What is food enrichment?
Food enrichment is any method of feeding a cat which does not involve using a bowl. This can range from hiding food around the house for them to find, to buying specific purpose made toys.
How do I introduce food enrichment to my cat?
When you first use food enrichment, you should choose a method that is easy for your cat to work out. Your cat must be able to easily see the food and you should use their favourite food or treats. If your cat cannot see the food then the motivation to get the food will not be as high.
Sit with your cat and encourage them over to the toy by tapping it and moving the biscuits. You can even get a few nuggets to fall out of the toy so your cat can easily get them, encouraging them to try to get more. If your cat is highly food motivated then it may not take them long to work out how to get all the food.
Having a variety of different toys will help to keep them stimulated. Either use a different enrichment method each meal or use the same method for a week and then rotate, and make sure that your cat is 100% confident using each toy before moving onto another.
Start by offering half of the food in the toy. When they lose interest don’t immediately give them the rest of the food as this will reward your cat for walking away from the toy. Instead, wait half an hour and then give the rest of the food in your cat’s regular bowl. Leave any remaining food in the toy as your cat may go back to it to try again later.
Encourage them back over to the toy at regular intervals throughout the day by dropping a biscuit out for them to eat. As your cat gains confidence, you can put the whole meal in the toy and eventually try other toys.
What are the benefits of using food enrichment?
As it is not natural for a cat to eat large quantities of food in a small amount of time, some cats can be prone to vomiting if they eat too quickly. Toys which only allow your cat to eat a few biscuits at a time will promote healthy digestion and reduce the chance that their stomach will reject the food.
Cats that do not go outside much or are quite lazy may benefit most by food enrichment as it will keep them stimulated and less likely to exhibit behaviours associated with boredom, stress and frustration.
Food enrichment can get your cat moving more, which may also help to keep them at a healthy weight, thus reducing the risk of health problems such as diabetes and arthritis developing. In addition, hunting and catching prey releases endorphins, also known as the “happy hormone”. It is therefore possible that using food enrichment stimulates the release of endorphin.
Types of food enrichment
Hiding small amounts of food around the home or simply scattering the whole meal across the floor is the easiest method of food enrichment. Your cat will have to spend more time “hunting” for the food and will be exercising at the same time. Alternatively, you can get your cat to chase after individual biscuits thrown down the hallway which will also help to simulate chasing prey. This is especially great for cats with lots of energy or those who need to lose some weight, as they’ll be running up and down the hallway until all the food is gone.
Home Made Toys
Toys can be made at home easily and cheaply. Keep your empty cereal boxes and pop the dry food inside, place on its side for your cat to work out how to get the food. Or you can save your toilet roll holders and tape them together to make a pyramid. Your cat will have to use its paws to push or pull the food out of the toy. As the cat will only get a few nuggets of food each time it will take longer to eat the meal and will move about more.
Click here for a fun and simple puzzle feeder you can make at home!
Purpose designed toys
There are lots of toys on the market which offer various levels of difficulty to your cat. A variety of toys are recommended to ensure that your cat does not get bored and remains mentally stimulated.
Water fountains also offer good enrichment as well. They are a great way of helping your cat to maintain a healthy water intake whether you feed wet food or not. Cats prefer fresh water and will often prefer to drink out of a dripping tap or their owner’s fresh glass of water rather than their own water bowl. Water fountains continually circulate the cat’s water, keeping it fresh and encouraging your cat to drink. Until you are sure that your cat is comfortable using the water fountain, you should keep the normal water bowl in its usual place so as not to upset them.