Feeding the Mind and Body: Interactive Feeders for Dogs and Cats

By Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services

Our pets depend on us to provide them with the basic necessities of life - food, water, and shelter. They can’t go to the store to buy groceries, so we provide their dinner. They can’t go to the fridge and grab a drink, so we keep their water bowls full. They can’t build a house to protect themselves from bad weather, so we welcome them into our homes.

But, even with all the perks of being a pampered pet, our furry friends maintain a basic instinct for survival that may impress you. They may not have to fend for themselves since they are prized family members, but they don’t forget the natural drive to survive that they inherited from their ancestors. Interactive feeders 'feed' that instinct.

What is an interactive feeder?

As the name implies, an interactive feeder requires action. These remarkable feeders are puzzles that require brain power and dexterity to solve. And the prize for solving the puzzle is yummy.

Rather than passively doling out food, interactive feeders make the pet actively work for a snack by thinking and planning as his hunting/foraging ancestors did in the wild. So instead of quickly gobbling out of an overflowing food bowl, the pet exercises his mind and body to obtain a portioned amount of food that he consumes more slowly. Interactive feeders come in all shapes and sizes that present varying degrees of difficulty making pets use their problem-solving ability.

In nature, animals that are skilled enough to hunt and find food sometimes hide it again by burying it. Burying food protects it from predators and stores it safely until the hunter digs it up for his next meal. Interactive feeders 'feed' this instinct, too.

What types of interactive feeders are available?

Interactive feeders come in many different designs from simple to complex. Some target dogs or cats specifically, while others are fun for both.

"Dogs often like simple rubber chew toys with holes or pockets that hide kibble, playing off of that instinct to hide and dig up their food."

Dogs often like simple rubber chew toys with holes or pockets that hide kibble, playing off of that instinct to hide and dig up their food. People like these chew toys, too, because digging food out of a toy is better than digging in the flower bed! These rubber toys are shaped to bounce unpredictably keeping the dog on his toes and sparking his interest and can also be used for a game of fetch. The open end allows the dog to smell the treat which encourages him to play. Sturdy enough to withstand a lot of chewing, they are perfect for teething pups.

A Swedish company designed a more complicated interactive feeder called a Dog Brick which hides treats in cubby holes under ‘bricks’ that must be pushed aside. This game also includes pegs that must be lifted or knocked over to reveal treats. Made of wood or plastic, some bricks can be locked to increase the degree of difficulty.

There is also a very sophisticated electronic game feeder that the pet owner controls with a mobile phone app. The puzzle has three touch pads and different colored lights. The dog learns that pawing a particular touch pad produces a treat. The owner can make the program harder to challenge the dog or easier if frustration sets in.

Some manipulative feeders target cats. One shaped like a fishbowl requires kitties to scoop out food with their paws. Others have tunnels or 'mouse' holes that encourage the cat to develop a hunting strategy. Cats also enjoy feeders with multiple flexible tubes that hide food. These bendable tubes are fun to play with and present a challenge for cats; and the tubes are removable so cleaning is not a challenge for cat owners!

"Cats also enjoy feeders with multiple flexible tubes that hide food."

Cat puzzle feeders such as these require the use of dexterity and nimble paws, but using the mouth is important too. Feeding games with small openings too small for paws can be filled with canned food or small treats and fulfill the cat’s desire to lick. Either way, figuring out the best method to acquire the treat provides education and entertainment for cats.

Some interactive feeders are fun for both cats and dogs. A simple feeding toy that targets both types of pets is a vinyl ball that houses kibble in pockets. As the pet rolls the ball, the kibble falls out. Simple yet effective!

Both cats and dogs also enjoy feeding toys comprised of several compartments that each require a different technique to open. The pet may have to press a button, pull a knob, tug a rope, or slide a drawer to open the slot hiding the treat. Individual compartments can be rotated to maintain the pet’s interest in the game.

"Food is placed between the protrusions and the pet has to use his paws and mouth to push the food around the ’blades of grass’ until he can grasp it."

Another more complex feeder that requires manipulation to reach the reward displays food where the cat or dog can see it but must figure out how to reach it. One type has a plate-shaped base with raised protrusions of different heights. This simulates foraging for food in the grassy outdoors. Food is placed between the protrusions and the pet has to use his paws and mouth to push the food around the ’blades of grass’ until he can grasp it. The feeders come in many sizes to accommodate large dogs as well as small pups and cats and work with dry or canned food.

Cleaning is easy because they are dishwasher safe.

Does your pet need an interactive feeder?

Before they were domesticated pets, dogs and cats were working animals. They caught mice, herded livestock, and protected the home site. These duties kept them physically and mentally active. While some pets do work for a living, the hardest job most dogs and cats have is serving as good companions while we actually serve them! With extra time on their "paws," some pets become bored and lonely. They don’t get to utilize their natural hunting or foraging instincts and may resort to destructive behavior. Interactive feeders may relieve the boredom and help with behavior issues.

These feeders may also help pets with separation anxiety. Interactive feeders, when combined with other behavior modification tools, may help alleviate the effects of separation anxiety by distracting and entertaining the pet.

"Interactive feeders, when combined with other behavior modification tools, may help alleviate the effects of separation anxiety by distracting and entertaining the pet."

Inactivity leads to obesity and health problems. Bored pets, like bored people, tend to nibble all day consuming excess calories that result in excess weight gain. Interactive feeders provide only small portions of food, combat boredom and keep pets mentally stimulated. Some actually require physical activity that burn calories.

Specialty feeding devices can also help pets that eat too aggressively. Dogs and cats that gulp their food or binge eat can develop digestive disorders such as regurgitation, bloat, or vomiting. Interactive feeders force them to eat slower, and may decrease these problems.

Besides being fun, interactive feeders can help keep pets happier and healthier. While pet owners will still provide the basic necessities of life for their furry family members, it’s good to let them work some things out on their own. A little challenge is a good thing!

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