A recent study from the University of California at Davis published in Animal Cognition demonstrated what most cat lovers intuitively know: Cats prefer to have dinner served and not to have to work for it.
Many animal species seem to enjoy putting some effort into their meals. Food puzzles, enrichment things like snuffle mats, or hiding food add some spice to many animals’ lives. Not so for domestic cats, according to this study. When animals are willing or even prefer to do some work to earn their food (even if equivalent food is readily available), it is called contrafreeloading. It appears that cats are freeloaders.
Cats in a laboratory setting showed a resistance to work for their food, so researchers wanted to see if pet cats would look at things differently. A group of 17 house cats had the choice of food on a tray or in a food puzzle game. Eight cats made no effort to put any work into getting their meals. The cats who ate the most from the food puzzles ate the most overall, which tends to make one think they were hungrier. There was no difference in sex or activity level between the groups that chose to work for their food and those that did not.
The practice of employing contrafreeloading techniques is used extensively as part of enrichment programs for many animals in zoos, including big cats. Here the cats always had the option of the “easy” food or the “more effort” food. The same food was used for both options to avoid cats simply going for their preferred choice. One theory was that cats were conserving their energy, something cats are well known for.
Does this study mean you should give away your food puzzles? Not at all. Food puzzles and games are still considered good activities for your indoor cat. Simply provide your cat with the food puzzle first or alone for a mealtime. With no other option, your cat should be willing to work for his food.n
Delgado, M.M., et al. Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort. Anim Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3