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How to Help Your Indoor Cats Hunt for Their Food

Cats have an instinctual need to hunt, so how do you satisfy that instinct in your own indoor cat? While some cats will contentedly spend their days sleeping, other cats decide to amuse themselves by knocking over picture frames, chewing on electrical cords and doing other unpleasant things. Unfortunately, all of these cats are missing the satisfaction that play can provide.

We asked Mukilteo Store Manager Whitney Wilmott for her understanding as to why cats like to hunt and how to help them do it. Whitney is a devoted cat lover with three cats of her own, but she also has a degree in zoology that has helped her gain insight into these small feline hunters. To learn more about what cat owners can do to make their cats more active and healthier, we asked her the following questions.

Why do you think it’s important to encourage cats to hunt for their food and offer them other interactive opportunities?

Outdoor cats get lots of mental stimulation. They have prey to hunt, and hunting is very mentally stimulating. Also, both territorially or behaviorally, there are a lot of opportunities for their brains to be engaged outdoors.

Indoors, when a cat is surrounded by the same daily environment, he can get really bored. And some cats will respond to that boredom by sleeping. Then they won’t get much daily exercise, which can lead to obesity. So, giving your cat an opportunity to hunt for his food gives him an activity he can do.

Other cats, especially younger cats, will try to create their own stimulation if they’re bored. And that’s where your cats can get into trouble. Many people with bored cats say their cats like to get into things, they chew things, and they just generally do things they’re not supposed to do. Sometimes bored cats may just start bothering other cats for something to do, which causes general upheaval and discord.

If someone wants to help a cat hunt for his food, what would you recommend?

My suggestions tend to vary depending on the individual cat and how food motivated that cat is. Very food motivated cats may be willing to work hard to find small treats, while other cats need easy wins and lots of encouragement when they first start.

If you want your cat to hunt for his actual meals, kibble or freeze-dried raw food works best. Otherwise, if you’re feeding a diet of mostly wet or frozen raw food, you’ll want to look for some freeze-dried treats to encourage hunting. Also, if your cat isn’t extremely food motivated, looking for a treat that has a strong smell can help your cat find it more easily.

There are treat balls, like the Egg-Cersizer ball, that you can fill with treats or food. Then, the cat rolls around the ball until food falls out of it. You can make the holes in the toy bigger or smaller to change the level of difficulty.

Another option is to use a cardboard box to create your own treat toy. Just take any cardboard box and cut various size holes in it. And then you can put treats or food inside the box, so the cat has to fish it out with his paws.

Using a cardboard box allows you to vary the game a lot. You can use different boxes with different sizes and shapes and then cut various holes in different locations. That way, it’s not the same game every day, and you can change the box once your cat has mastered that particular box configuration.

But for a beginning game for cats who aren’t food motivated, I recommend that pet owners try a game using tiny paper Dixie cups. You start by placing a couple of treats in the bottom of one of these cups, and then you leave the cup open-end up in the center of the room. You want your cat to find it, and then figure out that he needs to knock over the cup to get the treat out.

Once he’s mastered that technique, you can move the cups around the house, and you can use multiple cups. And you can hide these cups in a cat tree, on a window sill or some other place that your cat needs to explore the house to find. That way, when your cat is roaming his indoor territory, he can use his sense of smell to get small portions of food or treats.

This game encourages that territorial patrolling that many feral cats instinctually do. Outside cats will wander the borders of their territories and look for changes. So, if you can add small amounts of food to different areas of your home, you can get your cat to start patrolling his interior territory.

If you do feed wet food or raw food, are there ways you can make your cat hunt for their food?

Cats have a natural daily cycle, where they instinctually hunt, eat, groom and sleep. For cats, it’s very straightforward. A cat catches a mouse, he eats the mouse, he cleans himself after eating, and then he’ll sleep. Once he’s regained his energy, he’ll want to reproduce that cycle again. And a normal cat will follow this cycle several times each day.

An indoor cat is not going to have an opportunity to hunt a mouse. But play or any other physical activity triggers the same hunting mental response. Activity can stimulate appetite. Playing with your cat right before you feed him helps him believe that he’s hunting his food. Then, when he’s eating, it’s as if he’s caught his meal.

Overweight or older cats may not like to play. So, try doing just five minutes of interactive play right before you feed them. Ideally, you’d work up to ten minutes of play, and help encourage a routine of exercise before eating. And following that routine before every meal will trigger more engagement from your cat.

Cats like predictability, so your cat will come to expect playtime before meals once you start the habit. It’s also a good way to try to curb a cat’s impulse to play when you don’t want to play. If your cat is waking you up in the middle of the night to play, you can try to shift playtimes, so they take place before meals. If you want your cat to sleep all night, you play with him, and then you feed him. And that routine triggers his instinct to groom and go to sleep.

It’s also important to realize that cats like to have smaller, more frequent meals. Outdoor and feral cats eat small meals, which might be the size of beetles. Then they’d need to groom and sleep before hunting again.

The more often you can feed your cat, the more your household’s schedule mimics his instinctual behavior. Ideally, you should feed your cat at least three times a day, but it’s more important to make a schedule that you can follow all seven days of the week. Your cat doesn’t know what day of the week it is so he won’t be willing to sleep in on the weekends. Consistency is key.


Mukilteo Store Manager Whitney Wilmott is happy to talk to anyone who wants more ideas about playing with cats, so feel free to stop by and say hello! When Whitney’s not at the Mukilteo Mud Bay, you can find her spending time with her two Catahoula leopard Dogs, Noodle and Mochi, as well as her three cats, Sharma, Sherlock, and Banjo.

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For Healthy Dogs and Cats

Mud Bay endeavors to give you the most accurate information to help your dogs and cats thrive. Whether you need advice about pet nutrition, supplies or supplements, we often have the knowledge, solution sheets and samples to help. To find out more about our foods, events and nutritional philosophy, please visit us at mudbay.com.