Contrafreeloading and the domestic cat

“Contrafreeloading” is a made-up word. It was created by animal psychologist Glenn Jensen in 1963. Scientists like to make their use of language harder to understand. It means behaviour which is against “contra” freeloading which means to get something easily. In other words when behaviour is contrafreeloading it is behaviour that requires more effort to get a reward. And in a study by Jensen he found that the only animal that did not engage in contrafreeloading was the domestic cat! Does it mean cats are lazy or smart?

Domestic cat uses an interactive puzzle feeder

Domestic cat uses an interactive puzzle feeder. Photo: UC Davis.

He said that rats preferred to use more effort to get their food than to simply walk up to it and eat it. There were given a choice between food in a bowl and in a food dispenser which required that they step on a pedal a number of times to get at the food. They preferred the latter.

And today, in the news media there is reference to a recent UC Davis study which states that “Cats prefer to get free meals rather than work for them”. The conclusion is that contrafreeloading is rare in domestic cats. It is not a new finding because of the 1963 study that I have mentioned.

UC Davis states that when cats are offered the option of performing a task to get a meal over simply walking up to it and feeding from a bowl, they choose the latter. This doesn’t surprise cat owners but it does surprise cat behaviourists according to researchers. It doesn’t surprise me as an owner and a cat behaviourist because they are ‘domestic’ cats.

Domestic cats are trained to feed from a bowl. They been doing it for about 10,000 years! What do you expect? The UC Davis study’s lead author, Mikel Delgado PhD, seems to have reactivated the 1963 study to try and make it sound as if it is something new. They say that all the research studies about contrafreeloading tells us that most species prefer to work for their food.

She said that:

“What’s surprising is out of all the species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeloading.”

Delgado, is the co-author in Jackson Galaxy’s book Total Cat Mojo, incidentally (click for a review of the book). I don’t think her contribution actually makes the book any better. In fact, it makes it worse. But that is another discussion. She is described as a ‘cat expert at your service’. On this study she worked with co-authors Melissa Bain and Brandon Han. They provided 17 cats with a tray of food as one option and an interactive feeder or puzzle feeder as the other option.

As expected, (from my standpoint) “the 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.”

They say that it is unclear as to why cats prefer to freeload. I can’t understand why they think it’s unclear. Every animal should find the easiest route to food if they use their intelligence. It seems to be a smarter choice to choose the food from the tray rather than having to fiddle around with a puzzle to get at it. Or am I simplifying things?

Picture of a tabby cat using an interactive cat feeder

Picture of a tabby cat using an interactive cat feeder. Photo: MikeB

I put it down to domestication and I don’t think this is puzzling. Incidentally, my cat uses a puzzle feeder. In fact, he prefers it to a bowl of cat food. It’s an interactive feeder as they say. And I believe a major reason why he refers it to the food bowl is because the bowl is on the kitchen counter whereas the interactive feeder is on the floor.

If that is true then the slight barrier of having to jump up to a counter is considered less of a problem to him than the barrier of having to get the food out of the feeder. All he has to do is to push the ball around and the dry cat food popped out.


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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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1 Response

  1. lmwilker says:

    We have 5 cats. Every evening at 8:30 p.m. 3 of the cats want their treat dispensing mouse even though dry food is always available and they are fed wet food 3 times a day. The two indoor cats will always show up and start agitating for their mousies and one indoor/outdoor cat always comes in for the treat dispensing mouse (which we call the “poopie mouse” and have a poopie mouse song and dance to go with it) even though food is available they love whacking around their mice. The other two cats, who were litter mates, don’t care a thing about treat dispensing mice or treats in general.

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