Study: One-third of cat owners use puzzle feeders. What’s really puzzling is why more don’t

Cats are basically freeloaders. They’re perfectly capable of foraging for food on their own, but there they are at feeding time, tails twitching like clockwork, waiting impatiently for you to open the can.

Maybe you should make them work a little harder for their supper. Puzzle feeders can help. A puzzle feeder is essentially a food-dispensing toy. Any object that holds food and requires a cat to figure out how to access it can be a puzzle feeder.

A 2016 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), showed that puzzle feeders can enrich the lives of domestic cats by bringing out their natural foraging behavior. That study showed that cats who use food puzzles tend to be more physically fit and happier than cats who use a regular food bowl. They also had fewer behavioral problems such as aggression and overgrooming.

Given all the benefits of using puzzle feeders, what’s really puzzling is why more cat owners don’t use them.

A new study by the same UC Davis research team aimed to answer that question.

They came up with an online survey designed to assess how cat owners feed their cats and their attitudes regarding food puzzles. The results indicate that 30% of participants currently use a food puzzle, 18% had tried food puzzles but stopped using them, and 52% had never used a food puzzle.

NEWStat reached out to the new study’s lead author, Mikel Delgado, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, to find out more.

NEWStat: Why do cats need to forage?

Mikel Delgado: All animals have an instinct to search for food—that is one key to survival. Cats are naturally hardwired to hunt, and this feature is likely something that has not changed much during domestication. Providing food puzzles is one potential way to give cats an outlet for that instinct.

NEWStat: How do food puzzles provide enrichment for cats?

MD: Food puzzles can slow down eating, meaning that more time in their daily budget is devoted to acquiring food instead of being bored, just sleeping, or getting themselves into trouble! For some cats, we think it stimulates problem solving, and since food is intrinsically motivating, the whole process of acquiring food through a puzzle will be rewarding. Finally, by definition, enrichment should promote natural, species-specific behaviors, as food puzzles can do, [at least] to an extent . . . it’s not quite the same as hunting a bird or a mouse!

NEWStat: What are some reasons cat owners don’t use food puzzles?

MD: First of all, many people are not really aware of food puzzles, or maybe they've heard of using them with dogs, but didn't know you could use them with cats, too.

NEWStat: When cats begin eating from food puzzles, what kinds of changes do they exhibit?

MD: I think many people observe that their cat enjoys getting food from the puzzle—showing anticipatory behavior, and using them throughout the day. I also think a lot of people enjoy watching their cats use food puzzles. I know I do! There’s been very little research on the effects of food puzzles on welfare or activity, so we cannot say that all cats will experience an immediate benefit, such as weight loss or reduced behavior problems. However, we are increasingly aware that cats need more mental stimulation and activity in general to be happy and healthy, and food puzzles are just one way to provide those environmental necessities to them.

NEWStat: What’s the best way to use a food puzzle when feeding a cat?

MD: It depends on the cats and the humans—it has to work for both of them! I encourage people to start with a simple puzzle filled with food so that the cat does not get frustrated. Putting treats or an extra tasty, novel food can also get cats a little more excited at first. As the cat gets better at solving the puzzle, the human can opt to try more challenging puzzles and start feeding the cat more of their diet out of them.

Photo credit: © iStock/KatieDobies