Cats are renowned for their backyard hunting skills. Most cat parents share stories about their furry psychopaths bringing home birds, mice, and grasshoppers as trophies for the household.
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The fabled hunting instincts of domestic cats are widely regarded as a natural foraging behavior that connects them with their larger, wild cousins — the big cats.
But do all cats like to hunt? It turns out, what was once thought to be a typical cat behavior, may not be entirely accurate.
What is contrafreeloading?
Contrafreeloading is the willingness of animals to work for food when equivalent sustenance is readily available. As its name suggests, contrafreeloading means against free feeding.
Researchers have shown that both captive and wild animals will opt to work for their food when similar food is freely available.
It's a principle that was popularized by the research of behaviorist Glen Jensen in 1963, and it's a common practice still deployed today by zoologists working with animals in captivity.
Contrafreeloading is the theory behind many popular pet toys too. Puzzle feeders enrich domesticated life by requiring that cats play for their dinner, rather than simply eating from a kitty dish.
Biologists and psychologists have also documented contrafreeloading in humans.
Yup, you guessed it: Domestic and indoor cats are ‘freeloaders’
Behaviorists have studied contrafreeloading in a variety of animals that were born in the wild, but are now living in captivity. By far, the majority prefer to work for their food.
Yet, researchers are now studying contrafreeloading in domestic cat behavior, and they've made an unexpected discovery.
Unlike most animals, when given a choice, felius catus choose to eat freely-available food instead of hunting or foraging (i.e. working) for food.
It turns out, while all cats are obligate carnivores, not all cats like to hunt. On the contrary, when given the opportunity, your cuddly and fierce hunter will most likely prefer to eat from their bowl instead of chasing down a grasshopper.
Domestic cats prefer freely-available food over food that requires effort
In a study recently published in Animal Cognition, a team from the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine revealed that many cats simply don't want to put in the effort to work for food.
"The unanswered question is why cats, among multiple species tested, appear to be the only one that does not reliably contrafreeload," wrote lead researcher, Mikel Delgado.
Wait, does this mean cats don’t like to hunt?
The study found no relationship between activity and contrafreeloading — meaning your cat still enjoys hunting smaller animals and laser pointers for sport, maybe just not for snacks.
Cats are natural-born predators, and, as such, they all have hunting instincts.
What many animal behaviorists now think is that when given a choice to hunt and forage for food or eat freely-available food, the average domestic or indoor cat will choose to freeload.
How contrafreeloading can enrich your cat’s life
Just because your cat will make the decision to be lazy at meal time, doesn't mean that you have to give them the choice.
Contrafreeloading can enrich your cat's life by giving them both physical and mental stimulation. Puzzle feeders, slow feeders, and other food toys give your domestic cat the opportunity to sharpen their natural instincts to forage and play.
Plus, food toys may slow down eating, which is good for kitties who have put on a few pounds.
Tips to introduce cats to contrafreeloading
If you're looking to enrich your kitty's meal time with contrafreeloading techniques, here are a few tips:
- Start small with a game of hide-and-seek: Hide kibble in an old box, and let your cat try to find it
- Scatter kibble: Make a game out of dinner time by scattering kibble for your cat to chase and pounce on
- Puzzle feeders: Puzzle feeders can be homemade or purchased from your local pet store. There's a wide variety; here are some of our favorites
- Tissue paper lasagna: Level up your cat's play with this adorable game that includes kibble, catnip, and lots of mental stimulation
Sure, many cats like to hunt. Hunting, stalking, and pouncing are common cat behaviors.
However, new research highlights the differences between hunting as a form of play instinct, versus hunting to fulfill daily nutritional requirements. And that when given a choice to either hunt for food or eat from their bowls — unlike other animals — cat's will choose freely-available food.
Leave it to cats to find innovative and exciting ways to be the laziest of all animals ever.
- Youtube: Tissue Paper Lasagna - a recipe for kitty enrichment
- Springer Link: Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort
- Science Direct: Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading
- Sage Journals: Psychological Reports - Contrafreeloading in Humans
- Youtube: Milo, the pig contrafreeloading