By Ann Wesley

Putting a bowl of food out for Karen Ellis’s cats Lucky and Frances was akin to setting up an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Frances would see how fast she could eat the day’s allotment, regardless of whether she was even hungry. So in December, the Bloomington resident turned to a food puzzle to make her cats work a little for their meals.

 In their puzzle, food or treats are dumped into a tower with holes on the side and multiple levels.  The cats have to reach in and push the pieces of food down each level until it reaches the open tray at the bottom. Other puzzles require pets to pull treats from cups, roll balls and even slide puzzle pieces and remove them to find the hidden treasure inside.

 “Frances loves her food a little too much,” Ellis said. “She eats fast and she will eat a lot if she is bored. When I introduced the maze, Frances ‘got it’ within eight hours, swiping a paw to get kibble to fall to the bowl at the base. The maze has helped cut down on her intake, but most importantly it keeps her from zoning out and eating so much in one sitting as to make herself sick! Lucky took a little longer to work the maze, and he is certainly more delicate with it, sometimes reaching a paw into one of the holes just to get one kibble.”

 Dr. Jhondra Funk-Keenan from Bloomington Veterinary Hospital recommends the toys as a way to engage the pet’s hunting instinct and as a weight control source.

 “It's a good way to better regulate the amount of food certain animals eat.  For example, obese-prone cats may benefit from this style of feeding to consume their food more slowly over a day as opposed to free choice or meal feeding,” she said. “I think as long as owner's are aware of their pet's downfalls (such as the dog that may try to chew and consume part of the toy leading to a possible foreign body), they are a great way to engage your pet's brain while providing for their physical need for food. “

 For Anne Sterling food puzzles are a way to distribute treats while allowing dogs Elka and Plum to be mentally stimulated and to provide variety in their days. Because Elka has severe arthritis, she sometimes has to miss daily walks, so the puzzle gives her something fun to do.

 “It’s fascinating to watch them both figure out the puzzles, especially in the beginning when they’re exposed to a new one. Each dog has a different approach to problem solving and it’s so interesting to watch as they try to figure out how to get to the treat locked in the puzzle. They also clearly learn from watching each other: Elka always goes first and as she’s doing the puzzle, Plum sits and watches intently,” Sterling said.

 “I encourage everyone to give their dogs multiple outlets for energy, including plenty of physical and mental stimulation,” said Madalyn McKenney Moorman, dog trainer and owner of Mad4MyDog Training. “The puzzles and stuffable toys are wonderful to give the dog something to do independently while using their brains. They are incredible tools to have to just keep them busy.”

 When Pam Roberts learned that the toys could improve a pet’s environment and says she was immediately hooked and her cats, Bailey and Balu have several.  

“Bailey has figured out how to look under the ball for a treat in the tube.  Balu loves food and responds well to the tougher puzzles where he really has to work at it.  He does get frustrated at times. I'd love to see more items out there.  If they could truly simulate a locust my cats would go nuts and increase their activity as well,” Roberts said.  

Puzzles provide mental stimulation, food control

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Balu

Plum

Frances

Frances

Bailey

Elka and Plum