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As much as we love to spoil our dogs and cats with toys, treats, and even fancy rain gear, the easy life of a domesticated pet can have its downfalls — especially when it comes to meals. “Dogs and cats are designed to spend hours each day working for their food,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, vet expert at Chewy. “We essentially take this job away from them when we provide them with food in bowls.” Along with a rise in obesity, due to overeating and less exercise, taking away the mental stimulation of hunting can cause behavioral issues that stem from boredom and separation anxiety.
To help solve these problems, veterinarians recommend puzzle feeders, which make pets work for their food by using their paws or noses to open a compartment, dig into a container, or navigate a maze. Dr. Zay Satchu, co-founder and chief veterinary officer of Bond Vet, says the key to introducing a puzzle feeder is to find a “really high-value treat” that your pet is willing to work hard for, then start with an easy puzzle that doesn’t require much problem solving. Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, says, “Start simple, and you will graduate up” to puzzles of increasing complexity. Both vets agree it’s also important to rotate the food puzzles you use so your pet doesn’t get bored with the same one.
We asked six veterinarians and animal-behavior experts to share their favorite food puzzles for dogs and cats. Their recommendations, below, include puzzles of varying difficulty.
For a dog new to food puzzles, nearly all our experts suggest a bowl, like this one, that is divided by ridges so it’s slightly more difficult to eat from than a regular bowl. “It’s a way to slow them down while they eat,” says Satchu, “but it also triggers their mind to think through, How am I going to get this little piece of kibble from the very depths of this bowl when my tongue can’t just scoop it up?“Nikki Naser, resident pet expert at Chewy, likes this one from Dogit because “the nonslip rubber keeps dogs from scooting the bowl around, but the cutout at the bottom makes it easy for you to pick it up off the floor.”
You can also try a bowl that is divided into concentric circles or a maze-style pattern. Ward says these kinds of bowls are still “pretty easy” for pets because, once they figure it out, they can “just go in with their muzzle and actually eat their meal.” Nicole Ellis, an expert dog trainer at Rover, says Outward Hound “makes some great ones” that help animals pace themselves while eating, and Naser adds that dogs will “eat up to ten times slower with these.”
Another simple feeding toy that pets to put a little more effort into finding their food, these textured mats are a favorite of Ellis’s, especially for dogs who love to sniff and dig around. “Start with a snuffle mat, working their nose in overdrive,” she says. Simply hide your pet’s food or treats and let their nose go to work. After mealtime, you can put these in the washing machine.” Erin Askeland, an animal-health and behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow, also likes snuffle mats to start with because they’re easy for dogs to use.
Like the puzzle bowls for dogs, this feeder forces cats to find treats or kibble scattered through the grass-like plastic spikes, and it’s easy for beginners. Mikel Delgado, a cat-behavior expert with Rover, is a fan, as well as Naser, who says, “The tall spikes will add to the challenge — mentally and physically — as your kitty tries to push the pieces through to earn her dinner.” .”
Recommended by Satchu and Delgado, this little ball has small holes that dispense treats when cats roll it around. Delgado likes that the SlimCat ball is adjustable so it can adapt as cats learn how to use it. She says, “You can make it easier with larger holes or more challenging by making the holes for the smaller food, which means more interactions are needed to get the food out.”
Askeland likes using this ovoid toy, which is similar to the SlimCat, for introducing cats to food puzzles. She appreciates that there aren’t “too many compartments or levers,” as on a more complicated toy.
Great for the “ball-obsessed pup,” according to Ellis, this wobbling toy dispenses treats as dogs knock it around, but it has only one small opening, which makes it a little more difficult. Satchu is a fan as well and suggests filling one with food and water and then freezing it to make a “dog Popsicle” as a treat on a hot day.
According to Ward, Swedish dog trainer Nina Ottosson is “a pioneer in the space [of puzzle feeders],” and most of our experts pointed to at least one of her products, which are divided into three levels of difficulty. This level-one puzzle, which makes dogs lift bone-shaped pieces to reveal food in hidden compartments, comes recommended by Delgado.
This paw-shaped puzzle feeder is one of Satchu’s favorites; she likes using it with her own puppy. “The pieces are big, so I’m not worried about her chewing on it or choking,” she says. “You can hide food in the base, and they can smell the food that’s in there so it makes it more fun.”
Unlike stationary food puzzles, this kit includes three mouse-shaped toys you can fill with food and hide around the house for cats to hunt. Ellis says she loves that it has “toy mice for your cat to bat and pounce at to [get] their food, something they naturally love to do,” and Ward likes that the mice “engage your cat’s inner predator.” Naser say it gives cats “the satisfaction of finding the mice around the house, batting around their prey to release the food, and finally feasting on their catch.”
With a variety of different puzzles — a tunnel, fish bowl–like pods, and a squiggly path — this mat offers cats lots of challenging ways to “hunt” their food. “Cats typically like to hunt for things,” says Satchu, “so this allows them the opportunity to use their paws [and] their noses,” to dig food out of the various compartments. Delgado agrees it’s good for keeping cats mentally stimulated. “The versatility means different types of problems to solve,” she says.
For cats that are “really, really food motivated” and like to work hard for their supper, Satchu recommends this puzzle, which makes cats scoop food out of tubes of various sizes. Ward uses a similar toy with his cat, which he nicknamed “the Fisherman” because “she likes to go down and catch the food with her claws and pull it out.”
Singled out by Delgado as an especially complex puzzle, this one features a stack of rotating disks that dogs must swivel around to find their treats.
“Nina Ottosson’s level-three puzzles are a lot more difficult,” says Ellis, “requiring our dogs to do different things to get the prize.” This level-three toy is one of the most advanced available, as dogs need to first unlock a series of drawers by twisting the bones on top and then pull the drawers open to access their food. Askeland says puzzles that include multiple steps, “are generally more challenging.”
Dogs tackle four different obstacles — levers, pullout drawers, toppling cones, and sliding compartments — in this extra-difficult puzzle mat.
If you have a cat like Ward’s that is “really dexterous,” it may be ready to take on the multiple puzzles in this expert-level toy.
Like the Catit Digger, this toy includes tubes that hold cat treats, but because these are narrower, cats have to figure out how to turn them upside down to spill out the food. And once they’re out of the tubes, treats fall onto a spikey surface that cats then have to navigate with their paws. It’s one of Delgado’s picks for an advanced cat puzzle.
Also chosen by Delgado, this box has three levels and seven compartments to fill with treats or toys that cats can access only from a series of holes. You can swap out the inner dividers to make the toy more or less challenging, and it’s made from durable coated cardboard so it can withstand feline attacks.
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