Behavior Management: Feeding for Success

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What is Feeding for Success?

Food is important! All animals spend time eating food served to them by a person, or they have to hunt or search for food themselves. Food seeking, also known as foraging, provides physical exercise and cognitive stimulation.

Even though our pets are fortunate to have ready access to food, providing them with an opportunity to use their foraging and hunting skills can be beneficial for their mental and physical health.

How can I use food for mental stimulation?

Food is a necessity, and hunger is a primary motivator for most animals. Dogs and cats (and other pets) can be trained using food as a reward. Special treats are often used for training, particularly when training advanced skills or when implementing behavior modification techniques in complex environments. However, a part of your pet’s daily food ration can be used as a reward when training for simple tasks and good manners. When you train using your pet’s own diet, you can be assured the food will be well-tolerated, nutritionally balanced, and you can easily keep track of your pet’s daily caloric intake to avoid weight gain.

"Try rewarding your pet with food when you see them doing a behavior you like. "

Using food as a motivator is a way to ensure you have positive social interactions with your pet. Food rewards can be used to train special skills, teach tricks, and encourage good manners. Try rewarding your pet with food when you see them doing a behavior you like. As a result of being rewarded, your pet will spend more time engaging in that desirable behavior on a regular basis (see handout “Using Reinforcement and Rewards to Train You Pet”).

How can I satisfy my cat’s need to seek and hunt?

Cats are natural hunters. A free-ranging cat not relying on humans to provide food, can chase and catch the equivalent of about 8 to 10 small animals every day. If your cat enjoys the hunt, you can provide an opportunity for indoor hunting by placing small portions of your cat’s meal in containers or food filled toys and hiding them around your house.

Test toys to be sure they interest your cat, and your cat can successfully manipulate the toy in order to receive the food. If your cat is not interested in food toys, try hiding small dishes of food instead. Keep track of any food you have hidden. It is critical that your cat receives their full daily requirements of food. Cats can quickly become very ill if they do not eat the proper amount of food every day. If you find uneaten food, then feed your cat the balance of her meal in a dish.

Not every house cat enjoys hunting for food. If your cat prefers to eat from a dish, you can still provide exercise and mental stimulation by playing with your cat every day. Use interactive toys that mimic prey, such as the Cat Dancer.

How can I satisfy my dog’s need to seek and forage?

While some pet dogs may not be interested in hunting, most are motivated to work for food and can learn complex tasks. Dogs are adept at problem-solving and can focus for long periods of time when presented with puzzles, particularly when the reward is food or a favored toy.

Dogs that have spent time creatively thinking are just as likely to settle down nicely at the end of the day as dogs that have received an abundance of physical exercise. In other words, cognitive stimulation provides mental and physical benefits.

Foraging toys provide cognitive enrichment for dogs while also satisfying their innate hunting drive. Instead of gulping food from a dish, dogs receive their food by rolling, lifting, tossing, pawing, and otherwise manipulating the toys.

Calculate the amount of food given during training. How much is placed into the foraging toys, and how much is put into the food bowl. Be sure the amount of food you give your dog over the course of the day meets and does not exceed their daily caloric requirement. Your veterinarian can provide you with their daily caloric requirement.

Should I still use a food bowl?

If your pet is a social eater, they may look for their meal when you sit down to breakfast or dinner. It is perfectly fine to provide a small part of their daily ration in the dish at specific times when also using foraging toys.

Related Articles