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Are cats freeloaders who enjoy the easy life?

According to some recent research, the answer is yes. When given the choice between a free meal of tasty cat food and performing a task for a meal, cats would prefer the meal that doesn't require much effort.

While this observation might not come as much of a surprise to many a cat lover, it does to animal behaviourists. This is because scientists have shown that most animals prefer to work for their food – a behaviour called contra-freeloading.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine showed most domestic cats choose not to contra-freeload, preferring to eat from a tray of easily available cat food rather than work out a simple puzzle to get to their grub. And it’s something that’s causing a lot of head scratching among the study’s researchers.


It's official – cats are one of a kind

"There is an entire body of research that shows that most species including birds, rodents, wolves, primates – even giraffes – prefer to work for their food," said lead author Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviourist and research affiliate at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "What's surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contra-freeload."

Why cats prefer to freeload is also unclear. Delgado suggests the food puzzles used in the study may not have stimulated their natural hunting behaviour, which usually involves ambushing their prey.

She also points out that the study should not be taken as a dismissal of food puzzles for cats – stating, just because they don't prefer it, doesn't mean they don't like it. Indeed, Delgado's previous research shows puzzles can be an important enrichment activity for cats, an observation that’s shared by many feline behaviour experts.

In fact, even though it appears that humans are hardwired to do their favourite feline’s bidding, feeding time is one area where we should not make life quite so easy for our beloved cat companions.


Make feeding time, play time

Feline behaviourists suggest that feeding your cat from a bowl actually does them no favours. In the wild, cats have to work for their food, which exercises their bodies and stimulates their minds.

Feline experts on the International Cat Care veterinary community and Feline Wellbeing Panel state: “Being fed in a bowl in the same location every day removes the mental and physical stimulation that cats would have whilst hunting. A lack of opportunity for cats to interact with the environment can lead to boredom, which may develop into apathy or anxiety and can lead to the development of problem behaviour.”  

It’s all about creative feeding

The charity recommends taking a more creative approach to feeding, explaining it like this:

“Wild living cats spend about 70% of their daily activities on feeding-related behaviours. They’ll hunt no matter how well-fed they are, because less than 50% of attempts to catch prey are successful. Their natural prey is limited to what they can catch alone, which tends to be small rodents. Each small rodent typically provides about 8% of their calorific needs, so they eat small but frequent meals.

“Modern domestic cats have hardly changed in appearance or behaviour from their early ancestors. The way that some pet cats live, and how they obtain and consume food, isn’t representative of how they would naturally do so. Obtaining food, the activity that they’d normally dedicate so much of their day to, is done for them and taken out of their control, and this can negatively impact their welfare.”

International Cat Care has a whole host of creative feeding suggestions for making dinner time a much more fun and stimulating experience for your cat, including:

  • Toys – The way that cats play is similar to how they hunt, and this can be used to help them expend energy, have fun and be mentally stimulated when feeding. Playing with a wand toy in a ‘mouse- like’ way, or flicking a lightweight rolling toy or paper ball, and then ending the game with a ‘kill’, such as a food puzzle toy (see below), can be fun and provide exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Puzzle feeders – These are a great way to for cats to receive food in a way that promotes physical activity and problem solving. There are a huge range of different puzzle feeders that can be bought or made at home from everyday items such as shoe boxes, yoghurt pots and plastic bottles. They can be as simple as a small amount of dry food wrapped up in a piece of paper that the cat can work out how to get into, or a simple hide-and-seek game. Even the most basic of these give cats more stimulation than eating from a bowl.
  • Variety – Changing up where and how they’re fed allows cats to use different physical and cognitive skills. For example, puzzles that encourage use of the nose or paws, and to push, pull and rip, can mirror the variety of skills they need to catch prey whilst hunting.
  • Technology – Automated feeding systems can be set to a timer that dispense food several times a day when an owner isn’t around to do so. There are also feeders available which have microchip access and are connected to apps that help you to keep an eye on their feeding habits.

The charity adds: “Many of the techniques involving creative feeding are an opportunity to interact with your cat in a way that’s fun for both parties and they can help cats to remain happy and healthy.”

Once your cat gets the hang of how much fun can be had having to search for, bat about and paw at their toys to get to their yummy cat nuggets, we’re sure he or she will agree!


CARE MORE Get more advice on caring for your cat from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It's all here >>

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At Burgess, all our cat food is made using premium ingredients and is high in protein, to ensure excellent quality and superior taste to help keep your cat happy and healthy – from kitten, to adult and mature and our award-winning variety for neutered cats.


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