Parents discourage their children from playing with their food, but if you’re the proud parent of a feline, a little playtime at dinnertime may be exactly what your kitty needs, according to research published in this month’s Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. The peer-reviewed study found that using puzzle feeders — devices that release food when a cat interacts with them — can help mitigate health and behavioral problems that result from many cats' indoor lifestyles.

While the American Veterinary Medical Association and other cat-care organizations recommend keeping cats indoors for their safety, felines that spend their nine lives inside can suffer from health issues like obesity and diabetes. The indoor lifestyle can also lead to problematic behaviors such as aggression and eliminating outside the litter box.

Why? Because domestic cats differ only slightly from their wild ancestors — in fact, as few as 13 genes may separate our house panthers from their untamed relatives, according to a study Washington University’s Genome Institute. This means that our pet cats’ behavioral needs are similar to that of their closest wild ancestor, the African wildcat. And what do wildcats do? They hunt.

While you certainly don’t want to set up an actual hunt inside your home, purchasing or building a food puzzle for your cat is a simple way to engage your cat in hunting behaviors. These feeders appeal to cats’ natural instincts to work for their food by requiring them to chase, pounce and bat at them in order to be rewarded with kibble.

By making a puzzle feeder part of your cat’s daily feeding routine, you’re not only fulfilling your pet’s desire to hunt, but you’re also providing mental stimulation and encouraging your cat to stay active, which can have positive results for your feline friend’s mental and physical health.

The study authors looked at cases of 30 cats with a variety of health and behavioral issues and found that introducing food puzzles alleviated many of the animals’ problems, including obesity, depression, anxiety, aggression and eliminating outside the litter box. Examples include an overweight 8-year-old cat that lost 20 percent of his body weight in his first year of using food puzzles and a 2-year-old feline that overcame fear and anxiety following the addition of food puzzles to the kitty's routine.

How to get started at home

Laura's cat with smaller puzzle feeder Would your cat be intimidated by a bigger puzzle? Try a small toy on for size first. (Photo: Laura Moss)

From stationary puzzles that require cats to use their paws to swipe out the food, to mobile ones that can be pushed across the floor, there are a variety of puzzles on the market. Crafty cat owners can even make their own food puzzles with objects they already have at home.

Think your kitty could benefit from a puzzle feeder? Here are some tips to get you started:

  • There are several different types of puzzles available, and different ones work better for different cats, so you may have to try a few to find the right one for your pet.
  • When you introduce the puzzle, continue to provide some of your cat’s food in his regular food bowl as well. As your cat becomes accustomed to working for his food, you can gradually increase the amount of food you put inside the puzzle.
  • Don’t feed your cat additional calories — be sure to account for the food in the puzzle when determining your cat’s daily nutrition allowances.
  • Many puzzle feeders are adjustable, allowing you to modify the food-delivery rate and make it easier or harder. Make sure the feeder is set to the easiest rate when your cat begins to use it, and increase the difficulty as he learns to solve the puzzle.
  • Monitor your cat when he uses the puzzle to ensure the experience is always a positive and rewarding one.