If given a choice between a free meal and working for their food, domestic cats prefer the effort-free option. The study was published in Animal Cognition by researchers from the University of California.
When given the choice, most animals including birds, rodents, wolves, primates, and giraffes, prefer working for their food over a free meal. This behavior is known as 'contrafreeloading', and has been observed in laboratory, domesticated and captive animals.
Unlike these animals, previous research found that six laboratory cats did not contrafreeload. Researchers thus decided to further investigate this behavior.
They hypothesized that cats would contrafreeload in a home environment when made to choose between a food puzzle and a similar size and shaped tray of food. They also suspected that more active cats would contrafreeload more.
In an experiment, the researchers assessed the behavior of 17 neutered, indoor domestic cats after being presented with a food puzzle and a tray across ten 30-minute trials. Each cat wore an activity tracker, and all sessions were recorded by video.
In the end, the researchers found that the cats tended to choose the tray before the puzzle. They also tended to eat more food from the tray than the puzzle. Altogether, four cats ate most food offered in the puzzle, five cats showed ‘weak contrafreeloaidng tendencies', and the remaining eight did not contrafreeload at all.
The researchers noted that there was no relationship between how active cats were and their tendency to contrafreeload. The same was true for sex, age, and previous experience with the food puzzle.
The researchers say they are unable to explain why cats seem to prefer to freeload. One possible reason for the results of this study, they say, is that the puzzle did not simulate cats’ natural hunting behavior which involves ambushing their prey.