Regardless of whether your cat has ever caught a mouse, bird, or even a cricket, she's a natural hunter. She's hard-wired to seek, stalk and pounce, and then with luck, capture! Even the way your cat plays with her toys is similar to how she would hunt prey. Cats stalk the toy, creeping up to it with incredible stealth, and then pounce.
Cats actually enjoy the whole seek/discovery/capture experience regardless of how well fed they are or whether they're even hungry or not. That's why I always encourage my clients to use interactive toys (fishing pole design) when playing with their cats and to move the toys like prey. This allows the cat to engage both mentally and physically. It's also very satisfying when the cat actually gets to "capture" her prey (in this case, the toy).
Your cat can also enjoy the fun of seeking, discovering and capturing in-between scheduled interactive play sessions. One easy way to do this is with puzzle feeders. The concept behind the puzzle feeder is that the cat has to figure out how to get the food out of the puzzle toy and then is rewarded with the kibble when she succeeds. It's a natural concept for a hunter.
Dry food is usually used for puzzle feeders. You can buy puzzle feeders at your local pet supply store or online or you can make your own. At our house we use a combination of both.
To make a homemade puzzle feeder box, take a small cardboard box and cut holes that are larger than the size of your cat's paws. Cut these holes in random places. Tape the flaps of the box closed and then toss some dry kibble in there. Shoe boxes make good puzzle feeder boxes.
You can also make a puzzle feeder tube with a toilet paper or paper towel tube. Cut holes in it, secure the ends (make sure the tube rolls easily) and then put some dry food in there. The holes in the tube should be a little larger than the size of the kibble. Your cat will have fun rolling the tube around to get the food reward as pieces periodically spill out.
If you'd rather buy a puzzle feeder there are several available. The most common design is a feeding ball. Play-n-Treat is a popular brand. It's a hollow plastic ball with a hole in it. The ball snaps apart and you can fill it halfway with dry food. Snap it back together and show your cat how to roll the ball to get the food reward. The product is widely available at pet supply stores. There's even a puzzle feeder ball where you can record your voice for your cat. It's called the Talk-to-me Treat Ball.
There's a puzzle toy called Peek-a-Prize that was originally designed for use with toys. I use it as a puzzle feeder for my cats though. It's heavy so it doesn't move around so it's great for larger cats who tend to drag the puzzle feeders off to the far corners of the house.
Another puzzle feeder is the Dog Brick. It's a toy that was created for use with dogs but if you get the lighter plastic version you can use it with your cat. It has closed compartments that the cat (or dog) has to open with her paw or nose in order to get the food reward. This puzzle feeder takes a little training but once your cat gets the concept it becomes a good activity to keep your cat stimulated and entertained when you aren't at home. The Dog Brick is available at several online retailers.
One note of caution: don't use small puzzle feeders or homemade cardboard ones if you have a dog in your home because he can easily swallow the ball or pieces of cardboard.
The benefits of using a puzzle feeder include more than just the fun of seeking and capturing. The puzzle feeder can help a cat who is on a diet because she'll be able to eat small "snacks" throughout the day. The puzzle feeder is also good for cats who gulp their food too fast. With the puzzle feeder they have to work a little harder and only get a few pieces at a time.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC.