The 13 Very Best Food Puzzles for Cats and Dogs – New York Magazine

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As much as we love to spoil our dogs and cats with toys, treats, and even fancy rain gear, the easy life of a domesticated pet can have its downfalls — especially when it comes to meals. “Dogs and cats are designed to spend hours each day working for their food,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, vet expert at Chewy. “We essentially take this job away from them when we provide them with food in bowls.” Along with a rise in obesity owing to overeating and less exercise, taking away the mental stimulation of hunting can cause behavioral issues that stem from boredom and separation anxiety.

To help solve these problems, veterinarians recommend puzzle feeders, which make pets work for their food by using their paws or noses to open a compartment, dig into a container, or navigate a maze. Dr. Zay Satchu, co-founder and chief veterinary officer of Bond Vet, says the key to introducing a puzzle feeder is to find a “really high-value treat” that your pet is willing to work hard for, then start with an easy puzzle that doesn’t require much problem solving. Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, says, “Start simple, and you will graduate up” to puzzles of increasing complexity. Both vets agree it’s also important to rotate the food puzzles you use so your pet doesn’t get bored with the same one.

We asked Satchu, Ward, and eight other veterinarians, animal-behavior experts, and pet owners to share their favorite food puzzles for dogs and cats. Their recommendations, below, include puzzles of varying difficulty.

Best overall | Best slow feeder for cats | Best (more advanced) slow feeder for cats | Best slow feeder for dogs | Best (more advanced) slow feeder for dogs | Best puzzle feeder for cats | Best (more advanced) puzzle feeder for cats | Best puzzle feeder for dogs | Best (more advanced) puzzle feeder for dogs | Best hunting feeder for cats | Best (more advanced) hunting feeder for cats | Best hunting feeder for dogs

Feeder type: Puzzle food bowls can usually be classified as slow feeders, puzzle feeders, or hunting feeders. Slow feeders generally look like more complex versions of regular food bowls and, according to cat-behavior consultant Dr. Mikel Delgado, are mostly intended for cats and dogs who “eat too fast, maybe steal food from other pets, or ‘scarf and barf,’ as they say.” Since your pet has to work a little harder to get at their food, these puzzles will slow them down and prevent them from eating too much too quickly.

Puzzle feeders and hunting feeders are mostly designed to provide mental stimulation for your pet and activate their natural instincts, which may be underused if they’re just lounging around all day. Some puzzle feeders come equipped with moving parts your pet can interact with such as tubes, levers, or sliding compartments they must navigate to get their food. And hunting puzzles that are shaped like balls or mice can be batted around and pounced on, allowing your pet to practice chasing. “A big part of it is just keeping our pets occupied so they’re not bored and getting into trouble in other ways. It provides them with enrichment that can keep them happy and busy,” Dr. Delgado advises.

Food type: Before buying a puzzle bowl, think about what kind of food or treats your pet responds to best and will be the most motivated to work for. Most feeders will work fine with dry kibble; if your pet prefers wet food, however, it’s best to look for a feeder that’s easy to clean and won’t make too much of a mess. There are also feeders designed for special treats such as peanut butter or catnip.

Material: The material a feeder is made of affects what type of food it’s compatible with. Plastic and ceramic feeders can work with both dry and wet food, but a feeder made of cardboard or soft fabric will only work with dry food or treats. You should also consider the feeder’s durability; if your pet has a tendency to play rough, you may want a feeder made of hardier materials such as rubber.

Grooved slow feeder | Wet and dry food | Rubber

If you only have the room or budget for one puzzle feeder, the LickiMat comes recommended by multiple experts. It’s suitable for both cats and dogs; its fairly uncomplicated grooved design works with both dry and wet chow and won’t make a mess of your floors, and its rubber material is durable and easy to clean, so it will last for years. “It slows them down and gets them physically involved because it’ll move and they can pull it around, but it won’t smear food all over your house,” says Kerrie McKeon, resident cat expert at the animal-welfare-and-adoption organization Bideawee. The licking motion can also soothe your pet, according to Kate Benjamin, founder of the stylish cat-gear website Hauspanther. “They were originally designed for hyper dogs to lick peanut butter off, but cats like it too,” Benjamin says. “There’s something about it that calms them when they have to work at licking this food off.”

When Strategist writer Arielle Avila bought one for her dog, Maggie, she reported that Maggie “licked for 15 minutes straight, not even looking up to bark at squirrels scurrying past our window.” The mat’s simplicity is “exactly what makes it work,” Avila writes. “It doesn’t require any searches or problem-solving.” So while you may eventually want to graduate to more involved feeders, starting your pet off with the Lickimat is a great way to introduce them to puzzle feeders and keep them engaged and entertained for long stretches of time.

Ridged slow feeder | Wet and dry food | Porcelain

This thoughtfully designed slow feeder can hold both wet and dry food and resembles a waffle with its ridged grid, which creates a barrier to slow down rapid eating. Its wide, shallow design is adapted for cats because “cats don’t like their whiskers hitting the edge of the bowl,” says McKeon. “If they have to stick their face too far down into something, they might just walk away.” But this bowl is just the right size for cats to dine without any whisker disturbance — and is aesthetically appealing too, not to mention dishwasher safe. Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio tested this bowl with one of her two cats who is notorious for eating too fast, then stealing extra food from his slower-paced brother (he also often throws up on the rug). Trolio uses the bowl with wet cat food and says it slows down the speed racer enough that both cats now finish their meal at about the same time. She especially likes it for its ceramic material, “which looks so much nicer than plastic or silicone.”

