• NAVC Brands
May/June 2016, Nutrition

Feeding Puzzles for Dogs and Cats Help Boost Nutrition and Enrichment

Feeding puzzles offer a way for owners to provide enrichment for their pets, encourage mental stimulation, and decrease overeating.

Ann WortingerBIS, LVT, VTS (ECC, SAIM, Nutrition)

Ann is a 1983 graduate of Michigan State University and got her specialty certification in Emergency/ Critical Care in 2000, in Small Animal Internal Medicine in 2008 and in Nutrition in 2013. In 2017 she attained her Fear Free Level on certification, and has since moved into level 2.

She has worked in general, emergency, specialty practice, education and management. Ann is active in her state, national and specialty organizations, and served on the organizing committees for Internal Medicine and Nutrition. She has mentored over 20 fellow VTSs and has worked on a variety of committees and positions. She is currently an instructor and Academic Advisor for Ashworth College’s Veterinary Technology Program, as well as an active speaker and writer.

Ann has over 50 published articles in various professional magazines as well as book chapters and a book, Nutrition and Disease Management for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses in its second edition in 2016 coauthored with Kara Burns. Ann received the 2009 Service Award for her state association (MAVT), the 2010 Achievement Award for the Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT), and in 2012 received the Jack L. Mara Memorial Lecture Award presented at NAVC.

Her fur/feather/fin family consists of 4 cats, 2 domestic geese, 14 chickens and a pond full of goldfish.

Feeding Puzzles for Dogs and Cats Help Boost Nutrition and Enrichment
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Over the past few years, the indoor environment that we offer our pets has garnered increasing attention. While our current preventive health initiatives have greatly reduced the number of pets that die from preventable problems, we have not addressed our pets’ mental health to the same degree.

Battling Boredom

While we routinely leave our residences for work and socialization, we confine our pets (for their own safety) to our homes, often strictly to the indoor environment. This substantially limits the variety of stimuli, both mental and physical, available to them. When dogs and cats are confined indoors without adequate mental stimulation, trouble can ensue. Ensuring that they have housemates and toys can help, but many animals do not engage in play when humans are not around to share in it. Pets may express boredom in the form of aggression to housemates and owners, destruction of furniture and other household items, and anxiety-related issues.1


My cats have a selection of 4 puzzles. I put all their dry food in these puzzles twice daily. Canned food is provided in bowls because I mix specific medications for each cat into each portion, and using bowls allows me to ensure the right cat consumes at least some part of the right medication…before the inevitable bowl switch. Half of my puzzles are homemade, and half were bought off the clearance rack at the pet store. Each of my cats has her favorite puzzle, but when they’re hungry, they will check them all!

A note about food puzzle balls: Personally, I don’t use them because my cats would inevitably knock them under the furniture or in a corner, making it harder for me to find them at feeding time. I prefer my puzzles to be less mobile, or confined to a specific area for use.

A study done by Beth Strickler, DVM, DACVB, looked at owner engagement and 6 specific behavioral issues in cats.2 Strickler was able to demonstrate that the more involved owners were in engaging their cats daily, the fewer behavior-related issues they reported. Owner engagement primarily consisted of playing with the cats. Owners who played with their cat for 5 minutes each day reported fewer behavior problems than those who did not. The two most frequently reported behavior problems were aggression directed at the owners (36%) and periuria (24%).2

Even if owners are lucky enough for their pets to choose a nondestructive activity to relieve boredom, trouble can still ensue. For example, boredom-related eating can result in obesity, especially when combined with decreased activity levels. All animals evolved to acquire their food through activity, whether hunting, scavenging, or grazing. Wild canids, such as wolves, foxes, and coyotes, can spend up to 60% of their day searching for food.3,4 No animal evolved to acquire its food from walking up to a full bowl! We’ve all seen our pets and patients engage in hunting behavior, from a dog chasing a ball to a cat stalking a toy mouse. These activities provide exercise, mental stimulation and, if engaged in as part of playing with a person, social interaction.1 What benefit does a bowl of food provide? Easy calories.

Why Use Feeding Puzzles?

