Play With Your Food: Why Puzzle Feeders For Cats Are Awesome

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Remember when you were little and your mom told you not to play with your food? Well, no offense to your mother, but she was wrong. Puzzle feeders for cats are a great way to turn meals into a fun time for your cat. Why just satisfy your cat’s need to eat when you can also satisfy their need to play at the same time?

I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to selecting puzzle feeders for cats that will actually get used. There are a lot of factors to consider when selecting one! I’ve also included recommendations of my favorite puzzle feeders as not all of them are created equal. Before we dive into the ins and outs of puzzle feeders for cats, let’s talk about why they’re so great.

Why Food Puzzles Are Great For Cats

Cats are natural hunters. Throughout their evolutionary history, they developed traits and behaviors that fine-tune their ability to track down prey. Because of this, cats have a strong drive to hunt. Puzzle feeders are a great way to scratch that urge to hunt and scavenge while also addressing and preventing any boredom-related behavior problems.

In order for play to be satisfying for cats, they need to go through the full hunt cycle. This means the cat needs to stalk or chase their prey, catch it, “dispatch” of it, and consume it. Puzzle feeders let cats hunt for their prey, find it, and consume it. It gets most of that full process out and is more similar to what a cat would go through to get a meal in nature.

Beyond the mental stimulation that comes from food puzzles, they’re great for what I affectionately like to call “scarf ‘n barfers.” If you have one of these cats, you know exactly what I mean: food can’t be eaten quick enough to satisfy these hungry, hungry felines. They practically inhale their food and then it quickly ends up on your floor.

Because puzzle feeders for cats require them to take more time to eat, they’ll be better able to digest their food. It may also help them feel fuller so some of the desperate need to eat everything in sight disappears. Most importantly, you don’t have to clean up their food and then feed them again later.

Which Puzzle Feeders For Cats Are Best?

Now let’s get to the fun part: The cat toys!

A black cat looks over a stone wall against a gray sky.
“Did somebody say toys?”

Puzzle feeders for cats are abundant and there are so many options out there. Each puzzle feeder requires the cat to complete a task or tasks to get a piece of food or treats. There are lot of things to consider when deciding which one is best including your cat’s preferences, space requirements, budget, and more. There are some that work with dry food only and others that can be used with both wet or dry food. Depending on what you feed your cat, some may be better than others.

In other words, there isn’t a single best puzzle feeder for cats that will appeal to every single cat out there. There are many really good ones, but if it doesn’t appeal to your cat then it’s not a good choice for them. While this isn’t a simple answer, the truth is that you’ll need to experiment a bit. The good news is that it will be fun to give the different feeder toys a try and you’ll get to know your cat a lot better!

What Types Of Puzzle Feeders Are There?

The good news for those of you concerned that you may not be able to find a food toy that your cat likes is that there are a lot of options out there. You may need to experiment with a few types, but you’ll likely find something your cat enjoys. If you want to experiment a bit, you can even try a few DIY food puzzles. Let’s look at the basic types of food puzzles you have to choose from so you can decide what’s best for your cat.

Rolling And Flying Food Puzzles

One of the most basic puzzle feeders is one that requires your cat to swat or push at an object to dispense the treats or food. Usually these objects are mobile, such as a feeder ball, while others are fixed in place. For cats that really like to bat at things, there are dispensers that are on springs. These are really fun, though be aware that the treats or kibble will fly all over the place.

As you may guess, these types of puzzle feeders are best for cats that eat dry food or treats. While they can be messy, having wet food flying everywhere is going to be even messier. If your cat only eats wet food, it’s best to try a different type of food puzzle for them.

A word of caution with one type of toy that falls under this category: robotic dispensers. Some cats may love these types of toys, but they can also be pretty scary for cats that don’t like the movement or noise they make. Carefully consider your individual cat as they may not be for every cat.

Foraging Puzzle Feeders

In nature, cats will likely have to search in multiple place to find prey. Imitating this pattern of hunting is a great way to tap into their instincts and really make sure they fully get the experience of hunting. This is also a great option to draw out the hunt for your cat, especially if you will be gone for an extended period of time.

My favorite foraging style feeder is Doc and Phoebe’s Hunting Feeder. It’s a few adorable mice that you fill with treats or kibble and set out in various locations for your cat to find. Your cat has to push the mice around to get the food out so it’s a bit like what they’d do when they find real prey.

A lynx point Siamese cat (specifically Zoloft, Class Act Cats' Chief Purr Officer) with a red heart print bandana is pawing at a puzzle feeder for cats. He is standing on a cat tower.
Our Chief Purr Officer, Zoloft, is a big fan of the hunting feeders from Doc and Phoebe!

Of course, you can also use a series of small dishes (including these adorable and colorful cat shaped dishes) to DIY this style of toy. This may be better if your cat eats wet food, though you’ll want to make sure they can find their prey relatively easily. It’s not great to have wet food sitting out for too long.

Another option that falls under this category would be snuffle mats. These are essentially a fabric mat that your cat has to dig their cute little nose in to find their food. If you are local to Minneapolis, I sell premade and DIY snuffle mat kits at events.

Pushy Puzzle Feeders

My favorite puzzle feeder, Buggin’ Out, falls under the category of a puzzle feeder your cat needs to push something to get to the food. These are different than the puzzle feeders listed above as usually there’s a series of wells or objects that are fixed to a solid board your cat needs to push. The reason I like Buggin’ Out so much is that you can alter how you set it up to make it easier or harder for your cat. To make it easier, you can put the treats in the wells and just cover them with the leaves.

