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How pets are fed also influences their health and well-being. Healthy cats and dogs can be fed from once a day to continuously, depending on the preferences of the owner and the pet. Cats in the wild seem to be opportunistic feeders, catching small prey whenever they can, whereas dogs seem more comfortable with less frequent meals. If your confined pet is meal fed, consistent feeding times are generally beneficial; however, the amount fed need not be the same at each meal. For example, feeding a larger meal later in the day to cats with a habit of waking their owners up to be fed early in the morning may be tried, with a smaller morning meal fed before the owner leaves for the day. Smaller meals in the morning may also result in fewer house-training accidents by crated dogs. For cats fed from a bowl as opposed to a food puzzle, locating the bowl in a safe, quiet place away from machinery or appliances that could come on unexpectedly and scare the cat, or away from areas where the cat could be startled or feel trapped by other animals (including humans) may also help the cat feel safe and less vulnerable while eating.
Food puzzles are the most interesting recent development for feeding pets. These devices offer the opportunity for both physical and mental stimulation — enrichment — for confined pets. Many examples of these are available, as an Internet search for ‘cat (or dog) food puzzles’ will show. A variety of puzzles can be purchased or made for pets, and both dry and canned (by freezing it in the feeder) food can be fed using them. Animals have an intrinsic drive to eat, so food puzzles can be a powerful form of environmental enrichment for confined pets.
I recommend that food puzzles be introduced to pets at mealtime. Place a portion of the usual meal in the feeder, which is placed next to the pet's typical food source. Owners can choose to make or purchase a puzzle they like from a local pet store or website, and introduce it at mealtime on a day when they can stay around to observe the pet’s reaction to the puzzle. For owners concerned the puzzle might result in food particles being left around the house, or that the pet might lose the puzzle, it can be confined to a single room with an uncarpeted floor (like the kitchen or bathroom), or placed in a bathtub or large sweater box (for cats) to restrict a pet’s ability to move it around the home. Be sure to observe your pet to make sure he is actually able to retrieve his meal from the puzzle consistently. If you have more than one pet, you’ll need to make sure that each is getting the right amount of food.
Most pets seen in urban and suburban surroundings are captive animals. In a sufficiently enriched environment, they can adapt to a wide range of diets and feeding schedules. Feeding can and should be viewed as an enrichment opportunity for your pet, regardless of whether a bowl or puzzle is used, providing an environment in which your pet can thrive. By looking at feeding and nutrition this way, many of the concerns owners attribute to diet may just recede into the background — where they belong!
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