Study Reveals Cats Enjoy Free Food Over Working For It

Written by: Kelli Brinegar
For more than five years, Kelli Brinegar has been using her ability to write and her passion for research to tell the tale of what cats are thinking and why. She has provided care to more than 30 cats in her lifetime.Read more
| Published on August 26, 2021

It’s no secret our feline overlords don’t care to work for their food, but the kitties now have a study to backup their claims.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine recently completed a study on feline dining-style preferences, asking whether cats preferred to work for their food by obtaining it from a food puzzle or if they would rather just have it handed to them on a plate. The study concluded indoor domestic cats would rather just eat food from a plate with no work involved compared to fishing it out of a puzzle. While this comes as no surprise to cat parents, this no-work-involved approach actually goes against natural animal foraging behavior.

Hand Over the Food, Right Meow!

Published in the journal Animal Cognition, the study set out with the idea cats preferred working for their food by obtaining it through foraging activities. This “willingness of animals to work for food when equivalent food is freely available” is known as “contrafreeloading.”

In the end, cats actually proved an anomaly to this behavior, choosing to be freeloaders and eating the free food instead, an outcome which surprised researchers as their original hypothesis “predicted that most domestic cats would contrafreeload, preferring to eat food from a food puzzle designed for cats over freely available food from a tray of the same size and shape.”

They had also theorized “that cats with higher activity levels would show a stronger preference for contrafreeloading compared to cats with lower activity levels.” That the cats in this study defied the contrafreeloading behavior found in many domesticated animal species, proves once again, cats are creatures of a different make.


Two Choices, Work for It or Just Dig In

To test their theories, researchers offered a selection of fixed indoor cats two options, a tray with food freely available for grazing and another tray with a food puzzle containing food. Studying the data collected from 17 cats, researchers were surprised to learn the majority of cats preferred the free food, even those who had experience with a food puzzle in the past.

“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,” explained lead author, Mikel Delgado, cat behaviorist 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.”

“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.”

Feline activity levels also seemed to have no impact, with even the most active of the cats choosing the free feeding option. Researchers saw no clear cut answer as to why cats choose not to contrafreeload, but they did mention the type of puzzle used could have impacted choice as it wasn’t one that focuses on the natural foraging instincts of cats.

Here’s a fun fact, the four cats involved in the study who seemed to enjoy contrafreeloading also ate much of the free food. So, it could be said they just like food given to them in any form. And, who can blame theses kitties for wanting all the food? Food is good!