Study Says Cats Prefer Free Meals over Working for Them


Cats have been domesticated for at least 9,500 years. However, there is still much that we don’t know about them. As a result, it is worthwhile for scientists to look into seemingly pointless questions. One excellent example would be the question whether cats preferred free meals over working for their meals or not. This was investigated by a team of researchers at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who conducted an experiment in which they offered 17 cats a choice between two options. One option consisted of a food puzzle, meaning that the feline participants couldn’t get at the food unless they were willing to put some effort into the puzzle. Meanwhile, the other option consisted of a tray of food being placed out in the open. Curiously, the cats showed a clear preference for the free meal over working for their meal, which might be a personality type.

Certainly, they were still willing to engage with the food puzzle to some extent. However, the cats were consistently more willing to eat from the tray, more willing to spend time at the tray, and more willing to approach the tray rather than the food puzzle. It isn’t quite clear why this is the case. Some people might be tempted to guess that the cats were just lazy. However, that line of speculation isn’t supported because the more active cats still showed a preference for the free meal over working for their meal. Similarly, there is an earlier study that made it quite clear that cats derive enjoyment from food puzzles, which raises further questions about exactly what is going on here. This is normal. Single studies can’t reveal everything, thus explaining the need for follow-up studies to provide further details. In any case, one might assume that this preference is common in the animal kingdom. After all, eating a free meal takes much less effort than working for a meal, so it seems rational for animals to choose the former over the latter. However, this isn’t the case. Generally speaking, animals seem to show a behavior called contrafreeloading, with cats being a notable exception in this regard.

What Exactly Is Contrafreeloading?

Contrafreeloading is exactly what is sounds like, which is to say, being against freeloading. Essentially, when an animal is presented with a choice between a free meal or working for a meal, contrafreeloading will make it choose the latter rather than the former. This seems counter-intuitive. However, this is neither new nor controversial nor even uncommon. If anything, cats are the odd ones out, which is one of the things that make the aforementioned study so interesting. For context, a researcher named Glen Jensen noticed contrafreeloading among rats in 1963. He conducted an experiment in which rats were given a choice between a free meal and pressing on a metal bar for a meal. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the rats chose the latter over the former, though they weren’t quite unanimous in this regard. Later, more studies showed that said phenomenon was by no means limited to rats. For example, gerbils and giraffes showed the same preference. Similarly, wolves and macaques showed the same preference.

Even chickens and starlings showed contrafreeloading, thus making it clear that it isn’t limited to just mammals. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of interest in why this is the case. Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough evidence for say for sure, particularly since the phenomenon exists in such a wide range of species occupying such a wide range of roles in their native ecosystems. One line of speculation says that it could be because these animals want to gain more information about their surroundings. Another line of speculation says that it could be because free meals don’t resemble what animals do to get food in their natural habitats, meaning that working for a meal feels more right to them. There is even a line of speculation that animals don’t have much to do when they are in captivity, with the result that they are choosing the more complicated option so that they will have something to do. It seems safe to say that a definitive answer won’t be found anytime soon, particularly since the most popular lines of speculation aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive with one another. However, it does give some insight into your cat’s diet preferences.

Why Is This So Important?

As for why this is important, well, there are a number of things that come to mind. For starters, while contrafreeloading isn’t very well-known by the general population, it has actually been very important for zoos and zookeepers. After all, zoos can’t do very well unless their animals are kept happy and healthy, which isn’t possible unless their needs are being met. Something that can be much easier said than done because being in a zoo can be extremely disruptive to the animals’ behavioral patterns under normal circumstances. To name a well-known example, interested individuals might have heard of the concept of alpha wolves, which is extremely misleading because the relevant study was based on wolves in captivity rather than wolves out in the wild. Despite this, the concept has long since managed to enter the popular consciousness, with the result that it is now everywhere with no sign that it will be going away anytime soon.

Regardless, the important part is that contrafreeloading gives zookeepers a better understanding of animal preferences, which in turn, makes it easier for them to feed their charges by designing systems that will appeal to those preferences. The need isn’t quite as urgent for cats. After all, they have a well-earned reputation for being independent-minded, but at the end of the day, they are still domesticated animals rather than wild animals for the most part. However, getting a better understanding of cats is still very beneficial because the better that we understand them, the better that we can ensure that the interests of both cats and cat owners are protected as well as promoted. This is particularly true because despite our longstanding relationship with our feline companions, there is still so much that remains mysterious to us.

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