Feeding puzzles offer a way for owners to provide enrichment for their pets, encourage mental stimulation, and decrease overeating. Feeding puzzles can also make eating an interactive activity rather than just a source of nutrition.5

A feeding puzzle can be any toy or object that can contain food and requires the pet to work to find a way to get to that food.3 A wide variety of commercial feeding puzzles from companies such as Kong, Premier, and Nina Ottosson is available at pet stores and online, ranging from relatively simple toys that scatter food as they are “hunted” to complex, expensive models that require problem solving (FIGURE 1). It is also fairly easy to make many of these toys at home, keeping both owner and pet engaged. BOX 1 provides a list of links to instructions for do-it-yourself feeding puzzles.

BOX 1 Do-It-Yourself Puzzle Resources

Feeding puzzles work well with the way cats prefer to eat, in multiple small meals daily. Even when a cat eats dry food from a bowl, it usually only takes a couple of kibbles at a time. This feeding pattern is ideal for a puzzle, which then makes the cat work for its food! For dogs, using a puzzle can slow down mealtime and provide mental stimulation. Who doesn’t like to solve a puzzle and get a reward at the end?

Getting Started

So you’ve made the commitment to start feeding a pet using a feeding puzzle—or convinced an owner to try it. How can you introduce this concept to the animal? It is easier to introduce a puzzle if the pet is hungry and to begin with the simpler toys. Most people are familiar with Kong toys, which are hollow rubber toys that can be stuffed with food or treats. The goal is for this type of feeder to release the food slowly, with some effort on the animal’s part. If the animal gets to the food too quickly, freezing the filled toy can slow the pet down and prolong the activity (FIGURE 2). When filling toys with canned food or soft treats, it is usually a good idea to offer them to the pet inside a crate or on a harder, easy-to-clean surface. A mess is guaranteed!

Start by placing some fragrant treats inside the toy to attract initial attention. For some animals, using peanut butter or baby food can help with this step.3 The pet may need assistance in understanding that the food it smells is inside the toy. As the pet perfects the technique involved in getting the treats out, slowly switch over to placing food in the puzzle instead of the food bowl (BOX 2). Some animals may need increasingly difficult puzzles. Closing off or narrowing treat openings can help increase the difficulty in some cases. For overachieving pets, there are some puzzles that are quite difficult and can challenge even a herding dog’s brain.3,5

BOX 2 No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

For many animals, feeding puzzles can be used to provide all their food, not just treats. A friend of mine provides every kibble to her dog throughout the day in response to work. Her puzzles are in the form of training. There is no free food in her house! For this method to work, portion control is important. Determine what the desired volume of food is per day, and divide this amount into 2 or 3 smaller daily feedings dispensed in one or multiple puzzles.

To increase the pet’s mental stimulation, have a selection of puzzles and rotate them daily (FIGURES 3 and 4). To further increase the stimulation, hide them around the house so even more hunting is involved. This is a wonderful way to increase environmental enrichment, control food portions, and provide mental stimulation for a pet. Tell your clients to go out and find the puzzle that makes their pet happy!


  1. Becker M. Want happier, healthier cats and dogs? Use food puzzles. Vetstreet.com. vetstreet.com/dr-marty-becker/want-happier-healthier-cats-and-dogs-use-food-puzzles. Accessed October 2015.
  2. Strickler BL. An owner survey of toys, activities and behavior problems in indoor cats. J Vet Behavior 2014;9(5):207-214.
  3. Tripp R. Food puzzles. The Animal Behavior Network. animalbehavior.net/LIBRARY/AllPets/PPM/PetFoodPuzzles.htm. Accessed October 2015.
  4. Becker M, Becker Shannon M. Food puzzles: unleash your pet’s wild side. dog.com/dog-articles/unleash-your-pets-wild-side/2125/. Accessed March 2016.
  5. Smith JL. Five tips for perfect play with cat food filled puzzle feeders. Pet360.com. pet360.com/cat/lifestyle/five-tips-for-perfect-play-with-cat-food-filled-puzzle-feeders/V5CdjIFS9k6U36rUo_6uqA. Accessed October 2015.