Animals may not be mooching off each other’s Netflix accounts or attending meetings for the free pizza, but freeloading and its opposite—contrafreeloading—are at play in the animal kingdom. Animal behaviorists call animals’ preference to work for food when the same food is freely available “contrafreeloading,” and it’s been observed in all kinds of animals, including birds, rodents, primates, wolves, pigeons, and giraffes. Given all this precedent, one might think that cats would prefer to work for their food as well.
To investigate, scientists had owners of 17 indoor domestic cats record 30-minute trials of their cats approaching food and eating. The cats were given the choice of an easy food puzzle, in which they had to scoop food out of a tunnel, and a tray of readily available food. The cats were introduced to the puzzle before testing to make sure they knew how to use it, and some cats had used food puzzles before.
Results showed that four cats were willing to contrafreeload, five were weak contrafreeloaders, and eight were freeloaders. Because all of the cats ate more food from the free food tray than from the puzzle, the researchers determined that cats were not strong contrafreeloaders. In other words, they prefer to get their food for free.
It’s possible that the cats weren’t too keen on the food puzzles because they didn’t stimulate their natural hunting behavior—maybe a different kind of food puzzle would result in different behavior.
But for now, the best evidence we have points to cats as shameless freeloaders—surprising nobody who’s ever owned a cat.