Food Foraging

Even though our pet cats live indoors, they maintain an instinctive desire to hunt prey. With no outlet for this behavior, cats can become bored and anxious. Lack of stimulation can develop into behavior problems such as aggression towards other pets or people, over-grooming, inappropriate urination, destructive scratching or chewing, excessive vocalization, and restlessness. A simple way to increase a cat’s level of activity is through the use of foraging toys, slow-feeder bowls, and food puzzles, which provide mental stimulation through problem solving.

Haboob and Fiona eye the SlimCat treat ball

photo by Natalie Taylor

The benefits of forage feeding include:

  • Reduction in anxiety associated with meal times.
  • Prevention of obesity by making the cat work for meals, instead of eating as quickly as possible from the bowl.
  • Reduction in vomiting for cats who eat too quickly.
  • Prevention of unwanted attention-seeking behaviors associated with hunger and boredom.
  • It’s fun!

Tips for cats new to forage feeding

For cats that are used to having their food available in a bowl, it is important to start with an easy foraging technique. Place some dry kibble around a foraging toy to get them interested. Clear plastic containers with multiple holes are the best starter toys, but some cats may take to an opaque treat ball right away. Fill the toy full and be sure the holes are large enough to allow the kibble to fall out easily. The more rewarding the puzzle, the more motivated the cat. If a cat is less food motivated, you may have to start by offering tasty treats in the toys in order to create more interest.

Intermediate and advanced foraging

Toys with fewer holes, opaque toys, and toys that don’t roll easily can be used when your cat masters the beginning-level treat ball. For advanced cats that quickly take to foraging, there are products available that require the manipulation of moving parts to access food. You want your cat to be challenged, but not frustrated. Trying a variety of products will allow you to find the find the right level of difficulty that keeps your cat interested in foraging.

Kaspar and Haboob using the Kyjen Hills slow feeder bowl.

photo by Natalie Taylor

Types of foraging toys:

When starting to forage feed, keep in mind:

  • Hole size is important. Some treat toys don’t accommodate large dental kibble.
  • Level of difficulty. Spherical toys are easiest to use. Cubes are much more challenging. Some toys work better on tile or hardwood floors, while some are designed to work well on carpet.
  • If foraging toys are left out all night, you may want to keep them away from bedrooms so you won’t hear them rolling around.
  • Cats love variety. Offer different kinds of food toys and puzzles to keep them interested.

As always, shop local! If you are in Iowa City, Leash on Life carries several options in both the cat and dog departments. You can find a large selection of products online as well, but be sure to read reviews before ordering to verify that the product is the right size and style. Don’t forget to check out dog products! Many of the smaller toys can be used for cats as well. The Cat Clinic of Iowa City Pinterest page includes a board full of feeding toys and products, but you can also get creative at home. Lots of containers can be transformed into a feeding toy with a little ingenuity.

Kaspar trying out the Our Pets IQ treat ball.

photo by Natalie Taylor

Common Questions:

Won’t this add a lot of extra time to the daily feeding routine? For daily food foraging, simply fill a variety of food toys once a week and place them in an airtight container. Take some toys out every day and replace them as needed. This is a good option for a household where multiple family members are responsible for feeding or in a busy home where mealtimes aren’t an option.

Won’t the extra food make my cat gain weight? Initially a cat may gorge themselves on food when they realize it is always available, but over time the cat should get used to snacking throughout the day. Overweight and obese cats can actually show some weight loss with forage feeding as they are burning calories while foraging.

Can forage feeding work with more than one cat? This method of feeding may not work for every household. Food can be offered in creative ways, even if there are multiple cats who cannot eat the same diet. Consider using food toys and puzzles instead of regular bowls at meal times. If all cats do eat the same food, provide multiple food toys with a variety of difficulty levels. It might help to direct the less motivated cats to the toys that are easiest to use so that the super-motivated or advanced cats don’t eat all the food.

Can I still forage feed if my cat only eats canned food? This can make food foraging more complicated, but not impossible. Most slow feeder bowls are too deep for canned food use, but the Trixie Fun Board has one section of shallow tongue-sized depressions to be used for canned food. Shallow ice cube trays may work as well. The Outward Hound Star Spinner and Nina Ottosson Dog Tornado are two other options. We’ll keep searching for more ideas!

I tried to forage feed, but my cat isn’t grasping the concept. What should I do? Every cat is different. Some like treat balls, some like slow feeder bowls. Try different options until you find one that works. Also, some cats love to chase tossed kibble. Or you might have a scavenger hunt where the kibble is hidden throughout the house for the cat to find it. There are lots of fun ways to feed. Be creative!

Keep in touch with us on Facebook for reviews of some food toys and puzzles we’ve tried.

UPDATE 10/28/16:

Check out this website, maintained by feline behavior consultants for reviews of food puzzles and some ideas for homemade toys.