Cats prefer a free meal rather than working for their food

DAVIS, Calif. — Cats have a reputation for being excellent hunters, but it turns out they love a free meal as much as the next person. A new study reveals that our furry, domesticated companions would rather opt for any easy dinner rather than work for their food. While that may not shock cat lovers, it’s definitely a surprise to many animal behaviorists.

Researchers from UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine say most animals actually prefer to hunt or work for their meals. Scientists call this instinctual behavior contrafreeloading. However, experiments show that our freeloading felines would rather eat from an open tray of food than retrieving their meal from an easy-to-complete food puzzle. Hey, why pass up a free meal, right?

“There is an entire body of research that shows that most species including birds, rodents, wolves, primates — even giraffes — prefer to work for their food,” explains lead author Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and research affiliate at UC Davis, in a university release. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”

A puzzling result for cats

cat with food
When cats were offered the choice of readily available food in a tray or working for it using a simple puzzle, cats most often chose the free food. (Mikel Delgado/UC Davis)

In their experiment, Delgado and a team from the School of Veterinary Medicine provided 17 domestic cats with a food puzzle and an open tray of food. Previous studies show that food puzzles for pets can provide an important enrichment activity which cats lose from not being in the wild. The puzzles allowed the cats to easily see their supper, but required them to manipulate the tray to retrieve their food. Some of these cats also had experience using food puzzles in the past.

“It wasn’t that cats never used the food puzzle, but cats ate more food from the tray, spent more time at the tray and made more first choices to approach and eat from the tray rather than the puzzle,” Delgado says.

Moreover, the researchers say this isn’t a result of cats being lazier than other species. Each of the cats in the experiment wore an activity monitor during the study. Those results show that even more active cats choose to enjoy the free meal on the tray.

As for why cats prefer to freeload, researchers say that’s still unclear. However, Delgado notes the food puzzles may not stimulate a feline’s natural hunting abilities, which involve ambushing prey.

The study appears in the journal Animal Cognition.