Downtime

My Cat Seems Bored. Is a Food Puzzle Really the Answer?

She can’t solve this thing!

A cat figuring out puzzles, looking perplexed
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

I recently married into becoming a cat dad and am trying to embrace my new family member. My wife and I work all day, and I was worried about the cat being bored and not getting the proper mental stimulation, so I bought a tiered feeding device. It’s designed to make the cat push dry food down unaligned holes until it falls into the feeding tray at the bottom. We can’t get our cat to figure out how to push the dry food around, so she will only eat out of the bottom tray when we put food there for her. If we leave it empty, she just looks at it and meows until we feel bad and put some food at the bottom. We’ve tried to wait and see if she figures it out, but then we feel too mean. How can we teach her to use this, and is it even necessary to give her problems like this to solve?

—Concerned Cat Dad

Dear Concerned Cat Dad,

What you’re describing is called a “food puzzle,” and it provides more for your cat than simple entertainment. Cat preschools will look at her performance on the device as an aptitude test, and she needs to be enrolled in a decent kindergarten if there is any chance of matriculating into a top-tier elementary school, which she’ll need to do just to poke her paw in the door of any good high school—even if you have connections. You are right to be concerned: If her food-puzzle struggles continue, your cat won’t be getting into the college of her choice.

The good news is that cat college is a pointless expense and merely an excuse to party, so you needn’t worry about hiring a food-puzzle tutor. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon food puzzles altogether, though. On the contrary: The devices do provide cats with the kind of mental stimulation they crave, and you were wise to get her one. I’ve had lots of conversations with cat behaviorists for Beast Mode, and nearly all of them have recommended food puzzles as a way to enrich an indoor cat’s life.

You sound like a demanding cat dad, but please don’t be discouraged because your kitty hasn’t solved her brain teaser yet. Food puzzles are supposed to be tricky. Imagine if you spent your entire life eating from the same plate and then, all of a sudden, your dinner was served inside a Rubik’s Cube–activated safe. It’s a little confusing! Start your cat off slow. Place some of her food in her favorite nooks around the house so she becomes accustomed to searching for meals in new places. Once she learns how to sleuth, try her out with the food puzzle again.

If your puzzle contains obscured compartments, think about investing in a clear model or one that makes it easier for her to track the food. Just because your cat doesn’t get it immediately doesn’t mean she won’t benefit. There aren’t too many studies on food puzzles yet, but a recent academic paper suggests they can be great for a cat’s mental and physical health. The authors of that study released a handout with tips on how to get your cat accustomed to using a puzzle as well as some information about household items that can work as basic puzzles. (An empty ice cube tray might be a good intro puzzle for your cat.)

As enriching as it may be, a food puzzle is but one element of what should be a vibrant environment for your cat. She needs things to climb and areas to explore in your house, and it’s important to spend time playing with her every day. A feather-teaser toy (which looks a little bit like a fishing rod) is a safe bet for at least 20 minutes of fun. Thankfully, there isn’t much of a learning curve when it comes to batting around a fake mouse. We all need breaks from our studies from time to time.