Feline Foraging Toys: How to Implement, Motivate, and Stage the Difficulty Level
Having cats work for their food, just as they would if they were living outdoors is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked forms of environmental enrichment for indoor cats. The amount of time adult cats spend hunting varies based on sex, age, activity level, and nutritional needs but is, on average, about 30 percent of their day. Providing them with a bowl full of carbs, as most of us do, or feeding them just twice a day to keep them trim, is frustrating for our cats and often results in behavior problems. I truly feel that foraging is the solution.
As a whole, America’s cats are fat! Is that the price they have to pay for being kept safely indoors? Do they really have to choose between living in indoor environments, where they stare out the window for 20 years and watch the world go by, and being outside where they face communicable diseases, parasites, cat fights, wild animal attacks, deadly cars, and people with pellet guns? That hardly seems fair, does it? The cat is one of the stealthiest predators on this planet, but some humans think that looking out the same window every day is enough enrichment for them.
Boredom, frustration, and environmental stress are some of the most common reasons for cats’ behavior problems. It makes sense if you think about it: Cats are super smart, and the smart kids in school are often the ones getting in trouble or daydreaming because the classwork is boring and too easy. Cats are the same way. Sure, a few are content to hold down the sofa, but most need stimulation—and a lot of it!
Dietary needs and eating style
Before we start offering foraging toys, we should gain a better understanding of what and how cats eat. They are obligate carnivores, which means their bodies have zero requirements for carbohydrates. Cats naturally nibble and pick, eating nine to 16 small, evenly sized meals throughout the day. In fact, meal-fed cats tend to be more aggressive and less cooperative than cats fed by free choice (Beaver 2003).
Cats are not family-style eaters. They are a social species that lives in groups, but they hunt and eat alone. Unlike the big cats, our domestic cats’ prey is small and not suitable for sharing. Cats also prefer—and take great comfort in—controlling their resources and basic needs. When you take control away, you create stress. Free access to food, water, litter, and safe resting places are key to their wellbeing and mental health. So let them eat… but make them work for it! That is where foraging toys come into play.
The first step in introducing this feeding protocol is to implement canned food meals if you have not already. If you already offer canned food, increase the volume so that your cats are essentially free-feeding on canned food the way have they grazed on dry food in the past. Put out breakfast and leave it there until dinner. Put out dinner and leave it out until bedtime. Alternatively, offer breakfast, dinner, and a before-bed snack, which is a great way to help a kitty who has the “midnight crazies” sleep until morning! The point is to let them graze on canned food.
At first, some cats will eat ravenously, which is often followed by vomiting. Your cats have no idea that you are changing the feeding protocol, so their instinct will be to scarf down as much canned food as they can, not realizing that it will be there tomorrow and the next day. Once the novelty of the increased volume of canned food wears off, they will fall back into their natural grazing pattern and you will find leftover food in the bowls. How long this will take will vary from cat to cat; it could take a few days or even a few weeks, at which point you may even end up throwing some canned food away.
Even if your cats are accustomed to lining up in a row in the kitchen to eat, that kind of feeding can create a lot of unnecessary stress and competition. Cats are the most three-dimensionally oriented of all the domesticated animals we share our homes with. The only one in the house who thinks the kitchen is the only room for food is you, the human. Keep one bowl there for the cat who may prefer it, but also place bowls in other areas your cat frequents—perhaps up high, away from the dogs’ reach. (If you have a Jack Russell, I am sorry, because they can get pretty much anywhere cats can!) Eventually, you will start to notice the cats eating in the locations where they feel most comfortable and safe. Some great alternative feeding station locations include on top of their cat condo, on the bathroom vanity, or on the home office desk—basically anywhere you feel comfortable having the canned food that coincides with places your cat likes to be.
Motivating cats to forage
Your cat’s first foraging toy should be easy! They need to learn the game and be rewarded for the behavior. Start with objects that are clear so they can see, smell, and hear the kibble rattling around inside of the toy. I suggest round toys for beginners because they roll easily and are less frustrating. The object should have multiple holes where the kibble can dispense; three-holed objects are sufficient for almost all beginners. Some cats who have been strictly meal-fed may take to foraging so quickly that they can almost immediately transition to one- or two-holed objects.
