Food Puzzles And Foraging Can Do Wonders For Your Cat

Awhile back I wrote about how we addressed Chase’s boredom with being an indoor cat. We divide his meals up into two or three portions, give one directly to him, and hide the other(s). He seems to love “hunting” for his food. We’ve never tried food puzzles with him, but those are also a great way to stimulate your cat’s instincts and enrich his life.

Food puzzles will make your cat exercise his mind and his body

Cats instinctively want to forage, and free-feeding them from a single bowl doesn’t serve that need. Cats are happiest when they’re able to engage in their natural, instinctive behaviors, and that includes with mealtime. One thing you can do, even if you free-feed, is what we do with Chase – place small bowls of food around the house for him to hunt.

Many people who free-feed might feel sketchy about that because of the fear of attracting bugs and vermin, though. That’s where food puzzles can come in. One cat behaviorist, Mikel Delgado, says:

“[Food puzzles] provide cats with exercise and mental stimulation. It gives them an outlet for foraging for their food… As hunters, cats would be working for their food all day if they were not provided with a bowl.”

The lack of an outlet for instinctive behavior can lead to behavioral problems, including not using the litter box, overgrooming, and excessive attention-seeking. What food puzzles do is stimulate your cat’s mind and his instincts, while keeping all his food in one container.

Here are a couple of ideas for DIY food puzzles

You don’t even have to buy expensive contraptions. Purina ONE has some ideas for DIY food puzzles that are great. With just a plastic tub like the ones that hold cream cheese or sour cream (avoid PVC, though), an extra lid that’s bigger than the tub’s proper lid, a utility knife, and non-toxic glue, you can make a food puzzle that your cat has to push around in order to get his food.

You can use a bottle, or even a holiday egg, for this kind of puzzle. Click here to see exactly how to make these puzzle feeders. There’s still a chance that you’ll get some food around your house, but it will be much less than leaving bowls around.

In case your cat seems uninterested in those kinds of feeders, you can try a reach box feeder. Instructions for making that are on Purina ONE’s site at the link above as well. If neither of these feeders really works (and that is a very real possibility, cats are cats after all!), don’t give up! See what happens if you hide a few treats around the house, or very small bowls of food. Or come up with your own puzzle feeder and try that.

In our house, Chase has done so well “hunting” for his food that we started hiding bowls for Kali and Aria, too. Kali, especially, enjoys the “hunt” each night, and she seems like a happier cat, too. Whether you give your cat foraging opportunities, puzzle feeders or both, your cat will likely be much happier for it.

Why do Cats Knock Stuff off of Tables?

There are memes and cartoons circulating the Internet that show cats are jerks, because they like to knock stuff off of everything. Tables, shelves, bars; you name it, some cats will knock something off of it. What’s worse is that they seem to do it for no apparent reason, other than to aggravate us. Why do cats knock stuff off of, well, anything?

Your cat isn’t a jerk. There’s a reason cats knock stuff off

Parade spoke to famous animal behaviorist, Jackson Galaxy, about certain cat behaviors. For this one, Galaxy says that it could be boredom, kind of like giving a toddler crayons and no paper. “Hello, bedroom wall mural!” is how he explained what happens when you do that. One possible reason that cats knock stuff off of furniture and shelves is because they’re bored.

In my house, especially with Kali, that often seems to be the case. Kali is a little bundle of boundless energy, and if we don’t tend to that energy, she turns into a little rascal. It’s not uncommon for her to see something, like a tube of Chapstick, a piece of fuzz, a nail file or clippers, tweezers, or any other small or medium-sized objects, and suddenly decide they’re toys.

When she has balls, or little mice, to bat around, she’s far more likely to leave our stuff alone. Her behavior bears out what Galaxy says about why cats knock stuff off of tables. So what can you do, aside from more playtime, and ensuring your cat has ample toys of her own with which to play?

In addition to plenty of toys and playtime…

Cats also tend to find the outdoors fascinating, so in addition to toys, provide lots of window perches and non-toxic plants, to keep your indoor-only cat even happier. You can simply plant some cat grass and catnip in pots around your house, or you can actually create a cat garden as a refuge for your kitty. Put some toys in the cat garden, and having cats knock stuff off of tables might become less of a thing in your house.

