Cats do not want to sing for their supper: Study

Perhaps not so surprising for humans who live with cats, the results of a new scientific study reveal that when given the choice between a free meal and performing a task for a meal, cats would prefer the meal that does not require much effort. In other words, the study found that cats would rather eat from a tray of easily available food rather than work out a simple puzzle to get their food. This fact does come as a surprise to animal behavior scientists because most animals prefer to work for their food — a behavior called “contrafreeloading”.

Study overview

Researchers provided 17 cats 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 even had food puzzle experience.

“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…

“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.”

-Dr. Mikel Delgado, lead author of study, cat behaviorist and research affiliate at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

FIREPAW Final thought: Cats that live with humans are taught that food is presented freely for the taking. Why should they be expected to start working for it?  Perhaps cats prefer to save their working-for-food energy for catching mice and other food sources in scenarios that are not contrived by humans…


Journal Reference:  Mikel M. Delgado, Brandon Sang Gyuc Han, Melissa J. Bain. Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort. Animal Cognition, 2021; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3