Work It Kitty!

Katherine Ayres, PhD

The work-to-eat movement has grown steadily in zoos and is really starting to take hold for companion animal owners as well.  For those who are not familiar with work-to-eat, the theory behind it is that cats and dogs evolved as predators and predator/scavengers respectively and should not eat food in a bowl that is handed to them.  Instead, they should indulge their instincts to search, pounce, scratch, grab, manipulate and bite “prey” and/or receive food during training sessions.  Therefore, a number of products have sprung up commercially for dogs and cats to work for their food.  However, it seems like dog owners are more familiar with this concept.  Stuffed Kongs, Bob-O-Lots, Tug-A-Jugs and Tricky Treat Balls have really started to catch on for dog owners, which is fantastic.  But did you know that cats greatly benefit from work-to-eat too, especially indoor cats!

Here are some signs that your cat is bored and could use more environmental enrichment:

  • Shredding toilet paper or paper towels.
  • Stalking and playfully attacking you or another cat in the house frequently.
  • Dropping toys in his/her water dish (this is an interesting behavior that ethologists think means the cat is trying to get more stimulation from the toy).

The benefits of environmental enrichment include:

  1. Fighting boredom by stimulating the mind and “wearing out” a hyper cat or kitten.
  2. Slowing down the eating rate of a cat that likes to gobble up his/her food too fast, often making them sick.
  3. Making overweight/obese cats start to lose weight by moving around and spreading out their food delivery.
  4. Allowing your cat to indulge predatory instincts to toy with and manipulate “prey”.
  5. Multiple work-to-eat toys can keep a food aggressive cat from stealing food from another cat.  If there are enough toys in various rooms throughout the house, the food aggressive cat cannot play with all the toys at once, allowing other cats access to toys with food.
  6. Distracting a particularly rambunctious cat from pouncing on and harassing another family cat.
  7. If you go out of town for a day or two, you can leave food puzzles that are easy combined with hard food puzzles.  This will space out the cat’s eating so they do not gobble down all the food you left them at once.
  8. It distracts a cat that is constantly under foot or walking across your keyboard (like mine is right now!)

What work-to-eat toys are out there for cats?  Many work-to-eat cat toys are some kind of ball or container with a hole in it and they greatly range in price.  The Slim Cat kibble ball is a great start but were eventually too easy for my cats.  The Pavlov’s Cat Scratch Feeder is a great enrichment toy that doubles as a scratching post and the Stimulo Cat Feeding Station is fun.  Many dog work-to-eat toys also work well for cats.  Small Tricky Treat Balls work well for cats.  If you feed your cat wet food (which many vets encourage to help with hydration and other health issues), you can stuff a smaller size Kong with wet food.  If your cat eats it too fast, you can freeze the Kong stuffed with food.  This will make it take longer for the cat to lick out the food.

But my personal favorite is a homemade device, inspired by my friend who cat sat for us once and said that our work-to-eat toys were too easy for our clever felines.

Here’s how you do it.  Take a yogurt container and cut holes in it that are just big enough for one piece of your cats kibble to fall out.  The more holes you cut and the bigger the holes, the easier it will be for your cat to get the food.  I would start out with a lot of big holes, so your cat gets rewarded frequently for playing with the container.  Then as your cat gets better and better at getting the food out, make it harder by making new containers with smaller and fewer holes.  You want it just easy enough that your cat won’t completely give up on it and just hard enough that your cat cannot get all the food out really fast. You can also make any work-to-eat toy harder by wrapping it in a paper bag or hiding it in a box or under a laundry basket.  Be creative!  My cats get a combination of raw food and kibble.  All of their kibble comes from one of these toys or a tricky treat ball usually wrapped in a paper bag.

What are your favorite tricks for making your cats work it?!


  1. Mary says

    Because I only have carpeted floors, I stick to dry kibble rather than wet food in the yugurt containers. Much less mess to clean up… Fortunately, I’ve never had problems with my cats eating everything all at once. Miss B. is very good at eating her food every 90 minutes or so. Much arder to get her to drink enough water, though…

  2. Cindy says

    WORK FOR FOOD works GREAT for dogs, too.

    One of my dogs adores the hard-plastic cube that you put kibble in. It has chambers that make it hard for the kibble to come out, and you can set the difficulty.

    My other dog can’t get the hang of the cube because he has only one front leg. There are balls that dispense kibble, but he has jaws like a Tyrannosaurus rex and just chewed through the top.

    What works for him (got idea from a friend): Take a (black/tough) Kong. Fill with kibble and maybe a treat or two. Put a heaping tablespoon of canned dog meat in the hole to plug it. Freeze it so the plug takes work to get out.

    These also work for boredom. For the dogs, I sometimes chop up carrots and/or green beans, add peas (optionally) and stick in a few broken up dog biscuits. That keeps ‘em busy for 20 minutes, at least.

    Mary: I have dogs not cats, so I *really* don’t know whether this’ll help with your cat’s “drinking problem” :-) .

    On the rare occasion one of my dogs needs to be encouraged to drink more water, I add a little chicken broth to it.

    Help with cats???????

  3. says

    Thanks for the comment Mary. You are lucky that your cat self regulates food intake. Wally (the cat in the video) will eat food as fast as I can put it down! As for the “drinking problem”, you can try giving some wet food. Domestic cats evolved in desert conditions so they are very efficient at getting water from their food and this is more natural for them. You could give them even a little wet food on a plate aside from the work-to-eat or sometimes I put my cats wet food work-to-eats in the bathroom or on the balcony so I can easily clean it up. You can also try a drinking fountain. Some cats completely refuse standing water. We have some fountains we recommend on our website store Also, some cats that like to drink out of a slow running faucet. I have never tried the chicken broth Cindy, but it sounds like a good idea! Has anyone tried this with cats?

    Cindy- I love the layered Kong technique and that you rotate healthy stuffing to keep it novel and interesting for your dog!

  4. says

    These are GREAT ideas to relieve boredom and prevent overeating in a shelter setting.
    The best way to keep cats healthy in a shelter environment is to keep them mentally stimulated.
    What a lot of great ideas!!!! I can’t wait to make or purchase some of these for our shelter cats!

  5. Arasin Staubly says

    Get a plain old counter-top water feature for cats that only drink moving water. We found one for a few dollars at a thrift store.

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