Hack Your Cat’s Brain to Hunt For Food

This cat feeder project by [Ben Millam] is fascinating. It all started when he read about a possible explanation for why house cats seem to needlessly explore the same areas around the home. One possibility is that the cat is practicing its mobile hunting skills. The cat is sniffing around, hoping to startle its prey and catch something for dinner. Unfortunately, house cats don’t often get to fulfill this primal desire. [Ben] thought about this problem and came up with a very interesting solution. One that involves hacking an electronic cat feeder, and also hacking his cat’s brain.

First thing’s first. Click past the break to take a look at the demo video and watch [Ben’s] cat hunt for prey. Then watch in amazement as the cat carries its bounty back to the cat feeder to exchange it for some real food.

[Ben] first thought about hiding bowls of food around the house for his cat to find, but he quickly dismissed this idea after imagining the future trails of ants he would have to deal with. He instead thought it would be better to hide some other object. An object that wouldn’t attract pests and also wouldn’t turn rancid over time. The problem is his cat would have to know to first retrieve the object, then return it to a specific place in order to receive food as a reward. That’s where the cat hacking comes in.

[Ben] started out by training his cat using the clicker method. After all, if the cat couldn’t be trained there was no use in building an elaborate feeding mechanism. He trained the cat to perform two separate behaviors, one tiny bit at a time. The first behavior was to teach the cat to pick up the ball. This behavior was broken down into six micro behaviors that would slowly be chained together.

  • Look at the ball
  • Approach the ball
  • Sniff the ball
  • Bite the ball
  • Pick up the ball
  • Pick up the ball and hold it for a few seconds

[Ben] would press on the clicker and reward his cat immediately upon seeing the desired step of each behavior. Once the cat would perform that step regularly, the reward was removed and only given to the cat if the next step in the chain was performed. Eventually, the cat learned the entire chain of steps, leading to the desired behavior.

Next, [Ben] had to teach his cat about the target area. This was a separately trained behavior that was broken down into the following three steps.

  • Look at the target area
  • Approach the target area
  • Sniff the target area

Once the cat learned both of these behaviors, [Ben] had to somehow link them together. This part took a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence. [Ben] would place the ball near the target area, but not too close. Then, he would reward his cat only when the cat picked up the ball and started moving closer to the target area. There is some risk here that if the cat doesn’t move toward the target area at all, you risk extinguishing the old behaviors and they will have to be learned all over again. Luckily, [Ben’s] cat was smart enough to figure it out.

With the cat properly trained, it was time to build the cat feeder. [Ben] used an off-the-shelf electronic feeder called Super Feeder as the base for his project. The feeder is controlled by a relay that is hooked up to an Arduino. The Arduino is also connected to an RFID reader. Each plastic ball has an RFID tag inside it. When the cat places the ball into the target area, the reader detects the presence of the ball and triggers the relay for a few seconds. The system also includes a 315MHz wireless receiver and remote control. This allows [Ben] to manually dispense some cat food should the need arise.

Now whenever the cat is hungry, it can use those primal instincts to hunt for food instead of just having it freely handed over.

[Thanks Dan]

55 thoughts on “Hack Your Cat’s Brain to Hunt For Food

  1. Waiting for someone to tell us all that it’s not a real hack because, duh, he used an Arduino. This is, I think, an example of why Arduino should be there – so that people who don’t necessarily have their share of knowledge in electronics still can use electronics in their projects.

    1. This is absolutely a hack, and it uses the Arduino as it should be used – as a controller, rather than as a replacement for a 555 or a relay or mechanical switch or something. This is an excellent example of using an Arduino as part of a hack.

      1. It’s the Had-It’s-Day version of ‘first post’.

        Second post must mention a 555.

        Third post is either stating how lame the prior two posts are (well done you!), or something about snow going uphill both ways back in the day or some such.

        The remainder of the posts are the usual monkey droolings.

        1. It took me years to understand exactly how someone can go uphill both ways in the snow to get to wherever.

          Consider say…. six feet of fresh fallen powder snow. The snow is so soft that, even with snow shoes, you sink fairly deep. Now, even if you’re going downhill on said snow shoes (or lack of them, my father never believed in snow shoes for some strange reason) you’re still climbing “up” the snow since you’re sinking with every step. It’s simiar to climbing a shifting sand dune, for every two steps you take, you slide back one.

          I used to have a Labrador that used to “swim” in snow conditions like that. She’d jump off our back deck and sink so deep that all you would see is her curled tail and her nose. She would then paddle way to the forest edge where the snow was more compact and climb out.

          1. On some e-mail list I’m on, one fellow told about when his father worked on a large dam. His house was below the dam a ways, about halfway in height between the top and bottom of the dam. There was a road going down to the base of the dam and another up to the top. The dam had an elevator.

            So when he went to work he’d walk downhill to the dam. At the end of the day he’d take the elevator to the top and walk downhill to home.

    2. One thing worse than reading comments on a hack may be misusing an arduino (an opinion) is reading comments pre-emptively bitching about people who think arduinos are misused.

      A post bitching about people bitching about people who bitch about ardunios being misused are probably third on that list.

      I don’t mind people who post “This could be done with a 555, or a transistor resonator, or PIC rulez” because at least they add to the discussion (so long as they back it up with HOW).

    1. Damn, I tried to use tags that looked like HTML, and the software actually tried to use them as tags (or filtered them out). Anyway:

      — cat herding joke —

      Holy crap!

      — jaws drop and no one laughs because it actually worked —

    1. Um cats have the hunting thing down, pretty much. The breakthrough came when they learned that by purring and rubbing against your leg, you’d feed them. Soooo much easier than hunting.

      Now if someone could only train this one particular cat to NOT jump on my desk and walk on the keyboar2+51ffg aw dj hjvj

  2. Next step; get a different coloured, smaller ball, and add an indicator light to the feeder unit, that lights at random times. When the light is lit, the unit provides food in return for said coloured ball. Wait for the cat to get used to the idea of retriving said ball when the indicator light is lit. Then, connect the indicator to a button, attach the ball to your keys/phone/tv remote/glasses or whatever, and enjoy your new lost keys/phone/tv remote/glasses retival system!

  3. My old man’s dog does this with socks, he kills a real stinky one by retrieving from the hamper by knocking it over and drops it next to his bowl before he eats.

    Which leads me to believer this cat was already doing this with the balls, and the guy just added the funnel contraption.

  4. You could try building a second feeder, with different food, so that the cat can choose! then keep statistics and compare different brands. If you keep documenting it you might get free cat food samples from different brands if they notice your site?

    Record the clicker sound, and automate laborious teaching throughout the day, when you are gone:
    *mount a camera on the ceiling, and occasionally let a computer play recordings like “back”, “forward”, “left”, “right”, and image processing determine relative orientation, when correct play the clicking sound. Perhaps create a continuous family of clicking sounds with pitch shifting so the cat can interpret it as a score in a game. decreasing frequency upon a mistake, and increasing upon success. beyond a certain score the feeder blinks and the cat knows it will get food.
    *you can try and see if the cat can learn about delayed rewards
    *learn it count?
    *learn it speak? learn it imitate a sound, and use sound processing to assign a similarity score of frequency and amplitude envellopes. the IPA phonetic alphabet?

    1. give it a trackball, and a small display, first learn it to move the cursor in a specific region, then learn it to click. then take pictures of objects in the house, and record words per object/place/activity, and use them as flash cards, so it has to select the right picture.

      once it knows how to use a trackball and user interface the possibilities are endless.

        1. You know, for some people, English is not a first language, and not all have the privilege to learn it early and well.

          Would you criticize ideas? They were interesting.

          1. That usage was heard some in the southern appalachians but it’s getting more and more unusual. At the rate the accent is changing, it’ll probably be gone in my lifetime. The southern part of the range is basically Atlanta on one end and DC on the other, and they’re going to meet in Boone. :-)

        1. Ditch the vocabulary but keep the grammar, that way you don’t really need to learn lojban yourself, but keeps the syntax simple without linguistic exceptions…

          if this somewhat works, to the extent you notice it spontaneously forming sentences when not playing games, I wonder if it could learn to ask questions. Like where, what, … why?

      1. sorry, all my comments are split up, I always think I am out of ideas, but then another one pops up, and I can’t resist the urge.

        you may consider training it to … clean its own litter box somehow?

    2. You need to be careful when feeding your cat different brands of cat food at the same time. It upsets the stomach for some of them.

      It’s an agonizing process involving gradually blending one brand with another in increasing ratios each day. eg 10/90->20/80->30/70….80/20->90/10->100%

      You can get the cat to eat both if you blend to the 50/50 mark then separate them out and let the cat make the choice.

      1. Is this also the case with dry cat food? Although we had cats when I grew up, you are right they weren’t really my cats. My sister spent more time with them. I took care of the dog. Where I live now, we’re not allowed to have pets…

  5. I wonder then if other cats in the house could learn this without the incremental conditioning, only by watching what the trained cat does. Would other learning take place, like one waiting by the feeder to steal the hunter’s treat and so on?

  6. Like the super feeder! Best automated feeder there is!

    We own two feeders for two cats but they figured out how to get their paws up into the feed outlet and broke the guards off of them.

    I used a small storage cabinet from wally-world and put the feeders in it and direct the food out openings on opposite sides with some rain gutter. Having the food come out on opposite sides prevents the larger cat from running back and forth and stealing food from our smaller guy. I also made a PIC based low food level detector with IR diodes and detector modules, so if either feeder is low on food, a light on the outside of the cabinet blinks.

    The guy in the article has the larger food storage attachment, but we don’t use it because it’s not well sealed and the food goes stale faster. But we still get about a weeks worth of feedings between refills. We keep their fresh supply in a gasketed container.

    A digital timer driving both feeders feeds them several smaller meals a day, which keeps them pretty happy. They got huge from open feeding in the past, but now they are both fit and trim with nice soft coats.

    Since they know that the cabinet is feeding them, they leave us alone for food unless they are begging for something we are eating. Cats will be cats. But not having them whining at the bedroom door at all hours expecting to be fed is wonderful!

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