The average cat spends most of its day doing nothing. Cats (and most other predators) do tend to spend more time sleeping than herbivores. However, our domestic cats generally spend hardly any time working for their food. That’s where puzzle toys for cats come in.
I’m going to say it right away: puzzle toys for cats are not “mean.” They’re fun!
Some owners are hesitant to force their animals to work for food, but quickly find that their cats actually enjoy playing to earn food. Cats may be lazy housepets, but they’re also predators that are probably bored with day-to-day life. Playing with your cat more (even if you’re not around for play, as in the case of puzzle toys) is almost never a bad idea.
A good puzzle toy presents your cat with a fun challenge in order to earn food. You simply put food or treats into the toy, and let your cat have at it!
The Benefits of Puzzle Toys: From Fun to Function
The benefits of cat puzzle toys aren’t limited to energetic kittens or over-the-top Bengals. Blind, deaf, aging, and three-legged cats can all benefit from the cognitive and physical challenges posed by puzzle toys.
Why would puzzle toys help reduce aggression or litterbox problems? This comes down to neuroscience. Hunting for food activates the seeking system in animals’ brains, which in turn releases dopamine. In other words, hunting for food makes cats happier.
There are a lot of things I love about cat puzzle toys. To summarize, cat puzzle toys can help:
- Alleviate boredom, even if the owner is gone.
- Help mitigate obesity if used as a feeding device since the cat has to earn her meals.
- Reduce stress by activating the seeking system and releasing dopamine.
- Make cats happier (see above).
- Increase activity and exercise, keeping cats in shape – even if the owner is gone.
- Redirect cat’s energy onto something other than the other cat, the dog, your pant leg, or the curtains.
Reducing boredom, reducing stress, and increasing happiness will almost always make cat behavior problems better. And at just a few dollars per puzzle toy, what’s to lose by trying?
If you’re still unsure about cat puzzle toys, just start out using a puzzle toy for extra food or treats every day. If you decide later, you can switch to feeding your cat’s whole meals out of the puzzle toy.
Here are my favorite cat puzzle toys, approved by everything from my sixteen-year-old housecat to the aggressive, fearful, or disabled cats I’ve worked with in the past.
Trainer’s Picks: The Top Cat Puzzle Toys
There are all sorts of great ways to build DIY puzzle toys, but let’s focus on the ones you can buy. If you’d like to put some treats inside of a paper towel tube or a whiffle ball, go for it! But the commercially available puzzle toys are often pre-engineered for fun and challenge. Here are my favorites.
This puzzle toy kind of has something for every cat. With a variety of different challenges all in one, you can quickly learn to place food in a way that either challenges your cat or sets her up for easy success. While this toy probably has the biggest “footprint” of all the toys on this page, you certainly won’t lose it or any of its parts! Put it somewhere that you won’t step on it — those pegs are sharp.
This toy is especially good for cats that are frightened of movement or are a bit less mobile. It won’t provide the same physical exertion as a rolly toy, but that can be a bonus in many situations!
For the more vertically inclined cat, it’s hard to beat the food tree. With nice wide openings and three different vertical levels, this toy encourages cats to use their paws to pull treats out from the center of a “tree.” Even better, this toy really helps build up your cat’s core strength as she sits upright to extract the food.
This food tree comes with a sturdy base that will also help catch errant treats. Like the activity board, you’re not likely to lose this toy in your home! Its vertical orientation makes it less of a tripping hazard.
Trixie is clearly the leader in cat puzzle toys. This ultra-challenging kittie feeder toy includes four different games for your cat to play (and an instruction manual for you). This is not an introductory puzzle toy (go the Activity Fun Board for that), but it’s an excellent challenge for experienced feline problem-solvers.
Yet again, you’re unlikely to lose this puzzle toy within the recesses of your home — although the rolly balls could easily disappear.
When my cat hit fourteen and I was first getting into cat training, this is the first puzzle toy I introduced to him. A bit hard of hearing, quite stiff, and a bit blind, my old cat nevertheless comes running when this toy comes out. We lose it at times because of its tendency to roll, but it’s a super-affordable introduction to puzzle toys.
You can increase or decrease the size of the opening for different treats, fill it up, and leave your cat to chase after it for hours. This toy will also get your cat up and moving, something that #1 through #3 on this list don’t do very well.
For an extra challenge above the SlimCat (#4), look to the Egg Cersizer. With an irregular egglike shape, this toy flops and rolls erratically. This helps keep your cat from chasing it from room to room (it’s more likely to roll in a circle than a true sphere is). Better yet, it’s a bit harder to predict its path for your cat. This will keep Fluffy entertained for longer!
At roughly the same price as the SlimCat (#4), you can’t go wrong! This puzzle toy is affordable for even the most frugal among us.
Yet another rolly ball, the Hagen Treat Ball is designed to slow treat delivery even further. This makes it a logical level-up from the other treat balls above. It’s also the cheapest toy on this list, so why not? The opening is adjustable, allowing you to further control the difficulty of the game for your pet.
Like the other rolly treat balls on this list, the Hagen Treat Ball is easy to lose. But it’s one of the best ways to get your lazy housecat to move!
Got a cat that really likes using her paws to dig treats out of cups, but you’d rather skip the price of the Trixie Activity Board? While this toy lacks the variety of the Activity Board, it’s a bit friendlier of a price. This toy still poses a decent challenge for cats that are new to puzzle toys. The cups are a variety of depths, allowing you to choose how difficult your cat’s game will be today.
This brilliant toy combines problem-solving, core strength, eye-paw coordination, and a bit of bright color to your cat’s life. The “vials” in this Mad Scientist toy spin around a dowel, dumping toys when your cat bats them around just right. The treats then dump into a pegged baseboard, where your cat must paw them out.
This toy can be a bit tricky to find on Amazon, but it’s a good candidate for a DIY toy. Just follow the instructions in this article on DIY dog puzzle toys for the “Bottle Spinning Toy,” but minify it for your cat!
I love cat puzzle toys. I think they’re one of the easiest ways to dramatically improve yor cat’s life. Even better, they have real potential to help prevent, mitigate or even eliminate serious cat behavior problems such as aggression and pooing outside the litterbox. (PS – if you’re struggling with either of those behavior concerns, book my online services and I’m happy to help you out).
Which cat puzzle toy makes your kitty happiest? We’d love to hear more about the best toys on the market!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but currently lives on the Panamerican Highway. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. She is currently putting her knowledge to use as a freelance writer while she builds Journey Dog Training. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley and her boyfriend Andrew.