- LAURA JOHANNES
Cats and dogs, like many of their owners, are increasingly packing on the pounds—and racking up costly health problems.
One solution emerging from the estimated $53 billion pet industry: products that make Fluffy and Fido work for their dinner. While not an entirely new concept, “interactive feeders”—toys that release food slowly when your pet nuzzles, chases, chews or swats at the device—have been coming to market with greater frequency in the past few years.
Allison Scott/The Wall Street JournalAimed at helping keep pets svelte, interactive feeders include the Aïkiou Activity Food Center.
Typically made of rubber, plastic or wood, and costing between $8 and $30, such play-based feeders now come in a wide variety of designs. The simplest, such as the SlimCat ball from Radio Systems Corp., of Knoxville, Tenn., release morsels when tipped with the nose or batted with paws. Puzzle-type feeders require brain work to win the prize. To get a treat from the Dog Fighter, from Swedish company Zoo Active Products AB, the animal must slide a peg along a channel and then remove it.
The problem of portly pets has hit epidemic levels in the U.S., affecting 1 in 5 dogs and cats, according to data including more than two million animals compiled by Mars Inc.’s Banfield Pet Hospital chain, which has some 800 facilities in 43 states. (The company defines overweight as 20% over ideal body weight and obese as at least 40% over.) In the past five years alone, Banfield says, the prevalence of excess body weight has jumped 37% for dogs and 90% for cats
While interactive feeders have been employed for years in zoos, there is scant scientific research on their use in companion pets. Companies that sell them say they help control weight by slowing down eating and providing physical activity.
Such toys can help in weight loss, experts say, but are most effective when food is measured and limited per a veterinarian’s recommendation. Anything that gets a pet to move more helps weight control, but “if you are putting in the same amount of food, you are probably not going to make much of a dent,” says Omaha veterinarian Christopher G. Byers, a spokesman for the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
Experts say the toys have other benefits as well—such as slowing the gorging that can lead to digestive ills. And by keeping dogs entertained, food-filled rubber chew toys such as the Kong, from Golden, Colo.-based Kong Co., are great for curbing barking and destructive behavior when owners aren’t home, says Ian Dunbar, a Berkeley, Calif.-based dog trainer, vet and behaviorist. (Dr. Dunbar sometimes gets consulting fees from animal-toy firms and has spoken at events sponsored by Kong.)
Some interactive feeders are designed to tap into an animal’s natural hunting instincts. The Stimulo Activity Food Center, from Canada’s Distributions Aïkiou Inc., consists of a base embedded with vertical tubes of varying heights. Cats use their paws to pull out kibble or treats, similar to the action of retrieving a mouse from its hole, says company President Alexandre Tremblay.
“Whether they are hunting kibble in a puzzle feeder or hunting outside, the same brain chemicals are released,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, owner of Cat Behavior Associates, of Nashville, Tenn. Tapping into these natural behaviors, she says, makes them happier and less likely to eat from boredom.
In an informal test of the Stimulo, my middle-aged, normal-weight cat initially stood expectantly, apparently waiting for me to solve the puzzle for him. But as soon as I walked a few feet away, he began digging for treats and purring loudly.
He took three days to crack the Treat Maze, a flying-saucer shaped toy from Zoo Active that releases foods from the sides when wobbled, and the EggCercizer, a plastic egg from Radio Systems that releases food from holes you can adjust in size. To get him to use the EggCercizer, I followed the instructions, which suggest a gradual introduction. Even simple-looking toys can be “rocket science” to some cats, so don’t expect too much too soon, says Mrs. Johnson-Bennett.
If your pet is struggling, make sure it doesn’t go without food too long, warns Ken Pawlowski, chief of staff at Banfield Pet Hospital in Folsom, Calif., since serious health problems can arise. Also, adds Dr. Pawlowski, it’s not about adding stress to their lives: “It should be fun.”