How puzzle toys can help manage cat and dog boredom

By Dr. Wailani Sung

Puzzle toys are a great way to keep pets engaged.

If you’ve been working from home more often over the past few years, this may sound familiar: The minute you start to focus — on anything — your dog gives you a reproachful gaze or disappointed sigh. Or maybe your cat jumps onto your desk, like mine does, and starts batting at your pens...right in the middle of your online presentation.

Why do our pets do this? Perhaps it’s their way of getting back at us for staying home for so long and encroaching on their territory. But, more likely, they’re simply bored and need something to do.

In your pet’s mind, there is nothing better than playing with an interactive partner, and you’re their top pick. However, for those moments when you can’t drop everything for a game of fetch (or pounce), puzzle toys are a great alternative that can engage and entertain both cats and dogs for hours.

In the past decade, puzzle toys have soared in popularity as pets and parents alike discovered all the ways these varied and exciting toys can enrich our pets’ lives.

The basics: How puzzle toys work

Most puzzle toys operate according to a very simple concept — parents add food or treats to a special compartment within the toy, then pets play with the toy to figure out how to get their tasty reward.

The concept may be simple, but the world of puzzle toys is incredibly varied and exciting, with toys of various shapes, sizes, materials, and even different levels of complexity to keep pets of every age and stage occupied.

Puzzle toys take play to a whole new level — both in terms of enjoyment and the duration of playtime. Traditional toys are more one-dimensional in the sense that a dog may chew on a rubber bone toy because they like to gnaw or enjoy the way the bone’s texture massages their gums. Whereas a bone-shaped puzzle toy provides similar benefits, plus every so often, when your dog chomps down on the toy in a certain manner, it releases a treat.

Not only will the unexpected surprise delight your dog, but they’ll immediately start trying to figure out how to repeat the process. That, combined with the smell of the treats and the enjoyment of the basic chew toy is often enough to keep your pet engaged for a much longer period of time.

The same principle applies to cats. Your cat may (or may not) be inclined to bat at a ball-shaped object. But if that object periodically dispenses a tasty treat...well, even the most jaded felines are likely to sit up and take notice. A new puzzle toy could be just the thing to motivate your clever cat to engage in a marathon play session.

How puzzle toys benefit you and your pet

Puzzle toys not only keep your dog or cat mentally occupied, but they are also intentionally constructed to keep pets moving, active, and physically engaged. Many toys are designed to be pushed, rolled, chased, batted, picked up, bounced, or flung around. When these actions occur, food is dispensed. What a rewarding way for your pets to earn (and possibly burn off) a tasty snack!

Puzzle toys are also a great way to help train and socialize younger pets, too. When puppies or kittens play with a puzzle toy, it helps them develop a comfort level with inanimate items of different shapes, smells, textures, sizes, movements — and unexpected surprises. They learn that unfamiliar items aren’t a threat and can be rewarding to interact with. Puzzle toys promote exploratory behavior and help build a pet’s confidence. A curious puppy or kitten is more likely to grow into a confident adult.

And puzzle toys don’t just benefit pets. When your cat or dog is occupied with an engaging puzzle toy, it gives you more options, too — like catching up on work without a cat parked on your keyboard, or watching a movie without your dog nosing a cold, slobbery ball into your hands. For pet parents returning to work after an extended period at home, puzzle toys can provide you with some peace of mind to help ease the transition — for both you and your pet. In your absence, your furry friend will have something active and stimulating to keep them occupied, so they don’t sleep the day away or express their displeasure and stress with inappropriate chewing, scratching, or other destructive behaviors.

If you start early enough, you can also use puzzle treats to help your pet form a positive association with your absence. Whenever you leave your pet home alone, consider using a “special” puzzle toy your pet only gets when you’re away. If your pet gets totally engaged in working for the treats, that can help take their mind off your absence and give them something to focus on, rather than allowing their anxiety to escalate.

Keep in mind that this may not work if your pet gets so anxious when you leave that they can’t even eat. In that case, it’s best to talk with your veterinarian to find a more effective way to manage your pet’s anxiety.

How to pick the best puzzle toy for your pet

shopping for a puzzle toy that’s the perfect fit for your dog or cat, it’s important to consider your pet’s activity level, play style, learning style, and material preferences. Some puzzle toys are made of softer, chewable materials to encourage gnawing, whereas others are constructed of hard, durable materials that can withstand bouncing, bumping, and jarring to knock the treats loose.