Spiked slow feeder | Dry food | Plastic

This feeder forces cats to find treats or kibble scattered through the grass-like plastic spikes, and though it’s not overly difficult, it does require a little more effort from your kitty than just bending down to eat. Dr. Delgado is a fan, and so is Nikki Naser, resident pet expert at Chewy, who says, “The tall spikes will add to the challenge — mentally and physically — as your kitty tries to push the pieces through to earn her dinner.”

Ridged slow feeder | Wet and dry food | Plastic 

For a dog new to food puzzles, nearly all our experts suggest a bowl, like this one, that is divided by ridges so it’s slightly more difficult to eat from than a regular bowl. “It’s a way to slow them down while they eat,” says Satchu, “but it also triggers their mind to think through How am I going to get this little piece of kibble from the very depths of this bowl when my tongue can’t just scoop it up?” Naser likes this one from Dogit because “the nonslip rubber keeps dogs from scooting the bowl around, but the cutout at the bottom makes it easy for you to pick it up off the floor.”

Maze slow feeder | Wet and dry food | Plastic

You can also try a bowl that is divided into concentric circles or a maze-style pattern. Ward says these kinds of bowls are still “pretty easy” for pets because once they figure it out, they can “just go in with their muzzle and actually eat their meal.” Nicole Ellis, an expert dog trainer at Rover, says Outward Hound “makes some great ones” — including this spiraled design — that help animals pace themselves while eating, and Naser adds that dogs will “eat up to ten times slower with these.”

Variety puzzle feeder | Treats, dry food | Plastic

With a variety of different puzzles — a tunnel, fish bowl–like pods, and a squiggly path — this mat offers cats lots of challenging ways to “hunt” their food. “Cats typically like to hunt for things,” says Satchu, “so this allows them the opportunity to use their paws and their noses,” to dig food out of the various compartments. Delgado agrees it’s good for keeping cats mentally stimulated. “The versatility means different types of problems to solve,” she says.

Interactive tube puzzle feeder | Treats, dry food | Plastic 

This toy includes tubes that hold cat treats, but since they have a narrow opening and swing back and forth, cats have to figure out how to turn them upside down to spill out the food. And once the treats are out of the tubes, they fall onto a spiky surface that cats then have to navigate with their paws. It’s one of Delgado’s top picks for an advanced cat puzzle.

Hidden compartment puzzle feeder | Treats and dry food | Plastic

According to Ward, Swedish dog trainer Nina Ottosson is “a pioneer in the space [of puzzle feeders],” and most of the experts we spoke to mentioned at least one of her products, which are ranked according to three levels of difficulty. This level-one puzzle, which makes dogs lift bone-shaped pieces to reveal food in hidden compartments, comes recommended by Delgado.

Locking-drawer puzzle feeder | Treats and dry food | Plastic 

Erin Askeland, an animal-health-and-behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow, says puzzles that include multiple steps “are generally more challenging.” That’s certainly true of Nina Ottosson’s level-three puzzles, says Ellis, which “are a lot more difficult, requiring our dogs to do different things to get the prize.” This level-three toy is one of the most advanced available, as dogs need to first unlock a series of drawers by twisting the bones on top and then pull the drawers open to access their food.

Ball hunting feeder | Treats and dry food | Plastic

Recommended by Satchu and Delgado, this SlimCat ball has small holes that dispense treats when cats roll it around. Delgado likes that the SlimCat is adjustable so it can adapt as cats learn how to use it. She says, “You can make it easier with larger holes or more challenging by making the holes for the food smaller, which means more interactions are needed to get the food out.”

Mice-hunting feeder | Treats and dry food | Plastic and fabric

This kit includes three mouse-shaped toys you can fill with food and hide around the house for cats to sniff out. Ellis says she loves that it has “toy mice for your cat to bat and pounce at to get their food, something they naturally love to do,” and Ward likes that the mice “engage your cat’s inner predator.” Naser says it gives cats “the satisfaction of finding the mice around the house, batting around their prey to release the food, and finally feasting on their catch.”

Ball-hunting feeder | Wet food and treats | Plastic

Great for the “ball-obsessed pup,” according to Ellis, this wobbling toy dispenses treats as dogs knock it around, but it has only one small opening, which makes it a little more difficult for the dog to get their prize. Satchu is a fan as well and suggests filling one with food and water and then freezing it to make a “dog Popsicle” as a treat on a hot day.

Mat hunting feeder | Dry food and treats | Fleece fabric

This snuffle mat mimics the way dogs would hunt in nature by encouraging their instincts to forage and root around in the ground. It was recommended to Strategist junior writer Brenley Goertzen by an obedience trainer at puppy school, and Goertzen reports that her Australian Shepard mix “loves sniffing around for treats or dry food.” Since it’s made from a soft fleece fabric and not hard plastic, it “can’t scuff or scratch your floors” and you can just “pop it in the washer and dryer” for easy cleaning. It’s also suitable for all breeds, both large and small; Goertzen’s parents found the mat to be a better choice for their Great Dane since he’s “so big that he can flip over most plastic puzzle feeders with one paw.”

• Brenley Goertzen, Strategist junior writer
• Erin Askeland, animal-health-and-behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow
• Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and the founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention
• Jen Trolio, Strategist senior editor
• Dr. Jennifer Coates, vet expert at Chewy
• Kate Benjamin, founder of cat-gear website Hauspanther
• Kerrie McKeon, resident cat expert at animal-welfare-and-adoption organization Bideawee
Dr. Mikel Delgado, cat-behavior consultant
• Nicole Ellis, expert dog trainer at Rover
• Nikki Naser, resident pet expert at Chewy
• Dr. Zay Satchu, co-founder and chief veterinary officer of Bond Vet

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