When presented with a simple tray of food and a food puzzle that requires a little work to get at the yums inside, every animal ever tested has opted for the latter.
Rhesus monkeys, rats, chickens, bears, starlings, gerbils, chimpanzees and a wide range of other animals are drawn to food puzzles, perhaps because the food tastes sweeter to them if they’ve had to work for it, or maybe because it’s just something amusing to do.
“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 Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and lead author of the newest study on the phenomenon known as contrafreeloading. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”
Delgado, a research affiliate at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, used a clear puzzle feeder so the cats in her study could see the treats inside. A few feline study participants gave it a shot, but only after grabbing themselves some easy grub first. Other cats just ignored the food puzzle and munched exclusively from the tray.
While this is at least the second study to specifically test whether cats “freeload” their meals, the why of this particular feline behavior remains a mystery. Delgado cautioned against the obvious conclusion — that cats are just lazy — and pointed out that several cats in the study were active and expending energy, just not with the puzzle feeder.
One possible explanation: As hunters and obligate carnivores, cats simply may not enjoy games that simulate foraging the way omnivores and herbivores do.
The study was published on July 26 in the academic journal Animal Cognition. Read it here.
In the photograph, Buddy is sitting on the coffee table in the classic feline upright pose, tail resting to one side with a looping tip, looking directly at me.
The corners of his mouth curve up in what looks like a smile, his eyes are wide and attentive, and his whiskers are relaxed.
He looks to me like a happy cat.
Tably agrees: “Current mood of your cat: Happy. We’re 96% sure.”
Tably is a new app, currently in beta. Like MeowTalk, Tably uses machine learning and an algorithmic AI to determine a cat’s mood.
Unlike MeowTalk, which deals exclusively with feline vocalizations, Tably relies on technology similar to facial recognition software to map your cat’s face. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to interpreting what facial expressions mean — it compares the cats it analyzes to the Feline Grimace Scale, a veterinary tool developed following years of research and first published as part of a peer-reviewed paper in 2019.
The Feline Grimace Scale analyzes a cat’s eyes, ears, whiskers, muzzle and overall facial expression to determine if the cat is happy, neutral, bothered by something minor, or in genuine pain.
It’s designed as an objective tool to evaluate cats, who are notoriously adept at hiding pain for evolutionary reasons. (A sick or injured cat is a much easier target for predators.)
But the Feline Grimace Scale is for veterinarians, not caretakers. It’s difficult to make any sense of it without training and experience.
That’s where Tably comes in: It makes the Feline Grimace Scale accessible to caretakers, giving us another tool to gauge our cats’ happiness and physical condition. With Tably we don’t have to go through years of veterinary training to glean information from our cats’ expressions, because the software is doing it for us.
Meanwhile, I used MeowTalk early in the morning a few days ago when Buddy kept meowing insistently at me. When Bud wants something he tends to sound whiny, almost unhappy. Most of the time I can tell what he wants, but sometimes he seems frustrated that his slow human isn’t understanding him.
I had put down a fresh bowl of wet food and fresh water minutes earlier. His litter box was clean. He had time to relax on the balcony the previous night in addition to play time with his laser toy.
So what did Buddy want? Just some attention and affection, apparently:
I’m still not sure why Buddy apparently speaks in dialogue lifted from a cheesy romance novel, but I suppose the important thing is getting an accurate sense of his mood. 🙂
So with these tools now at our disposal, how much can artificial intelligence really tell us about our cats?
As always, there should be a disclaimer here: AI is a misnomer when it comes to machine learning algorithms, which are not actually intelligent.
It’s more accurate to think of these tools as software that learns to analyze a very specific kind of data and output it in a way that’s useful and makes sense to the end users. (In this case the end users are us cat servants.)
Like all machine learning algorithms, they must be “trained.” If you want your algorithm to read feline faces, you’ve got to feed it images of cats by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even by the millions. The more cat faces the software sees, the better it gets at recognizing when something looks off.
At this point, it’s difficult to say how much insight these tools provide. Personally I feel they’ve helped me understand my cat better, but I also realize it’s early days and this kind of software improves when more people use it, providing data and feedback. (Think of it like Waze, which works well because 140 million drivers have it enabled when they’re behind the wheel and feeding real-time data to the server.)
I was surprised when, in response to my earlier posts about MeowTalk and similar efforts, most of PITB’s readers didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm.
And that, I think, is the key here: Managing expectations. When I downloaded Waze for the first time it had just launched and was pretty much useless. Months later, with a healthy user base, it became the best thing to happen to vehicle navigation since the first GPS units replaced those bulky maps we all relied on. Waze doesn’t just give you information — it analyzes real-time traffic data and finds alternate routes, taking you around construction zones, car accident scenes, clogged highways and congested shopping districts. Waze will even route you around unplowed or poorly plowed streets in a snowstorm.
If Tably and MeowTalk seem underwhelming to you, give them time. If enough of us embrace the technology, it will mature and we’ll have powerful new tools that not only help us find problems before they become serious, but also help us better understand our feline overlords — and strengthen the bonds we share with them.
Even those of us who love cats often joke about how aloof they are, and then they go and do something that shows such a profound understanding of human behavior that we’re left thunderstruck.
That was the case in Turkey’s Izmir province, where a ginger tabby dragged her two babies into a health clinic this week one at a time, according to a report in the English-language Turkish news site Daily Sabah:
The official said that they noticed the animal while they were attending to patients as she started “constantly meowing.” When they saw something was wrong with kittens, they took a closer look and discovered the kittens’ eyes were closed tightly. “We gave them some drugs and they started opening their eyes and later, we transferred them to the veterinary department. It was the first time that an animal walked into our clinic, and it was a very emotional moment for us,” the official said.
Both kittens had eye infections and fully recovered.
This isn’t the first time cats have asked humans for help, nor is it the first time a mom cat brought her kittens into a hospital or clinic.
On April 27, 2020, a female cat walked into the emergency room of Kucukcekmece Hospital in Istanbul while carrying her kitten in her mouth, then deposited the “mischievous” little one right in front of a group of hospital employees who were chatting.
Hospital staff gave the mom food and water while they examined her baby.
And in May of 2020, a cat in Mexico shocked a woman with his understanding of how the human world works. After she saw him in front of a store and bent down to pet him, he led her into the store, guided her to the pet food aisle and pointed to the exact type of food he wanted.
Not only did this cat understand that he had to be accompanied by a human to get into the store, and precisely where to direct her, but he also knew the packaging of his favorite food and understood that she had to buy it for him. He may not understand the concept of currency, but he does know a human has to get him the food and he can’t just tear into it.
The woman was so moved that she adopted the smart little guy and named him Rabbit.
These examples not only show how astonishingly intelligent and observant cats are — or can be, when they’re motivated — they also make it difficult for anyone to cling to old beliefs that cats and other mammals are unthinking, unfeeling automatons. Or the dreaded, all too common “it’s just a cat.”
If cats understand hospitals and health clinics are places where the sick and injured are treated, and they understand abstract social concepts like “a human must obtain this for me,” it makes you wonder what else they observe and fully understand in those furry little heads.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.