The bottom line is, cats knock stuff off of tables because it’s in their nature to do so. It does make them seem like jerks, because they do it at random. But take heart! There are ways to address this. And if you can’t, you can always just ensure that whatever your cat knocks off won’t break.

One Great Way to Enrich your Cat’s Environment

When it comes to enriching your cat’s environment, you might have to get creative. One thing you absolutely ought to do is create as much vertical territory as possible, using cat trees, shelves, or anything else you can think of, because climbing is instinctive behavior for cats. Toys, hidey holes, and safe, warm beds are also great enrichment. But sometimes, you have all of this, and it’s still not enough. How else can you enrich your cat’s environment?

A new game that might enrich your cat’s environment

We started a new game with Chase awhile back (it’s actually how we accidentally got into clicker training with him), because we noticed that he wasn’t eating his full meals anymore. He’d eat probably half, and then turn his nose up at the rest. The alarm bells in my head said he was sick, except he was still begging for my lunch and dinner, and he was still all excited about treats. He is great at hiding when he doesn’t feel well, but one telltale sign that he’s sick is that he doesn’t want his treats. So he wasn’t sick.

I thought it was likely that he was just bored in some way. He does want to be an indoor-outdoor cat, but we have no way of ensuring that he’ll stay in our backyard, so we can’t let him out, except on a harness and leash. It’s just too dangerous. We had to address his boredom, though. We had to stimulate his mind and his instincts.

One fantastic way to enrich your cat’s environment is to make him “hunt” for his food. This is what we started doing with Chase. We divide his meals into three bowls, and he gets one bowl in the kitchen, and the other two get placed elsewhere in the house. He has to use his eyes and his nose to find them.

Catering to the hunting instinct is a fantastic way to enrich your cat’s environment

Dr. Jennifer Coates, at PetMD, agrees that this is a great way to enrich your cat’s environment. The way she puts it, we’ve taken a species that spent countless hours outside, hunting and scavenging enough food just to survive, and put it indoors with near-continuous access to food, and limited opportunities to really move. This results in boredom, bad behavior, and obesity.

Feeding multiple small meals per day, instead of free feeding, or feeding one larger meal, helps bring your cat closer to what he would have in the wild. While you can’t realistically feed your cat eight to ten small meals per day, you can feed three or four.

Dr. Coates also recommends using puzzle feeders, or you can take his meals and hide them, the way we do with Chase. You can also teach him to fetch certain objects by hiding them, and rewarding him with treats when he finds them and brings them back. Anything that stimulates hunting instincts will help to enrich your cat’s environment.

How to train your cat to “hunt” for his food

If you want to enrich your cat’s environment by hiding his food, start small. We started small with Chase, by giving him his usual bowl in his usual place, and then putting the other two bowls just a short distance away, where he could still see and smell them. From there, we put them out of his immediate sight, but still where he could easily find them. Once he had the hang of that, we started putting them up on chairs, on his shelves, and in other harder to find places.

It seems to have worked. He’ll still come and cry that he can’t find his food, which is where the clicker training has come in. He also “lies,” where he’ll find all his food, eat all of it, and then come cry like he can’t find his food. But for the most part, he seems happier eating his meals this way than he did when he was eating all of it at one time, in one place.

How to Build Great Temporary Cat Houses

Cats love having places to hide, and that’s one reason they like boxes so much. Boxes also have unfamiliar smells and are an unfamiliar sight, so they’re new places for your cat to explore. But sometimes, just leaving a box out is kind of boring. If you have several boxes, plus some masking tape, you can make cat houses out of them.

How do you make cat houses out of boxes?

Temporary cat houses are easy to make out of boxes. We just made one out of three delivery boxes. Two were taped together, with a hole cut in one of them to serve as a doorway between the two “rooms.” There’s a third box up on top, with holes cut to serve as a hatchway between the two. The box on top, and one of the boxes on the floor, also have holes that serve as entries and exits.

Most cats like enclosed spaces, and cat houses are a more interesting way to cater to that desire. Petplace says that small, snug places often make cats feel more secure. Things like boxes, laundry baskets, drawers, and more all fit the bill of a small, snug, defined place.

How our cats handle these kinds of cat houses

Of all the cat houses we’ve ever built, this is probably the most complex, and our cats don’t seem to know what to make of it just yet. Kali‘s been inside, and explored as much as she felt she needed to, but she never tried to get out the upper exit. She just pokes her head through the holes and hatchway, and looks at us.

