If you want to get fed in my house, you have to work for your meals. So when dinnertime rolls around for my 6-year-old golden retriever, Jessie, I’ll serve her food with a puzzle that she must complete before she eats.
Think that sounds mean? It’s actually far from it. Food puzzles, like hiding meals under plastic cups or in muffin tins covered with tennis balls, play into the natural instincts cats and dogs are born with. “Before they became house pets, dogs and cats used to spend most of their waking hours hunting and foraging for food,” says Sharon Wirant, animal behaviorist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Westmoreland, NH. That scavenging not only kept them busy, it also gave them opportunities to use problem-solving skills and their keen sense of smell.
Now, however, cats and dogs live mainly indoors, where they no longer have to think about where their next meal is coming from. They don’t even have to do anything to get that food, and all this spells a disastrous consequence: boredom. “Because they’re not mentally or physically stimulated, especially if they’re home all day alone, pets then look for other things to do, which often results in behavioral issues,” says veterinarian Michael Farber, chief of staff at West Chelsea Veterinary in New York City.
In an effort to save your favorite shoes or new furniture from an unwarranted attack, chains like Petco and PetSmart, and even local stores, have stocked their shelves with food puzzles. Take the kong Wobbler, one of Jessie’s favorite food puzzles: In order for food to be dispensed through a small hole in the toy, Jessie must push the ball around with her paw or nose. Feeling creative? It’s just as easy to make your own puzzle: Line up five plastic cups and stick a treat under one or two of them. Your pet then has to figure out which cups have treats by knocking all of them over.
In addition to keeping your pal’s boredom at bay, these games also give Fido the physical and mental challenges he craves. “Many pets are happier when given tasks to do,” Wirant says. And since many puzzles require movement and slow eating, the games could also fight weight gain and gastrointestinal issues, suggests Farber.
No matter what you do, start out easy. “Give your pets the simplest puzzle that lets them easily obtain the food,” Wirant says. When they get the hang of it, continue to challenge them—“Think different, not always difficult,” says Farber—so you keep them alert and excited. But if your pets don’t catch on as quickly as you hope, don’t fret—just keep trying puzzles until you find one that captures their attention.