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How to Make Your Cat’s Meals More Exciting Experiences

Adding activities that mimic hunting can provide mental and physical stimulation indoor cats need.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Aug 21st 2015


Meal times are fairly boring for most indoor cats. Typically, bowls are filled with dry or canned food and then placed on floors or counters. Food is often available all day long — cats nibble whenever they’re in the mood for snacking. Although they live longer and are safer, many indoor cats are lethargic and overweight.

Fat-cat-on-couch-shutterstock_144403258

Fat cat on couch by Shutterstock

Feral cats do not have food readily available. They work for their meals. Hunting is exciting — full of novelty, movement, and an abundance of stimuli. Additionally, Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released into the system when cats start seeking prey. It stops firing once they’ve caught their meals.

Stalking-prey-shutterstock_143070151

Cat stalking prey by Shutterstock

The majority of cats do well living exclusively indoors. Even though they don’t need to hunt live prey or have outside time, they do need mental and physical stimulation. Their meals need to be converted from the mundane into exciting activities that mimic hunting.

Cats have a hunting sequence

Cats, who hunt for a living, must first find their prey before they can catch it. All senses are employed for the task. Acute hearing detects high pitch and faint noises such as chirps, squeaks and scratching, the typical sounds prey make. Equipped with 32 muscles, ears are engineered perfectly to hear the subtle noises. They move independently of each other, efficiently honing in on potential meals. After the sounds capture the predators’ attention, they visually scan the area for movement. Eyes detect the slightest stirrings from long distances. Scent plays an important role too. Felines will follow the subtle scent trails of mice and other rodents back to their burrows.

Curiosity is an important component of the hunt as well. Cats love to check out tunnels, burrows, and other enclosed areas that might harbor prey.

Kitties know all about delayed gratification. After locating prey, they don’t immediately chase and pounce. Instead, they stealthily stalk and quietly wait for the animal to move away from the safety of its burrow. After it has moved to an area that will increase the odds for a successful hunt, the cat pounces and catches it.

Hunting is dangerous for cats

Although stimulating, hunting can be dangerous. Prey, not wanting to be eaten, will fight back, sometimes biting and scratching their captors. Sadly, many cats also die after they catch and consume poisoned animals. In addition to the occupational hazards of hunting, the outdoors has many other risks as well.

Hunting can be dangerous

Hunting expedition by Shutterstock

Hunt for food — indoor style

Cats live longer and have safer lives indoors — but without the excitement and the dangers of hunting. By adjusting routines and using a variety of feeding systems, cat parents can reduce boredom and add excitement and stimulation to their cat’s lives.

A novel feeding system was recently designed and built by Ben Millam for his cat, Monkey. Recognizing that his kitty was bored with the standard meal regime, he built him a feeding machine.

Ben’s machine converted Monkey’s sedentary meals into exciting activities. In order to eat, the cat searches for wiffle balls Ben strategically places around his home. Some are in boxes, while others are on shelves or in toys. After finding one, Monkey picks it up in his mouth, carries it to the machine and drops it in the top. The descending ball activates a mechanism and a small amount of dry food is dispensed for Monkey to eat.

The system has benefits and drawbacks

Meals aren’t boring. Instead of routinely wandering over to a food bowl and grazing, Monkey has to think, seek out, locate, and catch objects — following, to some extent, the hunting sequence. Because of Ben’s machine, eating is exciting and stimulating.

Benjamin Millam’s feline feeding machine.

Benjamin Millam’s feline feeding machine by Ben Millam

Building the feeding machine was the first step — training Monkey how to interact with it was next. Ben trained him through clicker training, an effective and force-free training technique. Clicker training reinforces desired behaviors while building and strengthening bonds between people and their cats. It is also mentally stimulating. An added benefit is that students and teachers enjoy the process. The downside is that it takes time to clicker train cats.

Cats need to be clicker trained in order to use The Feeding Machine.

Cats need to be clicker trained in order to use The Feeding Machine. Photos by by Vicky Walker

Unfortunately, most people probably won’t train their cats to use the feline feeding machine. Although Ben’s invention is wonderful, there are other feeding solutions that are easier to use.

Alternatives to mimic the indoor hunt

The following feeding strategies are also effective, especially when they’re rotated, adding novelty and stimulation.

  • Treasure hunts
    Treasure hunts encourage cats to search, locate, catch and eat — mimicking the hunt, but without live prey. Place food and treats on cat condos, on shelves, and in cat toys. Also, encourage your kitties to use their paws for scooping by hiding food in containers with narrow openings. The games starts simple, becoming more challenging as the little hunter becomes more adept at finding her food.
  • Play before meals
    Play hunting games with your cat that involve stalking and pouncing. Use a pole toy with a dangling object on the end and drag it away from her. Imitate the movements of prey, rigging it so the cat periodically catches the toy. Immediately after the final catch of the session, feed her a substantial meal.

    Playing then feeding your cat can mimic the hunt

    Playing then feeding your cat can mimic the hunt. Cat with a toy by Shutterstock

  • Strategy and puzzle toys
    You can buy or easily create toys that make meals stimulating and exciting. Some have parts the cat has to spin or slide before she can eat. Others are designed to be batted around so that kibble falls out of holes. Variations are also available for canned food that encourage cats to scoop the food with their paws.

    Puzzle toys make meals more challenging for cats.

    Puzzle toys make meals more challenging for cats. Photo by by Marilyn Krieger

Keep in mind when playing food games and mimicking the hunting sequence that the goal is to stimulate, not frustrate your cat. Although the meal time activities should be somewhat challenging, the cat always wins the prize — her meals.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. 

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.  She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.