Greater understanding of the importance of environmental enrichment in enhancing an animal's physical and social environment is bringing benefits for pet cats - particularly those that are kept solely indoors.
Our feline companions are very similar to their closest ancestor, the African wildcat, in terms of their behavioural needs; and an indoor-only lifestyle, unless managed appropriately, can give rise to health issues (such as obesity and diabetes) and problem behaviours (including aggression, house-soiling and attention-seeking). The latter can threaten the relationship between cat and owner, and in extreme cases even lead to euthanasia of the cat. One approach to mitigating these potential problems is with the use of 'food puzzles' - devices that release food when an animal interacts with them and which were originally developed to provide enrichment for captive zoo and laboratory animals.
Food puzzles take advantage of cats' natural instincts to work for their food. There is a wide range of puzzles on the market: some are mobile (rolled or pushed with the cat's nose or paws), others are stationary, and they can be used with either wet or dry food. For the creative and/or cost-conscious cat owner, DIY food puzzles can also be easily made; for example, by cutting holes in egg boxes or water bottles.
The effect of food puzzles on cats is a relatively new area of study and a group of veterinarians and cat behaviour consultants in the USA provide a welcome addition to the peer-reviewed literature with a state-of-the art review in this month's Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.1 As well as reviewing existing empirical evidence of the physical and emotional benefits imparted by food puzzles, the authors have collated details of over 30 cases from their own practices where food puzzles were introduced to aid with a specific health or behavioural concern. Examples include an obese 8-year-old male domestic shorthair cat who lost 20% of his bodyweight within 12 months of puzzle implementation; a 3-year-old British Shorthair male cat, whose impulsive and frustration-based aggression towards his owner instantly improved and resolved completely within 6 months; and a 2-year-old domestic shorthair cat whose fear of people (his owners included) significantly improved following the addition of both mobile and stationary food puzzles, to the point that he would come when called and was relaxed for cuddles.
Cats are likely to have individual preferences in terms of types of food puzzles, and there may be some initial owner reluctance to overcome. The authors offer valuable practical advice, with a checklist of pointers for choosing a starter puzzle and guidance on how to implement food puzzles, as well as tips for troubleshooting potential challenges, such as owner concerns about night-time noise or having food scattered around the home. Given time, patience and appropriate introduction, most, if not all, cats can adjust to food puzzles. So much so, in fact, that the authors' advice extends to methods for increasing the difficulty of food puzzles for 'advanced foragers'!
Ultimately, the end goal is to have several types of puzzles available and for all of the cat's meals to be provided by this enriching means.