Do Food Puzzles Help Cat Activity Levels?

At Sparkle Kitty, we’re passionate advocates of food puzzles as an excellent enrichment option for our feline friends. Considering their natural predator instincts, cats have evolved to work for their food. However, as indoor pets, we’ve handed them food in a bowl, essentially taking away their natural foraging jobs.

Like foraging enrichments used with zoo and laboratory animals, food puzzles have gained popularity for pet dogs (e.g., the Kong) and are now gaining popularity for cats. These puzzles require cats to forage for their food, engaging them in various levels of problem-solving and mental stimulation, from simple activities like rolling a ball to access dry food to sliding open doorways to reach a well of treats.

Investigating Food Puzzles’ Impact on Feline Activity

A recent pilot study, titled “Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats,” published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, examined the effect of food puzzles on cat activity levels. The study utilized accelerometer-based “activity collars” to measure the cats’ movement.

Nineteen household cats participated in the study, with some cats being free-fed while others were fed once or twice per day. A crossover design was employed, with cats switching between regular food bowls and food puzzles. Cats were given time to adjust to the food puzzles and acclimate to the new feeding method.

Unexpected Results

Surprisingly, the results showed no significant differences in activity levels between cats eating from bowls versus those using food puzzles. Additionally, the type of food puzzle (Indoor Hunting Feeder vs. PetSafe puzzles) did not impact activity levels. Age was the only notable factor influencing activity levels, with older cats being less active in general.

While the results may seem counterintuitive, there are several possible explanations. Cats using food puzzles may compensate for their activity by being less active at other times, leading to similar overall activity levels. The study’s sample size was relatively small, potentially limiting the ability to detect subtle differences between bowl feeders and puzzle feeders. Moreover, food puzzles offer other benefits, such as slowing feeding, providing mental stimulation, and warding off boredom or problematic behaviors.

Previous studies have shown that cats display increased anticipatory activity levels while waiting for a meal, and increasing the number of meals per day can effectively boost their overall activity. It would be beneficial to replicate this study with a larger sample size to enhance statistical power and validate the results.

Other Benefits of Food Puzzles

Even though this study suggests that food puzzles may not significantly increase activity levels in cats, we firmly believe in their positive effects based on extensive research on foraging enrichment in other species. Cats in this study easily transitioned to puzzle feeding without any issues, indicating that food puzzles can be successfully incorporated into their routines.

The undeniable benefits of food puzzles for cats may not solely lie in increasing activity levels (at least in the short term) but rather in the mental stimulation, problem-solving opportunities, and overall well-being they provide. As a result, we may need to reframe how we discuss the positive effects of food puzzles on feline behavior. Ultimately, food puzzles remain an excellent enrichment tool to enhance the lives of our beloved feline companions.