Just like their wild counterparts, cats like to chase their food
–by Steve Dale
All cats are all born with a prey drive, meaning an innate need to seek, pounce on, and then devour prey. For two decades, I’ve been talking at veterinary and animal behavior meetings about the need to enrich environments for indoor cats. As enrichment tools, food puzzles in particular can help to fulfill their instinct to hunt and chase and provide a suitable outlet to meet cats’ hard-wired needs. Giving our cats a meaningful life can include playing with and feeding them in a way that emulates a natural environment where they would otherwise catch their food. Food puzzles are an important part helping our cats feel normal.
I was already thinking about enrichment when Dr. Tony Buffington, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, along with others, began publishing studies which demonstrate that living in a dull environment increases stress in cats. Inactivity and boredom may cause or contribute to both behavior issues and a variety of health problems, which are often intertwined. Scientists now understand that dull environments can cause Pandora syndrome and a host of other health issues. These often present as behavioral problems but really stem from pain or stress. Contrafreeloading in cats can help reduce anxiety and make cats feel right at home.
What is Contrafreeloading, exactly?
Years ago, researchers discovered that some laboratory rodents and a varied roster of zoo species prefer to work for their food rather than dine from a free-standing food dish, a phenomenon known as contrafreeloading. In other words, many animals enjoy the hunt and the intellectual challenge of having to procure their own suppers, rather than having everything literally handed to them.
Recently, Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified applied animal behaviorist and certified cat behavior consultant wanted to learn if domestic cats contrafreeload in a home environment. The only previous study on cats had taken place in 1971, when six laboratory cats surprisingly showed no interest in working for their food. However, Delgado hypothesized that in a home environment, domestic cats will readily contrafreeload, showing a preference for food puzzles over food in a bowl, even when the food itself is identical in both forms of feeding. Delgado also surmised that more active cats would most likely contrafreeload, as she explains in a conversation we had:
I’ve long recommended food puzzles to clients with positive results. In nature, cats hunt so I was certain that tapping into what cats are hard-wired to do would be no problem and we’d easily prove the previous study (for cats) wrong. However, science can be funny that way, and yes we were surprised by the results.
However the results of her study–published in a paper called “Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort” in the Journal Animal Cognition–surprised Delgado and everyone on her team. Seventeen cats participated in the study. They were given a choice to eat either from one consistent food puzzle or a food dish sitting right next to it. In this case, cats did little contrafreeloading. Instead, they chose the easy meal from the tray. Most ate some food from both sources, but the amount of food from the bowl was significantly higher than the amount of food eaten from the puzzle was only around 10 percent. And zero cats were considered strong contrafreeloaders.
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Theresa DePorter, boarded in both in the U.S. and Europe, has argued in a personal interview that “we’ve actually known for a very long time that domestic cats do contrafreeload–depending on how we define it–as very well fed indoor/outdoor cats who clearly don’t require a meal but apparently enjoy the chase and catch and then deliver rodents or birds as live ‘gifts.” Yet Degado’s study suggested otherwise.
Experts Agree that Puzzle Feeders Help Enrich Cats’ Lives
Despite the surprising results of this study, experts agree that using puzzle feeders stimulates cats’ innate prey drives, and believe that researchers may not have taken all of the important factors into consideration, as many veterinarians point out. Food puzzles enable contrafreeloading and this is a good thing. In a personal interview, Dr. Liz Bales noted that “the seeking circuit was missing in this study. Cats need to go through seeking and finding their prey. The-pounce- and-eat is only a fraction of the process, which was represented by the food puzzle that just sits on the ground next to a food bowl, and may not be stimulating enough for many cats who naturally are hard-wired to seek. Also, there’s no movement involved with this particular food puzzle, and movement is stimulating for cats”.
Bales adds, “In my experience, cats being cats, the acclimation period (four to 12 days) when introduced to a new way of eating wasn’t nearly long enough. I would think (the acclimation period to the food puzzle should be) months and not days.” And indeed, Bales does have acclimation experience as she is also an entrepreneur who created “hunting products” for cats, notably the Indoor Hunting Feeder.
DePorter agrees: “Cats being cats may be timid, cautious or at least circumspect about anything novel, such as a new food puzzle”. Yes, they may well require more acclimation time, particularly since these cats may have had no prior experience with food puzzles.” Neither Bales or DePorter quibble with the notion that this study was well-thought out and important, but both consider it only a start, and Delgado agrees. Delgado’s hypothesis that generally more active cats would be more into contrafreeloading also fell flat.
Delgado suggests, “Perhaps it means lives are so enriched of the cats in the study that their drives to use puzzle feeders was reduced. Perhaps we could have better acclimated (and more motivated) by using treats at first in the feeders. Also, individual cats may have individual preferences to different food puzzles.” Delgado, who co-owns a website which sells puzzle feeders, is in no way suggesting pet parents diminish use of puzzle feeders: “For starters, do understand most of the cats in our study did eat something from the puzzle feeder. Of course, I’m not a proponent of dumping too much food in a bowl and watching the cat eat it.”
DePorter also remains a cheerleader for puzzle feeders: “I absolutely don’t interpret this study as suggesting not to use puzzle feeders – that would be a mistake. We know puzzle feedings are enriching, help to control food intake, and provide physical and mental exercise and may reduce obesity – which is so common among cats. And, of course, obesity leads to a laundry list of issues.” Bales adds “countless times” she’s witnessed her puzzle feeders contributing to solve behavior problems, which in some cases has kept cats in homes. Delegado concludes, “Certainly, there’s more to learn, more to do – understanding cats has never been easy.”