Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Cats and Contrafreeloading

Cats. What can you say?

When given the choice between a free meal and performing a task for a meal, cats would prefer the meal that doesn’t require much effort. While that might not come as a surprise to some cat lovers, it does to cat behaviorists. Most animals prefer to work for their food — a behavior called contrafreeloading.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine showed most domestic cats choose not to contrafreeload. The study found that cats would rather eat from a tray of easily available food rather than work out a simple puzzle to get their food.

“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 behaviorist 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 contrafreeload.”

I have seen some commenters musing on why most animals would rather work, but that makes perfect sense to me. When I invite people to a dinner party they all ask "What can I bring?" and when they show up half of them come into the kitchen to help.


David said...

And yet, cats are amazingly efficient hunters. Most of us have probably heard the statistic that cats kill up to a billion songbirds in the US every year. I have no idea about the number's accuracy, but it reflects something qualitative about cats. They like to hunt (and yes, torture) prey, and will do so even when they're not hungry.

Perhaps the issue is that cats have a well-developed sense of sport and play, but no sense for what many other species regard as work=sacrifice=social virtue. It would be interesting to know what "work" was offered to the cats. The link doesn't say. Maybe the humans offered to the cats something that to other species looks like laudable "work," and the cats didn't see the point. Maybe cats simply don't understand social praise and blame.

And yet, we've all also heard of cats who give their humans the prey they catch. Is this a kind of gift=sacrifice=obligation=work, or something else? One can't be sure, but I think it's the latter. The behavior reminds me of the way some toddlers will give/show their favorite toys to a new friend (think of Boo's behavior when Sully comes into her bedroom in "Monsters, Inc."). It seems to me like an act of love without the weight of any sense of obligation. Once animals have a sense of social need, however, that sense of obligation starts to weigh.

There's a lot going on when guests offer to help with dinner, but fear of the host's feelings is one element. It's not just some healthy joy-in-work.

G. Verloren said...

“What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”

I wonder - are they comparing wild animals to domesticated ones? Because that seems pretty silly if they are.

I also wonder about their methodology, and how (or even if!) they separate out animal curiosity and boredom as factors.

For example, my mind went to bears and their reputation for laziness (at least in captivity), and I found an abstract about contrafeeding in grizzly bears, where they presented bears with different sorts of foods, but then only considered two factors: weight of each food consumed, and time spent manipulating it. They presented bears in captivity with things like salmon and also salmon frozen within a block of ice, or apples and also apples inside a box, and noted that the bears eat much more of the easily available foods, but then spend a lot of time manipulating the less available ones.

To my mind, clearly there are two different things going on! The bears seem to obviously be both eating AND playing - the easily accessible food they reach for to fill their stomachs, and then the difficult to access food they play with out of curiosity and/or boredom.

The study does note that the bears preferred to "manipulate" salmon or apples frozen within ice rather than blocks of ice without such food frozen in them. The researchers seem to treat this as some sort of preference to "work" for their food, but to my mind, it seems to indicate merely that empty blocks of ice are less interesting as toys to play with than blocks of ice with objects suspended frozen within them (which, again, seems like an obvious thing to me).

I then have to question the study on cats - clicking through, the source notes that even "active cats" exhibited a preference for easily accessible food, which they claim shows it isn't a matter of laziness. I agree that it's not laziness - but I also then posit that it's a matter of entertainment. Unlike bears, cats don't often play with their food (at least, not after it has expired). Their unwillingness to "work for their food" seems wholly and easily explicable by the fact that their food isn't entertaining to them.

My gut feeling is that "contrafreeloading" isn't about animals "working for their food" so much as it is about animals combining eating and play. If you're a captive animal who is bored most of the time, and meal time is one of the few times you're going to receive some sort of excitement, it seems obvious that you'd want to "work" for your food, not out of some sort of bizarre desire to toil and exert effort for the sake of effort, but because it is a source of amusement and mental engagement.