Cat using food puzzle
Food bowls are a convenient way to feed pets, but they may not be in every pet’s best interest.

The bowl may allow pets to eat too quickly, which can cause vomiting. Since it takes time for a meal to trigger “I’m full, stop eating” signals from the brain, it can also lead to obesity. Further, if the amount in the bowl isn’t controlled, it can become a 24-hour buffet, which can contribute to obesity and the health problems it can cause, such as decreased quality of life and reduced longevity.

While we’d all like our pets’ days to be full of fun activities and mental stimulation, the reality is that many of them spend their day simply waiting for us to come home from work. Making mealtimes longer and more interesting through the use of a food toy is one way to provide enrichment for pets waiting for their favorite people. You may think that since your pet has access to toys or a yard while you’re away, he may be thoroughly entertained without you. However, most pets don’t engage in much play on their own. A pet activity monitor can tell you for sure, but many pets appear to experience boredom and sleep the day away. While sleeping helps pass the time, it doesn’t burn many calories or provide mental stimulation. Some pets appear to experience anxiety without their people, and some can be destructive when left alone — whether as an expression of that anxiety or as simply a way to entertain themselves. Though a food toy may not be a good option for every pet — and a talk with your veterinarian can help you determine whether or not you should try one — many pets seem to find them highly entertaining.

Much to Choose From

Regardless of why you may consider an alternative to the bowl, there are multiple options. Food-dispensing toys come in many shapes, sizes, textures and degrees of difficulty (for both you and your pet). Pet preferences and the ability of your pet to “solve” the puzzle and access food, along with the toy’s safety, cleanliness and ability to maintain interest, are all important to consider when choosing a food-dispensing toy. Here are the main types:

  • Dispenser-type toys dispense dry food or treats through an opening when the toy is turned, rocked, pulled or otherwise manipulated in just the right way. These are usually made of harder plastic materials and are taken apart by the owner to fill. Give it to your pet in an area where toy flinging, rolling and bashing won’t cause damage or annoy your neighbors, as some of these can be quite loud on hard surfaces.
  • Chewing-type toys can be filled with dry or canned food (some of them even come with commercial paste-type fillers), and the pet’s chewing action releases the food. Give these to your pet in an area where making a mess is less of a concern. Freezing the food after the toy is filled can sometimes help to further slow meals down and reduce cleanup.
  • Feeding stations require a pet to interact with a larger, non-mobile object to release (usually dry) food. These include puzzles that require pets to figure out how to lift flaps, open doors, flip switches or spin knobs to access food. Also, while not truly toys, if you’re really looking to just slow your pet’s food intake, there are bowl replacements with deep grooves for food that make it harder for him to inhale a meal.

Toy Transition Tips

Each of these types may require some teaching, though chewing-type toys don’t seem to require as much figuring out. Pets, especially dogs, just seem to know what to do with them. Regardless of which type you are trying, when you’re first introducing a food-dispensing toy, start just before a regular meal and show your pet how it works. Some pets may need you to just hold a dispenser-type toy so that food comes out easily, or for you to help them manipulate the feeding station, so they can see that it is a new food source. For toys where the difficulty of access can be adjusted, start with the easiest setting and gradually provide less help. If your pet has difficulty with the transition, give him some time with the toy and then offer his usual meal (minus the portion that he’s already eaten) so that he doesn’t associate the toy with being hungry and frustrated. Make sure to reduce the bowl meal’s size as your pet gets more experienced with the toy. Here are a few other things to think about as you transition from bowl to toy:

  • As you can imagine, these toys see a lot of nose poking, licking and rolling on the floor, so getting them clean is important, especially if you’re using canned or frozen food. Pick a toy that can be disassembled and/or washed thoroughly, since crusty old food isn’t in your pet’s best interest (and you don’t want ants). Make sure the food is consumed before it can spoil. Canned or frozen food should be eaten within a few hours, while uneaten dry food should be thrown out at the end of the day.
  • Supervise your pets with these toys, at least until they (and you) know what to expect. Pets can also knock toys under furniture where they can’t reach them, which is frustrating and will leave them hungry. It also means that there’s food lying around waiting to spoil. If it’s a problem, either block access to that room or block off any areas under the furniture where the toys could get stuck. 
  • If you have multiple pets, use the toys when they are separated to avoid having a more dominant pet hoard or monopolize the toy or station. This can lead to weight loss in one pet and gain in the other, as well as fights between them.
  • Chewing-type toys are constructed of more flexible material and, if they are broken or improperly sized, can pinch the soft tissues of the mouth, get stuck over teeth, or be swallowed and cause obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. This is rare, but when it happens, it’s dramatic. Consequences can be serious, so make sure any toy you offer your pet can’t get stuck in his teeth or throat and that there are no cracks or tears in the material. Discard broken toys and avoid any toy that your pet can chew aggressively enough to tear or break.  
  • If your goal is to help prevent boredom, don’t use the same toy for every meal. In this case, use several in rotation, preferably different types or toys that require different manipulations to work, so that your pet stays mentally engaged. Some feeding stations are available with interchangeable modules so that the pet can have different tasks to perform for each meal. 
  • Monitor your pet to make sure he is using the toy. If you’re still finding food in it at the end of the day, or your pet loses weight (unintentionally) after changing to food-dispensing toys, do some investigation. Make sure the food you put in the toy actually fits through the dispenser opening and that the device is working properly. It’s been reported that some pets associate the toy with anxiety and being left alone, so they avoid it. If you suspect this is the case or you have questions or concerns about using food-dispensing toys, talk with your veterinarian.
By putting some thought into it and taking a few extra steps, you can use feeding time as one way to provide more for your pet than just food!

More on Vetstreet: