Work for Food? No Thanks, Cats Say

A recent study might lead one to believe that cats are lazy, but that would be a mistaken assumption. In fact, the study demonstrates that domesticated cats are clever and won't easily fall for our tricks.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis conducted an experiment involving 17 cats. The cats were given a choice: they could either work on a food puzzle to obtain their meal or simply eat directly from a tray. Surprisingly, throughout the 10 trials, the cats overwhelmingly preferred to eat from the open tray. It was consistently their first choice, and they consumed significantly more food from the trays compared to the puzzles.

At first glance, this seems like an obvious outcome. However, it contradicts the behavior observed in many other animals who generally prefer to work for their food—also known as contrafreeloading. "Numerous studies have demonstrated that most species, such as birds, rodents, wolves, primates, and even giraffes, show a strong tendency to work for their food," explained Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and research affiliate at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "What's astonishing is that out of all these species, cats seem to be the only ones that do not demonstrate a significant inclination towards contrafreeloading."

Nevertheless, this does not imply that cats are unwilling to work for their meals. We know that cats possess hunting instincts. Additionally, all the cats participating in the study had previous experience with food puzzles and had eaten from them before the experiment began. They simply displayed a preference for the readily available food when given a choice.

Four out of the 17 cats in the experiment did exhibit some contrafreeloading tendencies. However, these cats also consumed the majority of the food from both the tray and the puzzle. It appears that sheer hunger may have overridden their contrafreeloading instincts.

The researchers provide several potential explanations for these findings, such as the fact that the cats were spayed or neutered and domesticated. Mikel Delgado even speculates whether the puzzles used in the study were unable to evoke the cat's intrinsic hunting behavior adequately. After all, a food puzzle does not require the cat to stalk or pounce on its prey.

In any case, it is still advisable to keep food puzzles on hand for your cats and kittens. Two years ago, Delgado's research revealed that these puzzles can offer valuable mental and physical stimulation for felines. However, it is crucial to ensure that the puzzles are appropriately designed for the cats to solve. "When introducing a food puzzle, it is important to provide an easy starting point so that the cats can figure it out without becoming frustrated," Delgado recommended in 2019. "At the same time, it should be challenging enough to provide them with some activity and mental stimulation."

In conclusion, while cats may not exhibit a strong inclination towards working for their food, they still benefit from the mental and physical engagement provided by food puzzles. So, next time you offer your cat a meal, consider incorporating a puzzle to keep them entertained and stimulated.

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