Study finds domestic cats prefer freeloading to working for food

While contra-freeloading is a common phenomenon among caged animals, recent research suggests that domestic cats will not

Dogs, pigs, birds, wolves, rodents, and even giraffes all have something in common – given the choice, they would rather work for their food than get it for free, a phenomenon known as countercharging. The outlier? Domestic cats in the house.

According to a recent press release, a study by feline behaviorist Mikel Delgado, professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis Melissa Bain and veterinary technician assistant Brandon Sang Gyu Han found that “cats would rather eat from a tray of readily available food” than solve a simple puzzle to get their food. “

The study arose while Delgado was working as a postdoc at UC Davis.

“I knew of a study from about 50 years ago that concluded that cats don’t choose to counterbalance,” Delgado said. “But there were some problems – only six cats were examined, it was done in a laboratory, the cats were deprived of food. The thing is, cats hunt whatever food works, so it seemed contradicting that they weren’t against free loading. “

Because of this, Delgado and other researchers hypothesized that “cats in the home setting would become contra-free if given a choice”. They also hypothesized that more active cats were more likely to be against outdoor exercise.

Instead, they found that cats ate more free food from the tray than the puzzle, made more “first decisions” about how to approach and eat from the tray, and that “there was no correlation between activity and contra-freeloading”.

Bain stated that outcomes like this that don’t support the hypothesis are called negative outcomes. However, she stressed that this type of determination is still important.

“When studies don’t get the results they want, that doesn’t match their hypothesis and they often don’t publish,” Bain said. “But just as important are negative results or no results that should definitely be published […] Other animals choose to work for food – but not finding that in our study did not mean that the outcome of this study was bad. “

Bain went on to describe why she found the prospect of studying so exciting and how important she felt it was.

“I really like cats, and I like clinically applicable studies that work on day one,” said Bain. “My world is very clinically oriented. Help people with their pets in their homes. I’m looking for what has to do with the human-animal bond and animal welfare. And this is one of those studies that can improve your wellbeing – have you lost weight? Are you less stressed? “

While this study did not necessarily find that keeping cats free from the counterparts, previous research by Delgado has shown that food puzzles can be an important asset to caged animals.

Tony Buffington co-wrote a 2016 article with Delgado that featured case studies of food puzzles helping cats with problems such as weight loss and anxiety.

Buffington said the goal via email was to “provide veterinarians with the tools to help customers use food puzzles for their cats to aid cat enrichment, physical health and emotional wellbeing.”

Not only did Buffington present “evidence-based studies of food puzzles,” Buffington said the paper’s authors also provided examples of the benefits of puzzles from their own veterinary and behavioral practices.

Although studies of food puzzles in cats are rare, Buffington says the practice of providing enriching activities to caged animals has been well documented and studied in a variety of zoo animals.

. “Nutritional puzzles, or sometimes referred to as nutritional supplements, provide animals with an opportunity to express behaviors that they may not have access to in their closed environment, behaviors that are natural to them,” Delgado said.

Delgado explained that this would be handing out food to animals that are usually in search of food, filling a pumpkin with food on Halloween so an animal would have to break it open to access it, or a number of other creative methods to get you Presenting caged animal food.

Zookeepers often try to adapt the enrichment activity to the natural behavior of an animal in the wild. According to Delgado, the failure of food puzzles traditionally presented to domestic cats to simulate their natural hunting style of sitting and waiting predation could be a flaw in the study of counter-free loading. It is possible that when cats move around like prey, they are more likely to work for their food by catching their “prey”.

However, Delgado went on to say that even food puzzles that imperfectly simulate natural behavior can benefit animals by providing them with mental stimulation.

“I’m not saying it’s useless just because it doesn’t accurately simulate your natural hunting or foraging style,” Delgado said.

In addition to attempting a new type of food puzzle, the paper presented several ideas for the next line of research, particularly to find out why domestic cats might be counterproductive to unloading. While Delgado has left her research position, she invites other researchers to continue their work on the subject.

Buffington commented on why it is important for the welfare of the caged animals to keep learning about food puzzles.

“I think those who are up for [for] restrict[ing] Cats take responsibility for providing them with an environment that meets their behavioral needs to ensure that [good] Health and welfare for them, ”said Buffington. “I hope that food puzzles and the insights people gain when used correctly will help them take on that responsibility.”

Written by: Sonora Slater – science@theaggie.org