I give the beasts a little kibble in their bowls to buy time. As they eat, I go out back and scatter food throughout the yard. The monsters get a physical and mental work out. Bowls are just a means to deliver food and they are pretty boring. Let’s make meals fun!
For caged pets, set up foraging areas by hiding food in piles of hay or shredded paper. Stuff hidey-holes with shredded paper or hay and add things to find. There are great toys that have to be manipulated for food to be released. Check out some of the toys for parrots! For animals that like to seek and shred, stuff plain boxes with shredded paper or hay and treats. Put things in toilet paper tubes and roll up the edges. Smaller food releasing toys for cats and small dogs are great for hard dried fruit bits, nuts and seeds. You can give the pellet ration from a bowl but use everything else for enrichment!
For dogs and cats you can really limit the use of or even eliminate food bowls. Where to start? Kong toys (Wobblers and original), West Paw Design toys, Omega Paw treat ball, Busy Buddy all have various food and treat toys. These can take the place of bowl, alleviate boredom and meet various behavioral needs. Start off with a couple toys that are easy or that have settings to make them easier in the beginning. If a toy is too hard, your pet may give up – even if hungry. There are many plastic toys that dogs and cats have to flip pieces from to open food wells. Some can be great for your pets while pets may crack the plastic or chew the wood. Know your critter. Outward Hound, Ethical Pet, Dogit, and Nina Ottosson are some brands to look for with puzzle toys.
If you are handy or even if not, there are some easy toys you can make. Take a clean, dry soda bottle and put two holes on opposite sides so you can run a piece of ½” PVC pipe through the bottle. Make sure the bottle will rotate freely. Affix the pipe to a couple uprights. Put kibble in the bottle and show the dog how to spin it. When your pet figures it out, add more bottles. You can make these for cats and other small animals too. Supervise use so the pet does not eat the bottles.
Even if you are not so handy you can make interactive feeding toys. Get a heavy muffin tin and put food in some of the wells. Cover all the wells with balls. If this is for a dog, make sure the balls are too large to choke him.
Another idea is to hide food under inverted plastic tumblers. My dogs love fishing things out of a wading pool in warm weather. In the winter, we hide food in the snow. If you are worried about a scuff over toys (hey they are animals), separate them for food games.
Some of my favorite dog enrichment items are ones I can stuff with food. I use them when I am going to leave the house to give my dogs something to do. I have had puppies as young as 3 ½ weeks already recognizing these toys and seeking them out. They get part of their meals from these toys. They work hard, fall asleep and mom cleans up! When pups go to homes, their toys go with them! Shelters can use these toys as part of a program to help alleviate stress. There are two main types of these toys. Some like the Kong are meant to hold squishy and sticky stuff to be licked out. Others like the Squirrel Dude have fins partially covering the larger hole to help hold in dry foods like kibble.
What do I like about these toys? I can use them to help alleviate boredom and they are safer than many chew toys. My dogs get a good run and a morning game of find your food. They love it when I leave the house. “Human is leaving and we are getting the good stuff!” These toys were an integral part of crate training. Crates mean great stuff! My dogs who are not crated when I leave also get food stuffed toys. On rainy days, these toys are nice, quiet activities.
When introducing toys meant to stuff with food, it is easy to pack them too tightly. This can make it difficult for food to be removed. This can become frustrating and dogs may give up. In the beginning it is vital to make it EASY for your dog to get food out. To start, I generally smear a little peanut butter, spread cheese or canned food in the toy. I add some loose kibble. Once the dogs catch on, I can start getting more elaborate. I layer foods that are loose pieces with things that will help hold them in.
So what can you put in these toys? Forget the boring biscuits and expensive cans of stuff to stuff in stuff. Get creative. A few foods you can use are: plain yogurt, peanut butter, mashed banana, mashed apple, pureed pumpkin, canned dog food, baby foods such as beef, chicken or lamb, spread cheese, cook and puree liver or other organ meats, cooked ground meat. Now for the looser bits, kibble, freeze dried meat treats, peas, diced carrots, blue berries, small dog treats, dried fruits or veggies (not raisins, they are toxic to dogs). A very simple layer for a meal is a little canned food, some kibble, more canned food, and kibble then top off with canned pumpkin.
Note: Many foods contain Xylitol which is very toxic to pets – even in small amounts. It can be found in many foods from some brands of peanut butter, yogurt, puddings, gum and other foods.
Out of consideration for your dog’s weight, make sure you are cutting down his daily kibble ration. Better yet, add part of his kibble ration to the food stuffed toy. My dogs only get a fraction of their kibble from bowls. The rest comes from other means such as food stuffed toys. You can pre-stuff toys (using non perishable things) and keep in sealed container to save time. You can freeze them for warmer weather or to last a little longer during the day. Many of these toys are dishwasher safe on the top rack or clean easily with a bottle brush and hot, soapy water then a good rinse.
So get creative and get your pet playing with his food!