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Enrichment for cats

Feeding your cat via a bowl? Think again…for the sake of your cat, please think again!

Much has been written in recent years about providing enrichment to dogs when it comes to meal-times.  The same goes for a number of species, including cats. If you are feeding your cat via a food bowl only, you are doing your feline family member a great dis-service in my humble opinion (and that of any number of cat behaviour professionals). 

Relatively speaking, our domesticated cats of today are not that far removed from their wild ancestors and many of their natural ‘wild’ instincts remain.  While they have become very accustomed to having their food delivered to them in a bowl or dish by their humans at specific times each day, in doing so we are depriving them of the chance to carry out some of their natural, instinctive behaviours and subsequently missing an opportunity to enrich their lives. This is particularly important for indoor-only cats.

Wild cats don’t have the luxury of having their food delivered to them on a regular basis – they must hunt for it.  They are also used to eating small amounts at numerous times throughout the day. A successful hunt does not necessarily mean a huge meal and they might have to hunt several times in a single day to get enough food.

So how do we transfer this to the lifestyle of our domesticated felines? Pretty easily! We simply take the bowl away (partly if not completely) and find other ways to deliver food to them throughout the day.

The first step is to work out how much food your cat requires each day and keep to this amount to prevent over-feeding.  If you feed dry food, there are any number of ways to help your cat use their hunting instincts. There are numerous puzzle feeders available online and in pet stores, with varying degrees of difficulty, but there are also heaps of things you can do with everyday household items. Here are some suggestions:

·       cardboard toilet rolls – place bits of food inside and fold the ends down.

·       scrunch up bits of paper around a piece or two of food.

·       put a few pieces in an empty tissue box or other small box (remove plastic from opening).

·       fill a small box with ping pong balls and put bits of food in the bottom so they have to dig them out. 

·       get a cheap mini muffin baking tin – place a piece of food in each hole and put a small cat ball or ping pong ball on top so they have to remove the balls to get the food.

The possibilities are endless and you can prepare the night before and then set up a ‘hide and seek’ game for them in the morning to keep them amused all day.  Use different items and place them in different spots each day for variety (you may have to show them what you’re doing the first couple of times until they get the hang of it).

If you feed a raw diet or wet-only, you may not want the food hanging around in hidden spots all day, but you can still use any of the ideas above at chosen meal-times to allow them the chance to seek out their food and work for it.

If you have more than one cat and are concerned that one will get more than another if left unsupervised, or if medication is delivered via food, use a bowl (or puzzle feeder preferably) under supervision for their main mealtime … and then use some tasty treats for at least some of the ideas above to allow them the opportunity to ‘hunt’ throughout the day.

Plenty of alternative feeders popular with dogs – including snuffle mats and licky mats – also work well for cats. The possibilities – between bought and home-made – are endless … just use your imagination!

Open your mind to alternative feeding methods and you will not only provide mental stimulation and overall enrichment, but you’ll also help your feline friends burn a few more calories as they seek out their food.

Go forth – and enrich!

Author: Andrea Carne, Cattitude – Cat Behaviour Consultant.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 newsletter of the Pet Professional Guild Australia.

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