Trouble with Food Puzzles? Here are Six Tips

4. “I don’t want small pieces of food from the puzzles scattered around my home.”

Most pets eat all the food they get from the puzzle. If they don’t, you can restrict using the puzzles to only one or some of the rooms of your house, such as the kitchen or bathroom, where food items can be easily seen and retrieved. For cats, you can also place puzzles in more restricted areas such as bathtubs, baskets, under-the-bed storage containers or in the lids of large storage totes. The only downside of limiting or reducing the area the puzzle can be used in is that it makes the food easier to obtain, thereby reducing your pet’s opportunities for activity. A stationary food puzzle is also a good solution to this problem.

5. “Food puzzles frustrate my pet."

Pets can indeed become frustrated when they can’t have something they value. Keep in mind, though, that a little frustration is stimulating — in fact, it's the point of food puzzles. The pet has to work to get its food and has to think of other ways to get at it in the puzzle. Too much frustration, however, can lead to helplessness or hopelessness. We do our best to avoid this by planning carefully coached introductions, which leave the pet challenged but not defeated. Frustration is most likely to happen in unenriched environments, so I always try to address any other enrichment issues in the pet’s environment, such as competition with other pets for resources, boredom and instability before introducing food puzzles. Your pet also might become frustrated if he or she “loses” the toy, so make sure there are no inaccessible areas that the food toy could roll under or be dropped into. You can also offer your pet multiple food puzzles to provide choices and help prevent frustration if one puzzle does roll under the couch!

6. “I just don’t know where to start.”

Start simply. Food puzzles typically come in two styles — rolling and stationary. They can be purchased or homemade and can be used with dry or wet food or treats. To begin, perhaps start with a simple clear puzzle with plenty of holes so your pet can see and smell the food. Make sure it is at least half full so the food comes out easily. If dry food is used, you can sprinkle a few pieces around the puzzle so your pet will investigate and hopefully get the idea. As your pet gets the hang of it, gradually increase the challenge if necessary by using puzzles that are opaque, have fewer holes or are unique shapes. There are lots of ways you can continue to intrigue your pet, and your veterinarian can advise you on additional options.

Food puzzles have been used to enrich the lives of zoo animals for decades, but their use with our pets has been more recent. This has resulted in an increasing awareness of the positive effects of environmental enrichment, such as that provided by food puzzles, on confined pets. And while many pets do live in appropriately enriched environments, many more appear not to. The proper use of food puzzles can help improve the lives of our pets, help reduce health and behavior problems and thereby enhance the human-animal bond to the benefit of all concerned. Let’s go foraging!

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