Most cat owners would say their feline friends prefers to have everything handed to them on a silver platter. A new study at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine proves just that.

While other species may enjoy the cognitive boost and reward of solving a food puzzle, the study,  published in Animal Cognition this year, suggested that cats remain indifferent to the challenge. When given the option, cats would rather have access to free food.

The study followed 17 domestic cats who were presented with an unobstructed platter of food, as well as a food puzzle to encourage “contrafreeloading”—performing tasks for culinary reward. Most cats, despite their activity level or familiarity with food puzzles, preferred to freeload. 

“It wasn’t that cats never used the food puzzle, but 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,” says the study’s lead author, Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviourist and research affiliate at UC Davis. 

While there have been many studies of contrafreeloading in livestock such as pigs and chickens, few have looked at the behaviour in companion animals. The UC Davis team gleaned information from a previous food puzzle study involving six cats in a laboratory setting (none of which engaged with the puzzles) and tried again with 17 cats in a more neutral home environment.

Regardless of sex, age, and activity level, the results showed that cats just prefer a free meal.

“The unanswered question,” posits the study, “is why cats, among multiple species tested—including chimpanzees, macaques, chickens, jungle fowl, pigeons, grizzly bears, maned wolves, rats, giraffes, and pigs—appear to be the only one that does not reliably contrafreeload. This tendency appears to contradict the fact that cats naturally work for food by hunting and will stop eating to hunt additional prey.”

Still, the researchers encourage cat parents to foster the activity for enrichment. It can also help cats whose instinct is to gobble their food in a short amount of time by regulating intake. 

“I definitely recommend using food puzzles with cats, especially cats who are food motivated and need mental stimulation. I use them with my own three cats,” says Delgado. “I think that cat owners should just consider a few things: introducing puzzles slowly and carefully, and whether their cat might need more motivation to get started—e.g., an easy puzzle at first or treats or a novel food. I’m also a fan of introducing food puzzles as a choice, as cats benefit from having a sense of control in their environment.”

She also notes that the study only used one type of puzzle and the same type of food the cats were accustomed to eating. Under different circumstances, the researchers perhaps would have seen more evidence of contrafreeloading—or, then again, maybe not. Regardless, says Delgado, “just because cats preferred eating freely available food, doesn’t mean that there might not be benefits from using food puzzles. Sometimes we go for a run even though we’d rather sit on the couch, and perhaps afterward we are happy we did!”