Dog lying by a food puzzle

Q. I’m thinking about feeding my dogs and cats from food puzzles rather than bowls. My animals are all a little picky and kind of lazy, though, so I’m not sure if it’s worth it. How will I know if they like it? And how do I care for the actual puzzles?  

Food puzzles tap into an animal’s natural instincts to hunt and scavenge. They also encourage animals to use both mental and physical energy to obtain their food. For many animals, this may help decrease behavior problems that stem from boredom and lack of exercise. Your pets may be acting picky and lazy because they’re not being challenged — and food puzzles could be the solution.

That’s not to say that switching to food puzzles will be easy for your pets; some animals will be confused by the puzzle and will need help learning to engage with it. And cats may need a little more convincing than dogs to do a puzzle — though some felines instantly take to food puzzles, many prefer the path of least resistance. When given a choice between a bowl and a food puzzle, many cats will rush to the bowl. But that doesn’t mean food puzzles won’t work for your pets.

Introducing Food Puzzles

Some dogs and cats immediately respond to food puzzles with salivating eagerness to unearth the hidden contents, but others may need encouragement and a slow introduction. One way to introduce the concept of working for food is to divide the animal’s meal into several bowls, rather than serving it all in one place. Once your pet is comfortable with eating from multiple bowls, introduce the idea of working for a meal by increasing the distance between the bowls. Start by moving them just a few inches from each other; as your pets get used to this, work toward having the bowls in different rooms in your house.

You can also start with a puzzle that comes apart and looks like a typical food bowl. One of my favorites, the Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble, unscrews; the bottom section holds the kibble, while the top section adjusts to create various levels of difficulty for the pet. Slow learners can start by eating out of just the bottom piece, which resembles a food bowl. When your animal is ready to work for a treat or meal, add the top part.

You can also get your animals excited about food puzzles by introducing them as a fun extra rather than as a meal. For instance, feed your pets their normal kibble from a bowl and then offer a Kong stuffed with treats as dessert.

Keep expectations reasonable, though: When you’re stuffing a puzzle for a beginner animal, choose round treats and pack them loosely, so they can easily be licked or tipped out. This helps build your animal’s confidence and comfort level with the puzzles and makes it more likely that he will stick with it when it becomes his main source of food.

Challenging Your Pets

How will you know if your pets like their food puzzles? They’ll tell you: Watch for behaviors that indicate anticipation when you get out the puzzles. Depending upon the animal, this could vary from a cat meowing and rubbing against your legs to a dog leaping excitedly and licking his lips when he sees the puzzle. Another good sign is an intense focus on the puzzle. A willingness to work for the food, whether it takes five minutes or five hours, is a positive sign the animal is enticed and engaged.

Once your pets get used to their food puzzles, you can increase the challenge by rotating food puzzles, dividing food between multiple puzzles or linking compatible pieces together to form more complex puzzles. Puzzles can also be hidden — your animals will need to find them before they can eat. For particularly puzzle-savvy pets, you can purchase genius-level puzzles with various turns and pieces that need to be removed before kibble can be released.

The way you stuff a puzzle can also make it more difficult. Fill cavity toys, like Kongs, in layers; alternate hard treats or kibble with soft filling, like peanut butter, cream cheese or canned dog or cat food. Freeze the puzzle for added difficulty.

Caring for Your Food Puzzles

Food puzzles should be cleaned regularly. For those filled with loose treats or kibble, rinsing with water or gentle soap is adequate. Cavity toys, like Kongs, that are stuffed with softer filling should be washed after every use, as saliva and food particles can become trapped inside.

The best way to clean puzzles is by soaking them in warm, soapy dishwater — some puzzles are labeled as dishwasher safe, but repeated dishwasher cleaning can weaken the material and shorten the life of the puzzle.

Some animals are very sensitive to smells. For that reason, I recommend a neutral-smelling, noncitrus soap to avoid a lingering scent. Use a scrub brush, such as a baby bottle cleaner or toothbrush, on hard-to-reach areas.

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