Contra Freeloading, A New Way to Feed Pets


Dr. Ragen McGowan

Contra freeloading is one of my favorite topics to talk about. I discuss how to enrich pets’ lives with Dr. Regan McGowan, research scientist at Purina. Sure, we can talk about what to feed our pets but equally as important is how to feed them. Contra freeloading refers working for meals, even as a preference to being fed from a bowl.

For example to put kibble in toys or food puzzles, or to hide moist food, or stuff it inside a Kong toy. And if you think about it, problem solving is rewarding for us, so why not our pets?

Indoor hunting feeder

Of course, cats – in particular – are born with a prey drive and the innate need to seek and hunt. One example, is a feeding system developed by Dr. Elizabeth Bales called the Indoor Hunting Feeder.  These little feeders are meant to replicate real-rodent prey, and cats learn to seek or hunt for them throughout the house. (Type CatsWin at check out and the non-profit funder of cat health studies, the Winn Feline Foundation benefits.)

Dogs also seem to enjoy problem solving for their meals.

We don’t for sure know about dogs and cats as research is limited, but McGowan has studied this contra freeloading phenomenon in Grizzly bears. And others have studied contra freeloading in laboratory animals, all demonstrating their absolute preference to work for their food even when food is readily available from a bowl and no thought or work is required. Another notion of contra freeloading is that it forces animals to think a bit, which also has long-term benefits.

Dogs and cats who get meals this way likely have what McGowan calls a Eureka affect, and a surge of “feel good” hormones once they do achieve getting the meal. As contra freeloading is better understood, I believe we will adjust how we feed our pets in he future.

Our dog Hazel (below) gets food playing ‘the shell game.’