I won’t lie — when I look at my chubby, lazy, sweet (usually), gentle (for the most part), cuddly, friendly, utterly spoiled kitties napping on the couch in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes I feel sorry for them. Sure, they’re comfortable, safe, and have everything they need — but are they really living their best lives?
Cats are basically the perfect predators, after all, equipped with padded feet, retractable claws, fangs, and super-powered senses that allow them to see in the dark, hear what’s going on next door, and smell their enemies coming. All of these physical attributes align to make them finely tuned killing machines.
Meanwhile, in the domesticated world I’ve forced upon them, I insist they don’t attack the houseplants, stay off the kitchen counters, and — worst of all — cuddle with me many, many times each day. No wonder they’re a little crazy.
Perhaps that’s why it felt so serendipitous when I kept encountering articles about puzzle feeders. A puzzle feeder will provide mental stimulation for your cat, one article promised. It will trigger your cat’s natural instinct as a hunter, utilize her curiosity, and help keep her physically fit. Guiltily, I realized this might as well have been a bullet-pointed list of the things my cats were lacking.
Quite simply, a puzzle feeder is a type of toy that dispenses food. Your cat must figure out how to roll, tap, or push the toy to get the food out, which can have a number of benefits. A big one, of course, is that this type of feeding arrangement encourages cats to eat slowly, cutting down on vomiting due to overeating. It can also encourage your cat to exercise, reward her for play, and help her lose weight.
For me, perhaps the most significant benefit is that a puzzle feeder can distract my cat from darting around the house like a maniac and destroying all of my stuff. For me, the past year has been a crash course in just how intense one cat can be. Since my boyfriend and I adopted Salvador, also known as Salvy, we’ve discovered that having a kitten is kind of like setting off a bottle rocket inside your living room each morning and just kind of hoping for the best. Anything that might stop Salvy from climbing the television, licking the dirty dishes, and attacking the other cats is always worth trying.
I figured Salvy would be an ideal candidate to receive his very own puzzle feeder, so the next step was doing a little research. While many companies make puzzle feeders that are available in pet stores and online, I hesitate to spend much money on cat toys. Let’s just say that most toys I’ve purchased have ended up either abandoned under the couch or gathering dust in storage, while my cats gleefully bat around discarded twist ties and empty boxes.
It turns out making your own puzzle feeder is extremely simple and can likely be done using stuff you’ve already got lying around the house. I made the “wheel” model, via Purina ONE:
Even simpler: Cut holes in the sides of a plastic water bottle, and fill that sucker with treats. Purina also suggests using a plastic Easter egg or creating a “mouse” out of cardboard.
I timed how long Salvy played with his puzzle feeder, starting at 6:29 p.m. and ending at 6:37 p.m., at which time he took a little break. He came back to the puzzle feeder at 7:17 p.m. after pausing to attack my other cat, Phoenix. My third cat, 15-year-old Bubba Lee Kinsey, sat nearby and watched while Salvy did the dirty work (that is, treat extraction). Several times, Salvy walked away from the puzzle feeder, only to return moments later. I’ve seen him focus on something this intently only that time a live cricket got in our house.
A couple of tips: Make sure the holes in the container are large and plentiful enough to allow your cats to get a treat every now and then, or they’ll get frustrated and give up. Also, make sure you put their regular food dish away, or they’re likely to ignore the puzzle feeder and go directly for their path-of-least-resistance feeder.
In the great annals of Things I’ve Attempted to Use to Entertain My Cats, I’m calling the puzzle feeder a success. It might not be very pretty to look at, but I think I will incorporate it into Salvy’s regular evening routine, which includes begging for bites of our dinner, stalking Phoenix, and sleeping on the curio cabinet. Admittedly, Salvy eventually gave up on the puzzle feeder and took a nap — but he didn’t climb the television once.