- Make it EASY to start with
- Use safe puzzles
- Be creative
- Don’t leave out the old guys!
FOOD PUZZLE EXTRAVAGANZA
Food puzzles are just what the name implies – an object in which food is hidden and your pet needs to solve the puzzle of how to get the food out.
Here are a few scenarios for you to imagine:
- Your puppy is rampaging around the house, grabbing socks and pillows, chasing the cat, barking.
- Your adult dog is home from surgery and desperate to go for a romp in the yard, but the doctor said he had to rest for FOURTEEN DAYS.
- Your elderly dog spends his evenings wandering aimlessly and staring into corners.
- Your teenaged dog or cat gobbles his food so fast that his nickname is Hoover.
- Your cat’s veterinarian has said she has to lose 2 pounds, but she LOVES to eat.
These are all situations in which food puzzles can be a big help! Interestingly, in addition to the above scenarios, working for food can be the special sauce picky dogs need to find their appetites.
WHAT ARE FOOD PUZZLES?
Food puzzles are interactive devices made out of just about anything that’s safe for your dog or cat to play with or chew on. There are many different types on the market for both dogs and cats. Some are created for your pet to work at alone and are safe to leave with most dogs or cats (e.g., Kong®, Kong WobblerTM, SlimCatTM interactive feeder, Cat Amazing Interactive Treat Maze & Puzzle Feeder)**. The snuffle mat has become very popular and can be left alone with some dogs but not others. Watch your dog carefully to see how he interacts with it. If he ends up carrying it around and treating it like a toy, use the snuffle mat only during supervised sessions.
**All of the toys mentioned in this blog are listed in the resources section with a link to the manufacturer’s website or a website where you can purchase the product.
Seeker works at his snuffle mat.
Some food puzzles are made for you to interact with your pet helping them solve the puzzle. These are great fun but do tend to have parts that are easily ingested so don’t leave them with your pet unattended (e.g., some of Nina Ottosson’s puzzle games).
There are many versions of “slow feeder” available and they’re all based on the same idea, a bowl or plate that has dividers in it so your pet can’t gulp their food down as fast. A few examples of slow feeders include Outward Hound Fun Feeder (hard plastic, tall dividers), Outward Hound Fun Mat (softer with shorter dividers), SloDog Slow Feeder (hard plastic, short dividers), Lorde Slow Feeder cat bowls (ceramic). For short-faced breeds, the slow feeders with shorter dividers are more appropriate. Of course, make sure to monitor the dogs using the ones made of soft plastic so they don’t chew up or potentially ingest the feeder.
Here’s puppy Seeker starting a small meal from a slow feeder and you can see how it gets its name.
You can also make your own food puzzles. One of the easiest to make at home is the toilet paper roll food puzzle. J Take an empty toilet paper roll, put kibble or treats inside it and place it on the ground. This should be easy for your dog or cat to navigate – just a little sniffing will result in the food rolling out. Remember, you want the first few times to be really easy so that your pet finds it reinforcing and wants to play the game. We have many more ideas for homemade food puzzles below.
HOW DO I GET MY PET TO USE THE FOOD PUZZLE?
Your pet should be focused and trying to get the food in his puzzle, and it should be fun. Your dog should wag his tail, your cat should continuously work at the puzzle. If they give up and walk away, the puzzle’s simply too hard.
So, this is key point one – make the puzzle EASY to start with. For puppies or dogs that are new to the game, I often start with a Kong®. It should be small enough that your dog can pick it up with his mouth. Put his kibble in it and place it on the floor. When he starts to sniff at the food, he’ll move the Kong® and the food will fall out. It’ll be like magic! Once your puppy learns to lift or paw the Kong® to empty it completely, he’s ready for the next most challenging puzzle.
If your puppy isn’t interested in the food you place in the puzzle, you can certainly start with treats. But I’d caution you to have the goal of using primarily your pup’s regular kibble. A healthy puppy should be hungry and want their kibble. Using primarily his regular diet will ensure that his food intake each day is complete and balanced.
HOW MANY FOOD PUZZLES ARE TOO MANY?
This is like asking, “How many chips are too many?” Seriously, though, the more the merrier. Rotate them. Offer various types at once. Hide one food puzzle inside of another! It’s all about making it hard enough that your pet works at it but easy enough that he’ll keep working until all of the food is gone.
DO IT YOURSELF FOOD PUZZLES
These are some of our favorites because you can make food puzzles out of simple household items and it’s fun for you (if you’re crafty by nature) and your dog too! If you’re neither crafty nor flush with time, skip this section, it won’t hurt our feelings! J
Easy Peasy Homemade Food Puzzles
We want to start every dog or cat with something easy enough that they’ll be successful. So, start with an empty toilet paper roll, put some kibble in it and set it on the floor. When Fido (or Fluffy) sniffs at it and it rolls a little, the food will appear like Magic! To make this one harder, just pinch the ends a little. Or place it in a short cardboard box so your dog has to reach in and grab it with her mouth to empty it.
Here’s puppy Seeker’s first experience with an empty paper towel roll food puzzle:
Here Seeker tackles an empty tissue box to get his kibble.
