Enriching your cat’s life is as easy as using a food puzzle, say UC Davis researchers

Your fuzzy feline friend came from a long lineage of hunters and foragers. Although she may laze around now looking for beams of sunlight to sleep in and begging for treats, her life could become more enriched with a simple change: puzzles.

Food puzzles for cats provide obstacles and encourage natural foraging behavior, according to feline researchers from UC Davis who authored a new study about the puzzles and their impact.

The puzzles can be any object that holds food and requires the cat to figure out how to get it, according to a news release from UC Davis. Food can be hidden inside a ball that has to be rolled to release a treat, or inside cups or stuck in ridges on a stationary mat, requiring the cat to use its paw to fish it out. The puzzles come in all shapes and sizes, the release said.

“Before cats were domesticated, they lived in the wild where they hunted for food,” said lead author Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at UC Davis, in the release. “Then humans came along and took their jobs away.”

Delgado suggests cat owners put away the food bowl and start to use puzzles to enrich and entertain their furry friends. Enrichment activities can improve a cat’s welfare by increasing mental stimulation, and in case studies done by Delgado, food puzzles aided cats with weight loss, anxiety and urination outside the litter box.

Thirty percent of cat owners surveyed by UC Davis said they currently use food puzzles, 18 percent tried them but stopped using them, and 52 percent had never used them, the release said.

Those who tried and stopped using the puzzles blamed their cats for being too lazy or not figuring it out, the release said.

“When starting out with a food puzzle, it’s important to make it easy for the cat at first so they can figure it out and not become frustrated,” said Delgado in the release. “At the same time, you want to make sure it’s challenging enough that it provides some activity and mental stimulation.”

Most healthy cats can figure it out without too much assistance, Delgado said in the release.

For those worried about their other cats or dogs, the release suggests using baby gates to create a dog-free zone while your cat plays and eats, or offering the puzzles under supervision so owners can keep an eye out.

“Having multiple pets does not have to be an obstacle for using food puzzles,” said Delgado.

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Hannah Darden covers breaking news and feature stories for The Bee and is a political science and journalism student at Sacramento State. A Sacramento native, she previously worked as editor in chief of her community college newspaper, the American River Current.