Alexandra Horowitz Ph.D.

Minds of Animals

Science and the domestic cat

What's on the mind of your cat?

Posted Jul 28, 2009

As a researcher of dog behavior and cognition, I tend to be asked two kinds of questions from both academics and nonspecialists. First, people veer from asking me about the specific research that I do, and instead ask for explanations of the behavior of their own dogs: how do I explain the dog who seems to know when his owner is upset, or when he's coming home, or who appears to be empathetic or prescient or manipulative. I can often give a good stab at answering these questions, but like any researcher of a species, I am far from omniscient.

The second kind of question I get is: What about cats?

What about cats indeed. In the last decade, the study of dog cognition has blossomed: there are now many research groups, in the U.S. and especially abroad, committed to testing the behavior of pet dogs, Canis familiaris, on tasks of their social, communicative, and physical abilities. Many of these behavioral tasks had previously been run with chimps or other non-human primates; the study of dogs has gained momentum because in many cases -- especially on social cognitive tasks -- dogs have surprisingly out-performed chimps. Though dogs, as a ubiquitous pet in our households, seem familiar and known, our common-sense impressions of dogs' abilities are as often disconfirmed as they are confirmed.

But research into "cat cognition" has lagged behind. One of the preeminent journals of the field, aptly entitled Animal Cognition, has published 36 articles on dog cognition since 1998. In that time, only 3 articles have been published on Felis catus. This is one fewer than have been published on cuttlefish, and one more than the octopus has garnered. Pigeons, who used to be the stars of behavioral research, were subjects in only twenty-four articles. Dogs are all the rage, and for the time being are eclipsing their domesticated brethren. And it is reasonable to wonder why this might be.

The first hurdle to a science of cat cognition may be the same hurdle as dog cognition has recently leaped: we feel that we already know what cats can do. Cats are padding along in some 30% of American households; they don't feel exotic. There is no dearth of cat behavior books; every cat owner thinks himself an expert in the species behavior (and probably is reasonably expert at least at describing his own cat's behavior). And among the things we "know" about cats is another blow against their likelihood of being studied: cats are seen as "independent" and unresponsive to owners. The impetus of the field of dog cognition rests largely on the dogs' successes at "social cognitive" tasks: those predicated on their being reliably responsive to and interactive with humans. Some physiological features of cats also handicap them as behavioral research subjects: their facial features are less flexuous, less expressive, than the dog with his protruding snout, wide mouth, and often enormous, mobile ears.

There is some evidence that a field of cat cognition is taking shape. There have recently been studies on decision-making; memory; causal understanding; learning by observation; tests of invisible displacement (figuring out where an object has gone when it is blocked from view) and object permanence (awareness that objects continue to exist when they are not visible); even lateralized behavior (a study in press found that male cats tend to use their left paws first; females their right), once considered the province only of humans.

Cats are more recently domesticated than dogs (and a recent article on their domestication suggested that they, unlike dogs, probably had little utility to early domesticators -- not even as mousers, as popularly believed). This certainly does not make them less interesting as animals. In fact, unlike the results of selective breeding in some dogs (pugs, for instance), the changes to the bodies and fur of cats over their period of domestication does not significantly alter their communicative abilities. Cats have plenty of ways to communicate, through bodily posture, tail use, their ears, and by vocalizations: from the meow to various hisses, shrieks, and purrs. And the flip side of cats' relative disinterest in humans is that they are more likely to have developed physical cognitive abilities to solve problems on their own, rather than looking to humans as dogs often do.

Prognostication in science is probably a losing game, but I'd bet that cats are fast on the tails of dogs as behavioral research subjects.