Cats prefer to get free meals, study shows

Cat eating meal

Cats may be expert hunters, but when given the choice between a free meal and performing a task for a meal, most cats prefer the food that doesn’t require much effort.

In a study involving 17 domestic cats, researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that cats would rather eat from a tray of easily available food instead of work out a simple puzzle to get their meal.

The findings are striking because most animals prefer to work for their food — a behaviour known as ‘contrafreeloading’.

Cat being fed

“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,” said lead author Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviourist and research affiliate at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”

In the study, Delgado and co-authors Melissa Bain and Brandon Han provided the 17 cats with a food puzzle and a tray of food. The puzzle allowed the cats to easily see the food but required some manipulation to extract it. Some of the cats that took part in the study had used food puzzles before.

“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 explained.

The cats in the study also wore activity monitors, which revealed that even cats that were more active still chose the freely available food.

It’s not clear why cats prefer to freeload, although Delgado noted that the food puzzles used in the study may not have stimulated their natural hunting behaviour, which usually involves ambushing their prey.

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