By: Liz Stelow, DVM, DACVB, Clinical Animal Behavior Service at the UC Davis William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
Likely everyone is familiar with food toys for dogs – the ubiquitous Kong®, for instance. But most dog and cat owners aren’t making the most of the food toys and dispensers at their disposal. This post is aimed at changing that.
There are three main uses for food toys and dispensers for dogs and cats: To provide a meal, to provide distraction, and to provide rewards during the training of new behaviors. Let’s look at the options available for these uses.
For the owner who wants all of their pet’s meals to come from a food toy: Kudos to you! Ample evidence shows that pets feel more satiated after a meal – and have some of their excess mental and physical energy expended during a meal – that come hard-won out of a food toy. This is one way an owner can get the pet to eat the way it was designed to: find the food, manipulate the food, then eventually consume the food. This is the way of the natural world.
Meal-feeder food toys are numerous. Kongs are a great choice for the dog just starting to receive his meals from a toy. They are not difficult to manipulate and the food, unless the owner intentionally blocks the opening, falls right out. Kongs can be made to last longer if the contents are moistened then frozen, blocked in place by a treat or other large consumable, or hidden as part of a scavenger hunt.
Kong alternatives include the Kong Wobbler®, Kibble Nibble®, Tug-a-Jug®, Twist N Treat®, and slow-feeder bowl (not truly a toy, but with the same result). The likely ability of the dog to “solve” the puzzle of the toy and likely attempts to destroy it should be considered when choosing a food bowl replacement toy.
For cats (and maybe small dogs), Trixie Pet Products makes the 5-in-1 Activity Center. This plastic puzzle board comes with 4 removable food cups, little nooks for hiding food, and a series of obstacle courses through which the pet must push the food to access it.
For the owner who wants to keep Rover occupied while he/she runs errands or goes to work, The bowl-replacer toys still work great, especially if the pet’s morning meal can be held until the owner leaves. If the owner is leave at another time of the day, there are many treat-dispensing toys. Some, like the Foobler®, are timed to release treats at intervals chosen by the owner. Others, like the Pickle Pocket®, Amaze-A-Ball®, and Kong’s Genius® or Gyro® lines, are consumed whenever the dog chooses to use them.
Finally, for the owner who would like to use a food dispenser during training, items like Treat and Train®, Pet Tutor®, or Manners Minder® come to mind. For most of these, the owner holds a remote and triggers the release of food at the appropriate moment. They can also be set to dispense treats automatically on a timer. For some, like Pavlov’s Cat®, the pet manipulates something on the toy, with the owner’s encouragement, to release food.
With all of these options available, the average pet owner can really make the most of their pet’s food as a rewarding experience.