Another easy food puzzle, especially for cats, is an empty egg carton (an ice cube tray works equally well). Attach it to a board or tape it to the floor so your cat can’t tip it over. Place a few kibbles in each indentation and then introduce your cat or kitten to it. She’ll have to use her paws to pull the kibbles out. Want to make it harder? Close the lid without latching it. Even harder? Latch the lid. (Depending on the style of egg carton, latching the lid may make it too hard for some cats, so if she’s struggling then gives up, that’s too hard. Make it easy again so she can win.)
More Challenging Homemade Food Puzzles
Cut some holes in an empty soda bottle. The holes should be at least twice the size of your dog’s kibble. The larger the holes, the easier the puzzle so start with larger holes if your dog is new to food puzzles. Put the kibble in the bottle and then let your dog push it around with her nose, bat it with her paws, or pick it up to carry it up the stairs to drop it so it rolls down the stairs emptying food as it goes. (That last was how a Jack Russell terrier I knew worked with his food puzzle. Smart, wasn’t he?) Make sure you don’t leave your dog with this one unsupervised as those bottle caps are potential foreign bodies if your dog were to ingest one.
You can also do food puzzle layering – putting one inside another. A favorite for my teenager when he was a puppy went like this – kibble/treats in an empty paper towel roll with the ends twisted inside a rolled-up paper bag inside a closed cardboard box. Of course, he didn’t get something that hard the first time I gave him those puzzle items. Each one was done separately first – some kibble in a rolled-up paper bag, some in a cardboard box with the flaps closed but not “locked” inside one another. I then made it harder in increments – “locking” the flaps of the cardboard box or a paper towel roll with treats in it inside an open paper bag on its side. You get the idea.
Some cats and dogs are on strictly canned food diets. While this is a little restrictive in terms of some of our food puzzles, there are still great options available.
- Lickable Mats – these are usually soft plastic/rubber so don’t leave them unattended with your dog or cat. Examples include Lick It BuddyTM from Best Buddy Dog Products or LickiMat BuddyTM from Hyper Pet.
- Lickable Bowls – Hyperpet makes the OHBowlTM, a bowl that’s lined with a nubby surface that you can spread canned food on.
- Flat plates – for cats on a canned food diet that eat really quickly, spreading that food out on a flat plate will slow them down. It’s not much of a puzzle, but can still be satisfying and may well meet your needs to slow down the eating.
- Stuffed Kongs – This is a nice go-to option for dogs on a strictly canned food diet. To make it more challenging, stuff the Kong then freeze it.
- Slow feeders – some of the slow feeders mentioned earlier can be used with canned food.
PUPPIES & KITTENS
Any of the puzzles mentioned can be offered to puppies or kittens. The key is to make sure that Fido or Fluffy win when first using any given food puzzle. Make it extra easy at first. As time goes on, you’ll collect multiple food puzzles. Get creative with them – offer two or three at a time in the kitchen or ex-pen. Maybe hide one under your puppy’s cot or bed, another inside an open cardboard box. Put your kitten’s favorite food puzzle in an open paper bag on its side. Do you have an idea to share? Post it on our Facebook page or, even better, share a photo or video there!
When recovering from surgery, we need to keep our pets quiet so they can heal well. Some of the food puzzles are good boredom-busters for this 10-14 day period of time. Make sure you understand how your dog uses a puzzle. For example, if your dog is recovering from foot surgery, you don’t want to give her a puzzle that she does primarily with her feet. Interestingly, dogs will vary in their method of “attacking” these puzzles, so think through your dog’s particular approaches before you offer the puzzles during recovery.
My older animals have always loved doing the same food puzzles that the puppies like. So don’t leave them out! In fact, food puzzles are kind of like the animal version of doing a crossword puzzle. This can be especially helpful for early dementia. One thing to keep in mind is to make sure that the puzzle doesn’t exacerbate any arthritis or chronic pain. My elderly cat had trouble with one of her puzzle feeders when her elbow arthritis started to act up. I had to switch to something that didn’t require a lot of paw use.
This is senior borzoi Finnegan’s favorite activity – eating from his snuffle mat.
In short, keep it interesting by switching it up periodically and stay creative.
Don’t forget – share your ideas, photos, and videos on our Facebook page!
Nina Ottosson toys – https://www.nina-ottosson.com/
Kong® and Kong® WobblerTM– https://www.kongcompany.com/
Slim Cat Ball – https://store.petsafe.net/slimcat-interactive-feeder
Cat Amazing Interactive Treat Maze & Puzzle Feeder – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009R3SFBC?creativeASIN=B009R3SFBC&imprToken=oe0p.poPeZI6SiVBaNQTxw&slotNum=0&tag=march2019rover&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1
Nina Ottosson puzzle feeders – https://www.nina-ottosson.com/
Outward Hound slow feeders – https://outwardhound.com/slow-eating-stop-bloat-dog-bowls-and-feeders.html
SloDog Slow FeederTM – https://hyper-pet.com/product/feeding-solutions/slodog-slow-feeder-green/
Lorde Slow Feeder Cat Bowl – https://www.amazon.com/Lorde-Ceramic-Interactive-Healthy-Feeding/dp/B07PJJTL64
Lick It Buddy – https://www.bestbuddydogproducts.com/products/lickit-buddy
LickiMat BuddyTM – https://hyper-pet.com/product/feeding-solutions/lickimat-buddy-lg/