Your pet’s species also plays a part in the kind of puzzle toy you choose. Cats may be attracted to special features that entice them to bat at the toy, such as feathers or strings. Dogs tend to be more likely to engage with toys that they can pick up and chew on. And, depending on the pet, cats and dogs may prefer toys that roll around and move. You may need to demonstrate at first to show your pet that food comes out of the toy when it is moved around. Sometimes you can smear a little bit of wet pet food or a substance you know your pet likes, such as peanut butter or baby food, on the toy to “get the ball rolling,” so to speak.

What to look for in dog puzzle toys

Every dog is different, but here are some tips to help you discover the right puzzle toy for your curious canine:

Is your dog a super chewer? Look for a puzzle toy made of chew-friendly materials with a hollow center designed to squeeze out treats as your dog chomps down on it. Or, consider options with deep recesses or grooves you can fill with lickable treats like peanut butter to keep your dog’s interest. These also do double duty as a dental toy if you replace the peanut butter with pet toothpaste, so your pet can play and “brush” their teeth at the same time.

If your dog loves balls, then look for a puzzle toy in this classic shape to stimulate their interest. Starting with a familiar shape is a good way to introduce dogs to puzzle toys. Once they learn how to roll the puzzle ball around to release a tasty reward, they will be more likely to engage in other puzzle toys. This is a great option for active working dogs who enjoy a good chase.

Got a dog who loves to “shake,” or tap you with a paw to get your attention? A wobble-style puzzle toy may be just the thing. The dog bats the toy around, the toy tips over to dispense the food, and then swings back upright again.

What to look for in cat puzzle toys

Cats have a reputation for being curious. But it’s important to choose a puzzle toy that’s designed to pique your kitty’s unique interests. Here are some options to consider when seeking a puzzle toy that meets with your cat’s approval.

Most cats are attracted to toys that have feathers or tails attached that your cats want to grab. In a puzzle toy, these oh-so-tempting targets often trigger movement that releases a treat. As with any toy with feathers, strings, or fuzzy tails that your cat can chew off, it’s important to monitor play closely to ensure your cat’s safety. Always put this style of puzzle toy away after your cat has finished working for their food.

Balls and egg-shaped puzzle toys designed for movement are a great way to appeal to your cat’s inner predator. There are also puzzle toys that look like mice or other furry creatures designed to release treats when your cat tosses them around or pounces on them.

For cats that are older or less active due to health issues like arthritis, you may want to consider a stationary, multi-level puzzle toy. These toys are designed so cats can use their paws to fish out the food or push it over to an opening where it drops down onto a tray for them to eat.

Puzzle toys for dogs and cats

Some puzzle toys are universally appealing to both cats and dogs. If you want to spice up mealtime (and encourage slower eating to aid digestion), consider a puzzle feeder — essentially a bowl that has either a maze or structure at the bottom that makes it more challenging for pets to get at their food. Cats or dogs need to use their tongue or paws to work the food out of the bowl.

And remember, your pet can’t tell whether a puzzle toy was designed for cats or dogs. So don’t feel compelled to stick with toys specifically designed for your pet’s species. Just be sure the toy isn’t too big or too small for your pet’s size or contains other hazards that would make it unsafe for them.

I advise many cat owners to consider puzzle toys designed for small dogs, such as chihuahuas. I’ve found that there’s a much broader selection of puzzle toys designed for dogs compared with those designed for cats.

This also comes into play if you have a multi-pet household. As long as the puzzle toys are safe for all pets and they don’t mind sharing, any puzzle toy can be fair game. But if your pets often fight over toys or have a hard time taking turns, you can place your pets in separate rooms so they each can play with their toy undisturbed.

Getting the most out of pet puzzle toys

If you want to reap the many rewards of puzzle toys, it’s important to keep a few key points in mind:

Used properly, the right food puzzle toy can provide overall physical and mental benefits to your pets. They can reduce stress, relieve boredom and reinforce playing alone. No matter the breed, size, or age of your pet, all pets can benefit from using their brains to work for food. Providing puzzle toys to your pets can enhance the quality of their lives. You will reap the benefits by having calmer, happier companions who can keep themselves occupied with their toys.

Dr. Wailani Sung is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who currently works at the San Francisco SPCA. She has practiced general medicine, emergency, and exotics medicine prior to focusing full time on behavioral medicine. She focuses on helping pet parents prevent or effectively manage behavior problems in companion animals, enabling them to maintain a high quality of life. When she’s not practicing medicine or offering behavior advice, Dr. Sung enjoys riding horses or being at home with her husband and their two dogs, a senior cat, a red-bellied parrot, and a citron-crested cockatoo.