The Finicky Cat: Go Ahead, Kitty, Play with Your Food


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

Food offers a great opportunity to tap the hunter prowling inside your indoor cat — especially if you live with a feline foodie who is also quite curious. You can also avoid getting into this mealtime feeding rut: Measure out your cat’s food, scoop it into a stainless steel bowl, and place the bowl on the kitchen floor for him to eat.

Your indoor cat needs and deserves to be mentally and physically challenged every day, so go bowl-less on occasion. Instead, make your cat work for his meal or treat by placing the food inside a food puzzle made for cats.

Cat explores a treat dispenser. (Photo by Gina Cioli/i-5 Studio)
Cat explores a treat dispenser. Photo by Gina Cioli/i-5 Studio


I’ve learned the many benefits of food puzzles from leading feline experts, such as Dr. C.A. Tony Buffington, who holds separate veterinary and doctorate degrees, who is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and who’s an emeritus professor of veterinary clinical sciences at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Encourage your cat to hunt for his food on occasion by using food puzzles,” Buffington said. “Food puzzles stimulate a cat’s brain as well as improve musculoskeletal function.”

When you do so, your cat is also less apt to misbehave because you are channeling his thoughts and actions into a positive outlet. Trust me. I live with Casey, an orange tabby who loves to eat, and he puts the “C” in curious.

To keep Casey at a healthy weight and to enhance meals and treat times, I have trained him to come when called, sit on cue, and give me a soft paw touch to my hand before I put down his bowl, before I hand him a treat, and before I put down a food puzzle toy filled with healthy treats.

Some days I swear he is training me. I stashed his favorite treat puzzle — the Wobbert by Friskies — inside the top drawer in my nightstand. Every time I open this drawer, Casey zooms into my bedroom, leaps up on the nightstand, and begins pointing out the food puzzle to me with his paw.

And to see whether he really is a 21st-century-thinking cat, I tested him using the high-tech Petzi Treat Cam. I load up his treats inside the white container and, using my smartphone or iPad, I can activate the treat cam, call to Casey, and watch him scurry over as I dispense treats remotely.

For more insights on the array of feline food puzzles from high-tech to no-tech, I reached out to a person who tests a lot of pet products: Stacy Mantle, founder of

How can people make smart shopping decisions on food puzzles?

Remember that all cats have individual personalities, and making an effort to understand your cat’s personal preferences will go a long way toward fostering that human-cat connection. We have several cats, and each of them has a different approach to food and playtime.

A few of our semi-feral cats become stressed when faced with a new toy. If we attempt to introduce new toys at feeding time, they just refuse to eat. So we have to make changes gradually and introduce new stimuli slowly.

I recommend that people experiment with new toys outside of mealtime first. Presenting new toys alone, or with treats (rather than food), is a good way to see what types of toys cats prefer. Some like to hunt their food; others prefer to not be bothered while eating.

What’s your take on food puzzle toys for cats?

People still are growing accustomed to the idea of food puzzle toys. I do think they are growing in popularity, but it’s a slower growth than, say, dog puzzle toys.

Cat parents need to remember that our feline friends are hunters by nature. Puzzle toys can be wonderful for indoor cats, as they help stimulate instinctual behavior, and this makes for a much happier cat. They can also help decrease obesity because cats aren’t just standing at a bowl; instead they are “hunting” their food in an active manner (as nature intended).

I’ve tested the high-tech Petzi Treat Cam on Casey. What’s your view of this new puzzle toy?

I’m familiar with the Petzi Treat Cam, and I think that’s a very fun way of interacting with your cat when you’re away from home. It’s just important to remember that not all cats will come running for a treat, so don’t be disappointed if you aren’t getting the response you want. Some cats do better than others with that type of stimuli.

Which feline food puzzle do you like best and why?

My favorite interactive puzzle toy is the Aikiou Stimulo Interactive Feeder. It’s a fun way of helping cats puzzle out access to their regular kibble. It can also help cats eat slower, and for those who are obese, this might be a good start.

However, use caution, as the opposite also can happen. We have to switch our Aikiou out often, as one of our cats started picking up more weight after she sat and played with her food for hours at a time.

Most cats would rather hunt or stalk their food, so any tool that engages this primal instinct and helps them stay active while eating is a great option.

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