When offered a choice between free food or food that requires some effort to obtain, most animals prefer to work for their meal. However, a new study from UC Davis reveals that this is not the case for domestic cats, who are more than willing to eat without putting in any effort.
The researchers noted that foraging is a natural behavior: most animals in the wild must forage in some way to survive.
“Contrafreeloading is the willingness of animals to work for food when equivalent food is freely available. This behavior is observed in laboratory, domesticated, and captive animals,” explained the study authors.
“However, previous research found that six laboratory cats failed to contrafreeload. We hypothesized that cats would contrafreeload in the home environment when given a choice between a food puzzle and a tray of similar size and shape. We also hypothesized that more active cats would be more likely to contrafreeload.”
To investigate, the researchers analyzed the behavior of 17 neutered, indoor domestic cats, who were presented with a food puzzle and a tray during 30- minute trials. The experiments revealed that the animals would rather eat from a tray of easily available food than work out a simple puzzle to earn their food.
“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,” explained study lead author Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and research affiliate at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
“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.”
“What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”
The cats were monitored with activity trackers over the course of the research. The results show that the study subjects were not simply being lazy – even those that were more active still chose the freely available food.
“Cats who consumed more food from the puzzle, consumed more food in general, suggesting a relationship between hunger and effort,” noted the study authors.
“Further research is required to understand why domestic cats, unlike other tested species, do not show a strong preference to work for food.”
The study is published in the journal journal Animal Cognition.