A Cute Experiment Reveals How Household Cat Prefers Its Food Served

Photo by Ricardo L on Unsplash

Cats, unlike many other animals, have an unusual aversion to working for their food.

When given the choice between a freely available meal and a meal trapped inside a puzzle, most animals, including dogs, bears, pigeons, pigs, goats, mice, rats, monkeys, and other primates, prefer to work for their food, which is known as contrafreeloading.

Cats are unique among animals in that they seem to prefer a simple meal; however, this isn’t necessarily due to laziness, as we’ll explain below.

In a home setting, researchers gave a small group of indoor cats a food puzzle and a food tray, and the cats ate more food from the free tray than from the puzzle. According to activity sensors worn during the study, even the most active participants preferred the simple meal.

“It wasn’t that cats never used the food puzzle,” says Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist at the University of California Davis. “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.”

Despite having the opportunity to do so for 30 minutes, eight cats never touched the puzzle, and none of the cats ate more food from the puzzle than from the open tray.

(Mikel Delgado/UC Davis)

The findings support those of a small lab study conducted in 1971, which discovered that cats do not contrafreeload.

Six domestic cats were taught to operate a food dispenser in this groundbreaking experiment. In a laboratory setting, they were given the option of either the food puzzle or a free bowl of kibble.

Unlike any other animal tested in a similar manner, the cats in these experiments clearly preferred the free meal.

Even in a domestic setting, it appears that these creatures make the same decisions, regardless of their gender, age, or previous puzzle experience.

“A large body of evidence shows that most species, including birds, rodents, wolves, primates, and even giraffes, prefer to work for their food,” Delgado says.

“What’s surprising is that out of all of these species, cats appear to be the only ones who don’t contrafreeload.”

It’s unclear why this is the case. It’s not that cats aren’t interested in solving food puzzles. Most cat owners are aware that when their pets are trapped inside a tricky container, they enjoy working for a reward, and it is also good for their enrichment.

Laziness also appears to be the wrong explanation, given how active the cats in the new study were.

Maybe it has something to do with domestication. Cats may be less motivated to explore and hunt in their environment in a home setting where food is readily available. After all, conserving energy is a skill that cats excel at. Other domesticated pets and captive animals in similar situations, on the other hand, prefer to eat the more difficult meal.

Another theory revolves around how cats have evolved to get their food. Cats are predators who ambush their prey, unlike foraging animals who look for food. As a result, a food puzzle might not be the best way to pique their interest.

However, Delgado published another study in 2016 that found food puzzles can aid in weight loss, anxiety, and litter box training in cats. Although this is a relatively new area of research, it appears that food puzzles are beneficial to their brains and may aid in their development.

The sample size is small, with only 17 cats providing sufficient data by the end of Delgado’s more recent study; the team also did not control for the cats’ hunger. However, the authors believe it’s unlikely that the cats were uninterested in the food provided, given how much they ate in the experiments.

Researchers say it’s worth investigating why cats don’t seem to prefer a food puzzle to a free meal, beyond simple curiosity. The answer may be able to help us satisfy our cats’ curiosity when they are trapped indoors, thereby improving their overall well-being.

“Understanding contrafreeloading is critical for captive and domestic animal welfare,” the authors write, “because foraging enrichment is a commonly used tool to provide choice and mental stimulation.”

“The effects of such enrichment on captive animal behavior are rarely studied.”


The research was published in the journal Animal Cognition.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here