Many of these feeders are also really frickin’ cute. Buggin’ Out is a leaf with a series of lady bugs on it, but the same company also makes a (more challenging) raincloud puzzle feeder. An easier version is the Melon Madness feeder.

Slow Feeders

Sometimes you just want to slow your cat down as they eat. In these cases, the focus is more on creating a bit of a challenge and less on providing mental stimulation. While they still will provide some stimulation, these style of puzzle feeders for cats mostly focus on the speed of your cat’s eating. They are excellent for scarf ‘n barfers!

Usually these feeders are very simple and are similar to a regular food bowl, but with a series of barriers that your cat has to navigate around to eat. These ones have an advantage over others for folks looking for elevated feeders as there are a few options out there that are raised up on supports.

Digging Puzzle Feeders

Some cats really like to dig and stick their cute little paws into things. For these cats, there are a lot of different puzzle feeders that will allow them to dig a bit.

One of the most basic digging feeders is the Catit Senses 2.0 Digger Interactive Cat Toy. While it’s not super complicated (it is a couple of cylinders your cat has to pull food out of to be able to get it), it’s enough to slow down your cat and also provide them with mental stimulation. An alternative is a hunting box style toy that follows the same basic concept of requiring your cat to dig their food out of the box.

The Cat Puzzle Feeder Treat Maze is a challenging option for the really smart or really food motivated cat. It’s a (short) maze that requires your cat to push their kibble or treats through it until they reach the end and can reach it. I like using it with my cat it because it has adjustable difficulty so I can challenge Z, but not frustrate him. Z did figure out a workaround where he can fling his treats out of the start of the maze, but it still requires enough effort on his part to do so that it keeps him occupied for a while.

Wet Food Puzzle Feeders

Is your cat more of a fan of wet food? While many puzzle feeders are geared toward dry food as they can be challenging to clean, there are many that can work well for wet food eaters. In fact, some are designed specifically to be used with wet food. You can even find a variation of the hunting feeder mentioned above that is designed specifically for wet food.

A favorite wet food puzzle feeder for cats is a LickiMat. These are typically a silicone mat with a series of ridges on them. Food is spread out on the mat and the cat has to navigate the bumps using their tongue. Some of them will even come with a tiny spatula for easy spreading.

LickiMats are great for using with the most magical cat treat of all, Churu. If you want to get your cat to adjust to the new style of feeding, consider spreading some Churu out on the mat. If you want to give your cat a special summer treat when it’s blazing hot out, spread out some wet food or Churu on the mat. Freeze it for a few hours and then give it to your cat. This will not only keep them cool, but keep them occupied for a bit longer.

Combination Puzzle Feeders

Of course, not all puzzle feeders for cats are going to fit neatly into one category. Some may combine multiple different types of mental stimulation and tasks your cat needs to accomplish. These are great for cats that need variety or for cats that are really, really smart.

One of the ones I like best is the Trixie Cat Activity Board. It has a lot of different ways for your cat to get their food. Plus, it’s washable so you can potentially use it for wet food in some parts of it. If you want to try multiple types of puzzle feeders, it even comes in a bundle with another wildly popular food puzzle for cats. Trixie has a huge selection of combination puzzle feeders for cats so I suggest you check out their full selection.

Puzzle Feeders for Senior Cats

I want to highlight senior cats in particular as some of you may not have considered puzzle feeders for cats until your cat is a bit older. There’s no reason senior cats can’t try food puzzles! Make easier choices when selecting a food toy and always go slowly. If they don’t like it, that’s completely okay. You can always switch back to a more traditional bowl.

If your cat prefers an elevated feeder due to old age or just preference, you could try putting a feeder on a small platform. There are also slow feeders that are elevated and at an angle to make it easier on a senior cat while still giving them a bit of a challenge. If you’re looking for a particularly cute one, there’s even one that has a cat face as the ridges.

Senior cats may also benefit from simple DIY puzzle feeders. Toss some treats or kibble in an ice cube tray and bam! Easy puzzle feeder for your senior cat. They’re easily washable and will provide the right balance of challenge while still being accessible.

How Do I Get My Cat To Use A Puzzle Feeder?

Not all cats will take to puzzle feeders right away, but don’t give up immediately. There are ways to encourage your cat to use their puzzle feeder even if the first go around isn’t a success.

The best way to introduce a cat to a puzzle feeder is to try with high value treats at first. Even if you intend to feed their regular meal in a puzzle feeder, starting with treats will help them be very motivated to solve the food puzzle. You can use either crunchy treats or lickable treats depending on the type of puzzle feeder you are using.

Transition your cat to their regular food by gradually mixing it in with the treats. You can start with a few pieces of kibble or a few chunks of wet food. As they successfully complete the puzzle feeder, you can use less treats and more of their regular food. Eventually, you’ll drop the treats entirely and only use their normal food.

If your cat is struggling with a particular puzzle feeder, there could be a few problems that you can adjust to help them. If the puzzle toy has a way to make it easier, always start with the easiest difficulty until they catch on. As they get it, adjust the difficulty slowly. Adding a few treats in when you increase the difficulty can help quite a bit, too.

Depending on the specific puzzle feeder, you may be able to make some parts of it more challenging while others are easier. For example, Nina Ottosson’s Buggin’ Out Puzzle Feeder can have a mix of difficulties. Some food can be easy to get to while others can be made a bit more challenging. You can also adjust upward or make the more challenging tasks get a higher reward.

At the end of the day, though, your cat should enjoy the puzzle feeder. Cats need to eat and it’s not fair to them to withhold food if they won’t use a puzzle feeder. You can try a different puzzle feeder as some cats prefer certain actions or ways of getting their food but not others. You may also just need to stick with a traditional food dish and find other ways to stimulate your cat.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!