There is little motivation to work for what has been readily available in a bowl for years. Many people make the mistake of putting the same ol’ boring food from the dish into the foraging toys. They call me and say, “My cat is too dumb to forage.” My reply? “Your cat is too smart to spend their time working for what has been readily available to them for years!” If you ordered lobster at a restaurant and were served one that had been shelled and one you had to shell yourself, which would you eat? Cats are smart enough to make the same distinction. I propose that you put a unique food in the toy to spark some interest. That way, they think they are foraging for treats, even though it is just a different type of food!
We need to mimic the flesh, feathers, and bone that our cats would crunch through when eating natural prey. Did you know that the crunching sensation actually increases serotonin levels in the brain, creating a “feel good” sensation for the cat (Overall 2003)3 If we are going to minimize cats’ ability to crunch by limiting their access to dry food, I recommend we maximize their dental benefit by using dental diets such as Science Diet Oral Care or Hill’s prescription t/d. Royal Canin makes both prescription and non-prescription dental diets and Purina offers a version called DH. Dental foods are always my first choice; if they are not accepted by the cat, we move on from there. These diets are ideal for young, healthy cats with no special medical needs. As you introduce foraging, you can easily incorporate these foods because you will want to put something unique in the toy that is also good for them, rather than just filling the toy with treats.
As long as your cats are eating canned food readily, remove the bowl of dry food and only make the dry available in toys. Remember, cats do not need carbs, so as long as they are eating and enjoying ample amounts of canned food, they do not need to forage.
If putting a unique food in the toy is not enough to interest your cats, mix in some Greenies dental treats, Purebites freeze-dried chicken treats, or something you know is of high value, so that treasure comes out every once in a while. These types of special offerings are also good to use when introducing a new, more difficult toy to cats. They are less likely to get frustrated and walk away if you provide extra motivation. When you first put the toys down, sprinkle some kibble around them so the cat will approach the toy, eat the few pieces sprinkled about, and then hopefully start to push the object with their nose or paws for more. If they are still not getting it, sprinkle handfuls of food in some of their favorite napping and perching areas so that they can discover kibble throughout the day. Hopefully then, if they have a craving, they will one day approach the foraging toy and bat it around for more.
Some cats do well to have the puzzle placed in their normal feeding area. For others, putting it in a new and interesting location seems to spark more interest. Try both! The ultimate goal is to scatter the puzzles throughout the home, especially in a multi-cat household, but initially you may need to try different tactics to encourage use.
It is never appropriate to starve your cat into eating a new food or to say, “Well, if they are hungry enough, they’ll eat it.” That kind of mentality is a great way to cause liver problems. Fatty liver disease is very common in cats and can happen in as little as three days without food. Despite all of the wonderful reasons your cats should be eating canned food and foraging for dry, it is imperative that they eat every day! Cats are excellent hunters and, when outdoors, would generally not go nearly as long without a meal as a dog would. Be sure to place foraging toys in multiple areas of your home, as they are your new feeding stations.
Staging the difficulty level
Once your cats get the hang of foraging toys, gradually begin increasing the challenge. Decrease the number of openings in the object, so it becomes increasingly difficult to dispense food. Start offering objects that do not roll as predictably as a ball or objects that are opaque so that your cats have to be motivated by scent and previous learned experiences. Larger objects present yet another challenge: weight. If a foraging toy is large and full, it can be heavy to push, which can be tough for some kitties. Larger toys are great for multi-cat households.
I also recommend combining toys. Take a smaller object that the cat has mastered and place it inside another object so they have to double manipulate it to achieve the reward. Yes, they really can get that good at foraging!
In addition to what I call solo or rolling foraging toys, there are also stationary foraging toys. With these, cats have to use their paws to reach into the object and extract the kibble rather than rolling a loose object with their paws or muzzles. For many cats, these serve as great beginner toys and help them learn the concept of foraging if they are not catching on with rolling puzzles. You can easily make a version of these toys yourself at home utilizing an old shoebox. Simply use a box cutter to cut holes in the top and sides of the box. These should be about the same size as the toys so they could pull them through if they wanted. Fill the box with toys and food. Be sure to tape the lid on to secure it! Cats are smart enough to flip off the lid and eat from the box like a trough.
