By Dr. Becker
Pets benefit from having a variety of toys to stimulate their minds and keep them active (especially when you’re engaging your pet with the toy). Ideally you’ll want to rotate your pet’s toys regularly. Leave a few different types out, such as a tug toy, a squeaky toy and a ball, then swap them out a few days later.
Rotating your dog’s toys will make old toys seem like new again and peak your pet’s interest. There are, however, some toys that may be suitable for daily use: food toys.
Food toys serve multiple purposes and, since many pets are food motivated, they tend to keep pets’ interest for relatively long periods. If you’ve never tried them, you may find that they become your pet’s new favorite.
Food Toys Are Ideal for Pets That Eat Too Fast
Does your dog scarf down his food so fast that he nearly chokes? There are several remedies for this, including specialty bowls, spreading his food out on a cookie sheet or dividing up her meals in a muffin baking pan, but one worth trying is a puzzle feeder or treat-release toy.
Such toys require your dog to manipulate the toy in a variety of ways to release the food inside. Although many may appear to be designed for dry food, you can choose varieties with openings that will accommodate canned food or, even better, fresh, homemade species-appropriate food.
There are chewing-type toys available, for instance, that come with specialized tools for filling the toy with moist food. As your pet chews, the food is gradually released.
You can even fill one up and put it in the freezer, which is an especially fun treat for a warm day or when you want to keep your pet occupied for a longer period. When using fillable chew toys, be sure to give them to your pet on a washable surface, as they can be somewhat messy.
Treat Toys May Help Relieve Boredom
Does your pet spend hours at home alone while you’re at work or running errands? Keep his mind stimulated and his mouth occupied with a treat-release toy or feeding station.
These toys require your pet to interact with the object until a treat is released. Feeding stations are also available that require your pet to turn knobs, open doors and manipulate flaps to get to the food hidden inside.
While I don’t recommend feeding dogs or cats dry food like kibble or most commercial treats (which is the type of food often used in such toys), you can easily fill them with dehydrated liver chunks or bits of homemade chicken jerky.
Your Pet Might Need Some Encouragement at First
While most dogs will instinctively begin to chew on a food-filled chew toy, other varieties, like puzzle toys or complex feeding stations, may take some practice for your pet to master. This is all part of the fun (and the point), however, you should demonstrate how it works to your pet when you first offer it.
You might, for instance, hold the toy to make it easier for your pet to retrieve the first treat and make the association that there’s food inside. It probably won’t take much coaxing after that. Some food toys also have different difficulty levels. Start with the easiest level and progress from there.
If you’re using a feeding station to feed your pet’s entire meal, you should transition gradually to its use. Place just a small amount of the meal into the puzzle station and then feed the remaining portion as normal.
As your pet learns to use the station, you can transition more of his meal and eventually give up the normal bowl.
Keep in mind that even food toys can become routine, so if your goal is to keep your pet mentally stimulated, swap out different food toys each day to keep your pet interested.
If you have more than one pet, each pet should have their own toy and separate them while they’re “playing” to avoid fights or having one pet hoard all the toys. Even still, keep a close eye on your pet the first few times you offer food toys to be sure they’re using it safely.
4 Additional Food Toy Considerations
When choosing a food toy, consider which ones will most appeal to your pet. Varieties that have varying levels can make an “old” toy seem like new. You’ll also want to consider these additional factors:
- Durability: choose a toy that cannot be broken or damaged by your pet’s chewing. Inspect it regularly to be sure there are no loose pieces or sharp edges.
- Safe materials: choose food toys made in the U.S. out of 100 percent natural rubber or other non-toxic materials. I recommend the sniff test to start with: toys should have no smell. If the toy smells strongly of chemicals, put it back.
- Ease of cleaning: you’ll want a food toy that is easy to disassemble and clean thoroughly, especially if you’re using moist or frozen food. Wash it thoroughly after each use, and throw out any food that’s uneaten after a few hours.
- Size: choose toys that are the right size for your dog. Giving a small food toy to a large dog poses a risk of inhalation and choking. Small ball-shaped toys are especially dangerous, as they can easily become lodged in your dog’s trachea.
Generally speaking, you should choose large toys for large dogs and smaller toys only for smaller dogs.
Finally, there are many ways to use food to add some extra stimulation to your dog’s day, even if you don’t have an actual “food toy.” For instance, try splitting up your dog’s meal into four or five bowls, then hide them around your backyard so your dog can “hunt” for his meal.
You can also switch things up by offering a frozen treat to your dog (such as plain, organic, grass-fed yogurt) or splitting his food up in a muffin tin. The variety keeps your dog interested and challenges him to figure out this new way of eating.