Is Your Cat Left-Handed?

A new study reveals a surprising twist on paw preference in our feline friends.

Posted Feb 25, 2019

If you, like me, have cats at home, you might have noticed something curious about the behavior of your feline companions. Whether playing with a wool ball or chasing a cat toy you move in front of them, cats often have a preferred paw with which they interact with their environment, and this preference is fairly consistent across time. Analogous to left- and right-handedness in human, this phenomenon has been called pawedness.

Paw preference in cats has not only fascinated curious pet owners, it actually has been the focus of more than 30 scientific studies to date. Surprisingly, the findings of these studies have been somewhat inconsistent. Some studies report that cats are right-pawed, others report that they are left-pawed, and yet others find that the sex of the animals might be a critical factor. This puzzling pattern is not uncommon in behavioral animal research, as individual studies tend to test only a few specimen rather than relying on large cohorts. To solve this problem, we recently conducted a so-called meta-analysis of paw preference in cats, i.e., a statistical integration of different empirical studies (Ocklenburg et al., 2019).

Overall, 32 different studies that together tested 1484 cats were included in the analysis. The result?  Cats show paw preference, but it is somewhat different from human handedness. Overall, 75% of animals showed a preference for one paw, while 25% did not. This number is larger than in humans, where only about 1% of individuals show no preference for one hand.

In a second analysis, we wanted to know whether cats, like humans, on average show a preference for the right side. This was not the case, as there was no significant effect. Overall, 39% of cats were right-pawed, 36% were left-pawed, and 25% had no preference. Thus, cats have almost the same chance of being left- or right-pawed, unlike humans who have a 90% chance of being right-handed and a 10% chance of being left-handed.

However, when we compared male and female cats in a subset of studies, a striking effect emerged: Female cats were much more likely to show right-paw preference than male cats. In fact, 52.0% of female cats showed a right-sided preference, 27.1% showed a left-sided preference, and 20.9% showed no preference. In contrast, 52.3% of male cats showed a left-sided preference, 30.8% showed a right-sided preference, and 16.9% showed no preference.

Thus, female cats were most likely to show right-paw preference and male cats were most likely to show left-paw preference. This observation confirmed earlier findings that sex strongly affects paw preference in cats (Wells & Millsopp, 2012). Interestingly, there is also a sex difference in human handedness! Men have a slightly higher chance of being left-handed than women, but the difference is nowhere near as strong as in cats. While the reasons for this are currently unknown, effects of sex hormones might be implicated.

So the next time you wonder whether your cat is left- or right-pawed, just remember: male cats are more likely to be left-pawed and female cats are more likely to be right-pawed.

References

Ocklenburg S, Isparta S, Peterburs J & Papadatou-Pastou M. (2019). Paw preferences in cats and dogs: Meta-analysis. Laterality, in press.

Wells DL, Millsopp S. (2012). The ontogenesis of lateralized behavior in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus. J Comp Psychol, 126, 23-30.