Cats using different stationary foraging toys
The following is a list of great stationary foraging toys and their manufacturers. Each link will take you to a video on the Fundamentally Feline or Food Puzzles for Cats website, showing the toy being used, often with some tips on how you can get the most out of it:
- The Catch by Northmate
- The Green by Northmate (the larger doggy version of The Catch)
- The Peek-a-Prize or Peek-and-Play Box by SmartCat
- The Dog Tornado by Nina Ottoson of Sweden
- The Fishbowl by Petsafe
- The Turnaround or “Mad Scientist” by Trixie Pet
- The 5 in 1 Activity Board by Trixie Pet
- The Fantasy Board by Trixie Pet
- The Tunnel Feeder by Trixie Pet (among others, this company makes many!)
- The Food Maze by Catit
Even the cardboard scratchers with a track around the perimeter or the more advanced Play Circuits with a ball in the track by Catit can be spiced up by converting them into stationary foraging toys. Many cats lose interest in a ball that just goes around and around, so adding food to these toys can rejuvenate interest.
You can even get a foraging piñata! The Doorway Dangli is a commercially available foraging toy that hangs from a doorway so that cats can bat at it like a piñata. It can be adjusted to accommodate various kibble sizes and to dangle at different heights. You can make your own by drilling a hole in any plastic container with a lid, running a string through it, and cutting holes along the bottom.
Another fun idea is to put some dry food inside a brown paper lunch bag, softly twist it closed, and either leave it for your cat to tear open or hide it so they have to go looking for the toy. In fact, all of these toys can either be left out in the open or hidden to increase the challenge even further! For cats who are really slow learners or are just not grasping the idea of foraging, the following ideas can help them get started by making foraging ridiculously easy:
- Put dry food and treats in an old muffin tin and simply allow the cat to scoop the kibble out with their paw. Some cats may choose to eat out of the small reservoir, but most will choose to scoop the food out to avoid “whisker stress.” Cats prefer whisker-wide bowls and typically do not like to put their muzzles into small spaces. Huge muffin tin trays with 18 to 24 openings can be fun, as the center wells are more difficult to reach, and scooping out the food results in it landing in yet another muffin well. To increase the challenge, place a toy in each well, or cover wells with an old yogurt lid so your cat must move the lid and/or toy to access the dry food.
- Similar to muffin tins, ice cube trays and egg cartons can also provide another very easy, stationary foraging toy.
- To motivate cats to use rolling puzzles, sometimes it is best to leave the toy apart or “open.” This allows them to interact with the object and have positive experiences with it, but not necessarily roll it to get food to dispense from a hole. For example, a foraging cup with a removable lid can be laid on its side with the lid off and the food spilling out, or a foraging egg can be left in two halves. These situations allow the cat to just reach in with a paw to get food. Once that is going well, the lid can be added or the toy can be closed, with food sprinkled around it. The cat will usually start to push it for more. Many rolling food puzzles can be left “open” to encourage easy exploration in the early stages.
Once they have mastered these, they can graduate to objects like the Catch or Peek-A-Prize.
Cube-shaped objects are one of the most difficult shapes to manipulate. I put these in the “kitty Einstein” category. Start by offering clear cubes; remember, this allows cats to see the kibble as well as use scent and sound. Introduce cube-shaped toys on carpet or area rugs where the pile allows them to more easily learn to flip the object. On hardwood floors, they tend to just push the toy around and become frustrated. Eventually, they will be able to use the cube on all surfaces. Opaque cubes are the next level of challenge. I recommend the small-dog size of The Buster Cube, a commercially available canine foraging toy.
Cats using a variety of different home-made and commercially available rolling puzzles, including the Buster Cube.
The ultimate goal is to use the most difficult toy that your cat can learn. Do not have unrealistic expectations or be disappointed. We are all good at different things, and cats are the same. Almost every cat can learn to use food puzzles. Speaking from personal experience, I have had three-legged cats, blind cats, geriatric cats, and cats with hind-end paralysis who have learned how to forage. Do not underestimate your cats!
Setting yourself (and your clients) up for success
So, how do humans comply with feeding cats this way? Let’s be honest: If you have to fill Easter eggs every day, you are not going to continue this feeding protocol for the next 20 years of your cat’s life! It’s just not going to happen. I suggest that you acquire lots of foraging toys. Remember, this is not just a feeding protocol but also environmental enrichment. Your cat needs different puzzles. You wouldn’t want to do the same crossword puzzle every day, would you?
Next, create a bin for empties and an airtight Tupperware container for full toys. Sit down one night a week and fill all of the toys all at once, storing them in the container to maintain freshness. This way, you can grab a few toys, throw them on the floor, and head off to work. Boom! Your cats are fed! Be sure to wash the toys periodically just as you would a food bowl.
