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Science Says Doing This One Thing Will Make Your Cat Happier

Your feline friend needs mental stimulation just as much as you do.

If you're like most cat owners, you probably just fill your pet's bowl up during their scheduled feeding time (or whenever their meowing gets so loud you can no longer think straight). But, according to a new study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgeryyou might be doing your feline friend a disservice by not making him sing for his supper.

Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues asked over 3,000 cat owners questions about their cat feeding practices via an online survey in early 2018. The researchers were looking to see how many people used food puzzles with their cats.

Only 30 percent of cat owners in the study used food puzzles regularly. For those who aren't familiar, food puzzles typically consist of an object that can hold food and can be manipulated to release food when an animal cracks the code. There are tons of food puzzles for cats on the market. Some are very simple, consisting of a mobile device with holes that a cat needs to roll around in order to acquire the dry food inside. Others are very intricate, with globes and pegs that make cats really work for their meal.

In the UC Davis survey, 18 percent of cat owners said they had tried food puzzles but were no longer using them. The other 52 percent said they had never used them. But, according to Delgado, food puzzles are pivotal for cats. "Before cats were domesticated, they lived in the wild where they hunted for food," Delgado said in a university newsletter. "Then humans came along and took their jobs away."

In 2016, Delgado published a paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery about case studies that indicate food puzzles can help cats feel more mentally stimulated, as well as less stressed and aggressive. Some of these case studies also suggested that the food puzzles can stimulate weight loss and improve other behavioral issues, such as excessive attention-seeking and litter box avoidance.

In his recent findings, Delgado said that if you've tried using a pet food puzzle before and found that your cat didn't seem interested in them, that's not necessarily a sign that they can't reap the benefits of these mechanisms. "When starting out with a food puzzle, it's important to make it easy for the cat at first, so they can figure it out and not become frustrated," he said. "At the same time, you want to make sure it's challenging enough that it provides some activity and mental stimulation."

According to Delgado, there are different puzzles based on the needs of both the human and the cat. For example, stationary puzzles are better for owners who use wet food and are sensitive to noise, whereas puzzles that move around are better for those who use dry food and have cats who like to play with their nose more than their paws.

You may have to try a few different puzzles at first to see which one your pet responds to, since cats can be very selective creatures. Delgado also recommends placing a little food in the puzzle at first and then increasing both the amount of food and the challenge levels as the cat begins to get used to it, monitoring your pet's behavior until you're confident that the puzzle is a source of delight as opposed to anxiety.

Some cat owners in the UC Davis survey noted that they've refrained from using food puzzles because they have several pets at home. But, Delgado said, "having multiple pets does not have to be an obstacle for using food puzzles." He added: "Pet owners can offer food puzzles under supervision or use a baby gate to have a dog-free zone in their home where they can offer puzzles."

Talk to your veterinarian about what kind of puzzle might suit your cat best. She may just (begrudgingly) thank you for it. And for more ways to find out what your cat needs, here are 30 Surprising Ways Your Cat Communicates With You.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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