We had to coax Aria to go in, and then she just turned around and came right back out. She wasn’t too fond of it, but that could have something to do with Kali sticking to her when she went inside.

Chase doesn’t even seem to want to go in, but he’s got problems with enclosed spaces when he’s not sure if he’s got a clear exit. Cat houses like this can be confusing at first, and it takes some exploration to find all the ways out. Chase needs his escape routes clearly marked.

We haven’t tried it with Gizmo, yet, but Gizmo loves places like this. She might go in and have to be coaxed out!

It’s important to remember that these cat houses are strictly indoor-only. If you’re looking to build outdoor cat houses for stray and feral cats, click here. Houses made out of cardboard boxes aren’t sufficient for the elements; however, if all you want is to make new hidey-holes for your cat inside, build some temporary cat houses out of boxes, and see what happens. You never know, it could become your cat’s favorite place.

Vertical Territory: Cats Need To Be Up High

Cats need high places; if they didn’t, cat trees wouldn’t be such big business. Cats are climbers, and as such, need vertical territory. This is especially true if they’re indoor-only cats, who need all the enrichment in their environments that they can get. In short, high is good, when it comes to being a cat.

Vertical territory helps to keep the peace in a house, because it gives cats a great way to get away from each other, and from other stressors. According to The Cat Coach, it also allows cats in multi-cat households to arrange themselves in their flexible hierarchy. Your cats can demonstrate their relationships to each other without the need for aggression.

Kali up on her perch in a bedroom.

Vertical territory also provides entertainment, says The Cat Coach. Cats might be safest indoors, but they still need physical and mental stimulation. You can provide a lot of this with interactive playtime, but you can’t play with them all the time, and they should have their own places and spaces to explore and claim.

Gizmo enjoys her perches too. She tends to use the shelves as an escape.

According to Catster, climbing, running and jumping are not just things cats do for fun. The need to be up high is instinctive, and catering to that instinct means happier kitties. Other benefits of having vertical territory in your house are temperature, especially in the winter, because it tends to be warmer up high; and it makes cats feel safe.

How to decide what kinds of vertical territory is right for you

So, other than cat trees, how do you put vertical territory in your house? If you live in a small space, having a cat tree might be difficult, if not impossible. One alternative is to install carpet shelves and ledges. This is a very popular way to add vertical territory to your house, even if it’s small. You can do it yourself, or you can buy some from places like KatWallks.

Chase probably makes the most use out of these shelves. He’s the alpha in this house.

Another type of vertical territory is a window perch. This has the added benefit of giving your cats a good view of the outside world. They can watch the birds and squirrels, and the leaves when they blow across the yard in autumn. You can buy window perches; or, like shelves, you can build your own.

Our vertical territory consists mostly of shelves. We built our shelves (seen above and below) with 2×6 boards, a roll of carpeting that our local Menards was going to toss, staples, and stair rail brackets. We opted for the stair rail brackets instead of regular shelf brackets for two reasons: One is because they’re smaller and less obtrusive, but the main reason is because it allowed us to put in shelves at an angle without special hardware or mounting pieces.

All four of our cats, just after we installed the shelves in a bedroom.

With the angled shelves, our cats have what amount to ramps in a couple of places. It forces them to use their claws a little bit, and actually climb. We don’t have angled shelves everywhere, but where we do have them, our cats like them.

We’ve found that shelves work in our house better than cat trees. What you do for vertical territory in your house depends on your situation, but it is something that’s very important to keep indoor cats happy.

Homemade Toys That This Cat Loves

This is one of Gizmo’s favorite homemade toys. It’s just a crushed paper bag with old spearmint tea bags inside. She treats the spearmint in this toy like it’s catnip, because both catnip and spearmint are part of the mint family. We’ve found that these toys are great enrichment for her, especially since she doesn’t like playing when the other cats are around.

Gizmo was 13 years old when this was taken, and now she’s 14. She still loves these homemade toys. If you’d like to try a toy like this, it’s easy. All you need are brown paper lunch bags, and dried catnip, mint, spearmint, or even pumpkin spice. You could even try valerian root, since some cats respond to that as well. These are great ways to make a variety of toys for your cat that are fun, cheap and replaceable.

Click here for a short list of plants and herbs that are safe for your cat.