Ask Ms. Kitty: Puzzle feeders of love
By Melissa Shandley
Dear Ms. Kitty,
I have a 4-year-old male cat who is overweight. My vet recommends I put him on a diet. He currently eats dry kibble whenever he wants.
My concern is that restricting his meals will increase his bad behavior. He already scratches my couch, gets on the counter and knocks things off shelves. He knows I don’t like that but he seems to do it when I am on the phone or doing something important. I want to do the right thing for my cat, but I also must live with him.
Dear Tough Love,
It sounds like you have an active cat who needs an outlet for his energy. All cats are hunters and if he doesn’t get enough opportunities to exercise those skills, they can turn into behaviors you do not want and pounds he doesn’t need.
Fat cats are not funny
Obesity in cats has many unwanted health risks such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and many forms of cancer. It is estimated that 60 percent of U.S. cats are overweight, so you are not alone.
Cats 2 pounds above their ideal weight are at risk for health problems. Work with your vet to figure out what they should weigh and develop a safe plan for reducing their weight.
No free lunch
Cats’ natural eating routine involves multiple small meals throughout the day. Typically, they would get physical and mental stimulation by stalking and catching their food.
The bowl of kibble that you leave out all day is a boring substitute. Cats will often overeat because they are bored.
Interactive feeders can address both their weight and unwanted behaviors, and they can be lots of fun for both you and your cat!
Behaviors that get rewarded will increase
Cats may know that they will get your attention when they do the behaviors you described. Even negative attention, like a scolding, is still attention. If your cats are busy with activities that satisfy their natural instincts, they will be calmer and not so insistent on getting your attention. Try not to accidentally reward things you don’t want them to do.
How to feed a cat
There are other ways to love your cats beside overfeeding them. To help your cats reduce both their weight and these behaviors, provide food in ways that require them to interact to get it.
You can purchase many devices to do this, or you can make them yourself. These interactive or puzzle feeders can be very satisfying since cats get rewarded for “hunting” their food. It also slows down the eating process and allows them to feel satisfied with smaller portions.
A wide variety of feeders will keep your cats interested and challenged. Try distributing some of their kibble around the house so they can enjoy foraging on the window sill, cat tree, behind the couch, under the bed, etc. This can keep them engaged in natural activities when you are away or busy.
Puzzle feeders are fun
Puzzle feeders can be stationary objects with openings the cat has to reach into to paw out the food, like a box with small openings. They can be also be movable so the cat can roll the object to get food dispensed, like a tube or ball with holes.
Some cats will immediately take to this fun activity and you can quickly increase the challenge by making openings smaller or putting one device inside another. You don’t want to frustrate your cat by making the initial puzzle feeders too difficult.
Watch your cats interact and assist them until they catch on to the game. Many of the interactive feeders you can buy can be adjusted to your cat’s ability level or to the size of the food you add.
Create a system for success
These interactive feeders can be lots of fun to make and to introduce to your cat. It is very entertaining to watch the feline mind work out the puzzle. I have seen cats ignore a bowl of kibble in favor of working a puzzle to get their food.
You may find that your cat already has several toys that can become puzzle feeders, including ice cube trays or egg cartons, cardboard tubes and plastic drink bottles. This website can give you lots of great ideas:
To save time, you can create several different puzzle feeders to store in a sealed plastic container. The feeders can quickly be loaded with food at the start of the week. Then you can put them out individually during the week to keep the hunting interesting for the cat and easy for you.
I hope you and your cat have fun with this method of food delivery! It can be another great way to show him you love him.
Melissa Shandley has a natural kinship with cats and is continually studying the latest research and training methods to set cats up for success. She approaches her interactions with respect and a sense of wonder for these creatures who are willing to share our lives. She has a passionate desire to understand cats and to share her knowledge to improve the lives of cats and cat guardians. Melissa is one of the founders of Happy Cats Haven, a Cat Behavior Consultant and Cat Care Provider.