Your cat will have to walk around the tin and investigate each cup to find all of the food, which provides stimulation.

One hint: Start by offering your pet easy puzzles, so your pet doesn't become frustrated, then gradually move up to more complex ones. And if Fluffy doesn't seem interested in any of the puzzles you offer, try placing tastier treats inside of them.