Some clients are reluctant to accept the introduction of food puzzles, but there are ways to address these concerns. Many of these are explained in this paper from Dantas et. al (2016); I’ve summarized them here.
If clients are resistant to the idea of crumbs or potential mess, I first explain that the mess is generally minimal because one piece of food is usually obtained at a time and then immediately eaten. These clients may prefer stationary puzzles so that any mess is contained to specific areas. Rolling puzzles can be placed in large, under-the-bed storage containers to contain crumbs. This does make the whole concept a lot easier for the cat though, and if weight loss is a goal, it’s not ideal because it limits activity while foraging. There are pros and cons to these different solutions. I would also say that sweeping up a few crumbs is a small price to pay for a more enriching feeding protocol that benefits your cat’s physical and emotional wellbeing!
If finances are a concern for clients, I suggest the many homemade toy ideas. All you need is a yogurt cup, water bottle, or shoebox to get started.
Homemade cardboard and plastic toys
If the client is resistant to feeding dry food, or the cat does not like dry food, there are still a few ideas that can work:
- An old coffee mug can be laid on its side and filled with canned food. Put it on a placemat or newspaper and allow the cat to scoop out food with a paw and lick it off. This can be a little messy, so some sort of placemat is a must!
- A muffin tin with yogurt lids covering the wells can work quite nicely for canned food, but again, whisker stress must be considered. Some cats will not put their muzzles in such small openings.
- Some of the Trixie Pet stationary boards mentioned above have a component called the “tongue module.” These are specifically designed to hold canned food. Cats have to lick out the reservoirs, mimicking how their jaw muscles would work when removing flesh from the bones of their prey.
- The Nina Ottoson Dog Brick toy (and others like it) can also be a canned food foraging toy. The cat simply slides a piece of the puzzle aside to uncover a reservoir containing canned food, licks it out, and moves on to the next reservoir.
- Another idea that works well for voracious overeaters is to smash canned food into the edges of a lightweight Tupperware container and place it on a hard floor so that the container moves with each lick. This technique makes it much more difficult to acquire the canned food and really slows them down!
The other key component to implementation is to have these toys available in your practice. Putting them in your clients’ hands during is an important part of achieving compliance. You can match the appropriate toy with the appropriate kibble size and help select toys of the correct challenge level. If you allow clients to leave empty-handed, many will never implement the recommendation or will be unable to find these toys at their local pet stores, as they are still not common enough. In my experience, if left to their own devices, clients typically pick a toy that is way too challenging for their cat, which prevents the cat from learning the desired behavior. With the help of a colleague, I have created an online resource called foodpuzzlesforcats.com, so please direct your clients and staff there for education and resources. If most of this information is not new to you and you or your clients have been using foraging toys for years, Fundamentally Feline has this resource for the experienced forager!
Creating an expert level foraging puzzle for experienced cats
Foraging toys offer an oft-overlooked form of environmental enrichment by providing an outlet for your cats to hunt and problem solve. These toys create enrichment by providing “positive frustration,”6 meaning that once the cat solves the puzzle or figures out the game, they are rewarded for their accomplishment. Foraging gives them something to do all day and allows for free feeding, which can be very helpful in a home with cats who are being meal fed, a practice that can cause fighting or aggression due to increased competition and lack of environmental control. Foraging allows them to eat when and where they choose and creates much less stress by eliminating “meal time.” Foraging can also be a great diet plan for overweight cats.
Please join my crusade to get all the cats of the world foraging for their food!
- Beaver BVG. Feline behavior: A guide for veterinarians. 2nd ed. St. Louis: Saunders Co; 2003:219-21.
- Overall KL. Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for dogs and cats. St Louis: Elsevier;2013:226.
- Dantas LM, Delgado MM, Johnson I, Buffington CT. Food puzzles for cats: Feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. July 2016.
- Neville PF. An ethical viewpoint: the role of veterinarians and behaviourists in ensuring good husbandry for cats. Paper presented at: American Association of Feline Practitioners; 2002; Tempe, Arizona.
Ingrid Johnson is a CCBC offering both in home and phone consultations to clients experiencing behavior challenges with their cat(s). Environmental enrichment is her passion within the realm of feline behavior. Ingrid truly feels that foraging is one of the single best forms of enrichment for cats as it provides mental and physical stimulation, mimics the hunt and hones problem solving skills. Check out FundamentallyFeline.com for more info or follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube.