Head to Tail with Steve Dale: Contrafreeloading and Domestic Cats

By Steve Dale, CABC

Famously, Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD Diplomate ACVN by later a parade of other researchers have demonstrated the need for indoor cats to live in an enriched environment as a benefit to mental as well as physical well-being1. However, what’s not been clear is how to appropriately feed domestic indoor cats.

Some captive animal species in zoos and laboratory rodents have been shown to contrafreeload, which may be defined as the willingness to work for food (or in other definitions the preference to work for food) when the equivalent food is freely available.

Mikel Delgado, PhD, CAAB, CCBC with University California, Davis graduate student Brandon Sang Gyu Han and Melisa Bain DVM, DACVB, DACAW, MS sought to learn more, and published their results “Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort” on July 26 in Animal Cognition2. Only one previous study has been published regarding cats and whether or not they contrafreeload, which dates back to 1971, as six laboratory cats all failed to contrafreeload3.

Various captive animal species have been shown to contrafreeload, ranging from maned wolves4 to giraffes5 to grizzly bears6.

Delgado hypothesized that in a home environment domestic cats would readily contrafreeload when given a choice between a food puzzle and a tray of similar size and shape, each containing identical food. And Delgado also hypothesized that more active cats would more likely contrafreeload.

“I’ve long recommended food puzzles to clients with positive results,” she says. “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 wrong – at least for cats who live in homes. However, science can be funny that way, and yes we were surprised (by the results).”

In all, 17 cats participated in the study, using one consistent food puzzle (Trixie Pet Tunnel Feeder Food Puzzle) with a food dish next to it, Mostly cats did little contrafreeloading, instead choosing the easy meal from the bowl. Most cats ate some food from both sources; the amount of food from the easy meal from the tray was significantly higher than the amount of food eaten from the puzzle. Almost half the cats consumed less than 10 percent of food from the puzzle, and two thirds expressed no interest in the puzzle. None of the cats were considered strong contrafreeloaders.

“Though surprising, our findings were statistically relevant,” says Delgado. “There wasn’t a lot of variability.”

While the study made a solid case – Liz Bales, VMD says, “In my experiences, cats being cats, the acclimation period in the study (four to 12 days) of a novel way which to feed wasn’t nearly long enough. So what should that acclimation period be? We don’t know but I would think months and not days (are needed to acclimate).” And indeed, Bales does have acclimation experience as she is also an entrepreneur who created “hunting products” for cats, notably the Indoor Hunting Feeder (https://docandphoebe.com/).

Theresa DePorter DVM, ECAWBM, DACVB agrees, “Cats being cats may be timid, cautious or at least circumspect about anything novel (such as a new food puzzle). Yes, they may require more acclimation time, particularly since these cats may have had no prior experience with food puzzles. They’re accustomed to feeding one way and are only given days to adjust to a new way.”

DePorter, who has authored feline studies herself, is aware of practical limitations set by finances, and by what cat parents are willing to do. In this case, the study was cut short a bit by the pandemic.

Neither Bales or DePorter quibble with the notion that this was a well thought out study, both consider it only a start, and Delgado goes along with that.

Bales notes another factor, “The seeking circuit was missing in this study. Cats need to go through seeking and finding their prey (or the hunt). The pounce and eat is only a fraction of the process, which was represented by the food puzzle but 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.”

Delgado’s hypothesis that generally more active cats would be more into contrafreeloading also fell flat.

Delgado explains, “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 by using treats at first in the feeders. Also, individual cats may have individual preferences to different food puzzles.”

DePorter points out that we’ve known for a very long time that domestic cats do appear to contrafreeload. After all, well fed indoor/outdoor cats that clearly don’t require a meal but apparently enjoy the chase and catch and then deliver rodents or birds as live “gifts” to human family members.

DePorter, who lives in a rural setting notes one of her cats – who happens to be very well fed – catches mice.

Delgado, who co-owns a website which sells puzzle feeders (foodpuzzlesforcats.com) is in no way suggesting veterinary professional tell pet parents to 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.”

Bales suggests “countless times” she’s witnessed her puzzle feeders contributing to solve behavior problems, which in some cases has kept cats in homes.

And DePorter, who also recommends puzzle feeders to clients, agrees. “I absolutely don’t interpret this study is 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 of which may reduce obesity – which is so common among cats. And, of course, obesity leads to a laundry list of issues.”

Delegado concludes, “Certainly, there’s more to learn, more to do – understanding cats has never been easy.”



1 Buffington T., Westropp, J., Chew D; From FUS to Pandora syndrome: Where are we, how did we get here, and where to now? Journal Feline Medicine and Surgery, May 2, 2014. https://tinyurl.com/cs6xntru.

2 Delgado, M; Sang Gyu Han, B; Bain, M; Domestic Cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort. Animal Cognition; July 26, 2021. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3.

3 Koffer K, Coulson G (1971) Feline indolence: cats prefer free to response-produced food. Psychonom Sci 24:41–42. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03331767.

4 Vasconcellos AS, Harumi Adania C, Ades C (2012) Contrafreeloading in maned wolves: implications for their management and welfare. Appl Anim Behav Sci 140:85–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.04.012.

5 Sasson-Yenor J, Powell DM (2019) Assessment of contrafreeloading preferences in giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). Zoo Biol 38:414–423. https://doi.org/10.1002/zoo.21513

6McGowan RT, Robbins CT, Alldredge JR, Newberry RC (2010) Contrafreeloading in grizzly bears: implications for captive foraging enrichment. Zoo Biol 29:484–502. https://doi.org/10.1002/zoo.20282