Not surprisingly, scientists prefer to use dogs more often than cats in behavioral experiments; entire research groups and conferences are devoted to the topic of canine cognition, which has led to a better understanding of our four-legged friends. Cats, on the other hand, are less cooperative by nature, behave more nervously in social situations, and are therefore less suitable for experimental studies. Kristyn Shreve and Monique Udell compiled the knowledge gathered so far about the thinking of our (sometimes quite dismissive) companions.
The sensory perception of cats
One of the best-studied areas of cat cognition is their perception, which is their ability to hear, smell, see, and use their whiskers to detect stimuli. Olfactory perception (the ability to smell) is especially important for kittens because it significantly influences their relationship with their mother. On the other hand, young cats react to acoustic stimuli only at the age of 11 to 16 days, visual stimuli are perceived even after 16 to 21 days.
This article is included in Spectrum – The Week, 39/2016
Olfactory signals also play an important role in the further life of cats; adult animals set scent marks to mark their territory and can recognize the territories of other individuals via their nose. As with dogs, the scent of their conspecifics provides cats with social information. Despite the importance of scent to cats, by far the majority of behavioral experiments in these animals nevertheless focus on sight. So our current knowledge of how cats perceive the world through their nose is pretty limited.
The object permanence of the four-legged
Object permanence is the ability to "remember" an object, even if it moves out of sight. In other words, knowing that the disappearance of something does not mean that it is gone forever. For example, if a ball rolls under a sofa, we know that it is still there, even if we can no longer see it. In humans, this ability develops quite early; infants under the age of two are already able to hold things in memory. Anyone who has ever had a toy mouse disappear under a piece of furniture and been observed by a cat staring after the mouse would correctly guess that cats have also developed object permanence.
In one experiment, for example, an experimenter showed a cat a food hiding place, whereupon the animal actually looked for food there a short time later. Moreover, cats apparently cannot remember only one object that disappears from their line of sight. They also inferred where it must have gone – even if they did not directly see anyone move the object. To test this in an experiment, a cat is shown a container of food, which the experimenter then makes disappear behind a privacy screen. The food is secretly removed and the cat gets to see the empty container. If the animal now concludes that the food is hidden behind the screen, it would have to search for the food in that place. In this so-called "invisible displacement test cats may not perform quite as well as dogs, but it is difficult to say whether the result actually reflects the animals’ abilities or is simply due to the experimental design.
Detecting physical causality
Cognitive researchers often investigate the question of whether animals "follow physical laws" understand: whether an animal understands how the objects in its environment are related to each other. Birds are tested, for example, in experimental setups in which they have to reach food attached to the end of strings hanging down vertically. The bird should understand exactly how to pull up the string with the help of its beak and feet to get the reward. Unfortunately, such investigations have hardly been carried out with cats so far; however, there is a study in which the animals could prove their abilities in such an experiment. In this experimental arrangement, a part of the cords was "useful" attached to the food, but others ran horizontally or crosswise in an unsuitable way (at least for us) to be able to reach the food by pulling it. In this experiment, the cats did not seem to understand what was actually going on, because they randomly pulled on all the strings. However, this could also be due to the experimental design rather than the limited abilities of the cats. Or it is simply because cats like to pull on strings – whether they have food hanging on them or not.
Elsewhere, however, cats have demonstrated that they are quite capable of physical inference: They react perplexed when physical rules seem to be disobeyed. In one experiment, they observed a container being first shaken and then turned upside down. Some runs followed an unsurprising pattern: the cats first heard a rattling sound when the container was shaken, and then saw an object roll out when the container was turned upside down. Other runs, however, seemed to contradict the rules of physics: For example, the animals heard a sound when the cup was shaken, but nothing fell out. Or they heard nothing, and still an object appeared in the end. The analysis of the video recordings showed that the cats generally looked longer at a rattling container than at a silent one. But they also paid more attention to contradictory processes than to those with an expected result – as if they suspected that something was amiss.
Distinguishing between sets
There is little research in this area, but cats can learn to distinguish between two and three things. That is, they are able to detect small differences in size.
While the domestic cat is considered by many people to be a solitary animal, free-roaming domestic cats appear to specifically seek out certain individuals to hang out with on their roams. While some of these interactions are aggressive in nature, others happen out of pure curiosity or even to make contact. Cats also have different relationships with different people. Typically, animals learn social behavior during the first two to seven weeks of their lives – both with other cats and with humans. In general, cats that have had more contact with humans during this crucial period are more trusting of humans for the rest of their lives.
Receptivity to human signals
Cats were bred as pets and have lived in the company of humans for a long time – so you would expect them to be able to interpret human signals to some extent. However, every cat owner knows that animals aren’t always quite as responsive as we might wish them to be.
We humans often try to interact with animals in our environment by pointing at things. Since this is a typical human communication tool, this behavior highlights our own limitations rather than those of our animal friends. A 2005 study by adam Miklosi and colleagues nevertheless found that cats can indeed follow human gestures to find food. The researchers also investigated whether cats generally sought help from humans when they were unable to complete a task. However, the animals did not do this.
In another paper, scientists explored the question of whether cats turn to humans in situations they perceive as unsafe. This so-called "social referencing" Is a behavior that both children and adults exhibit. For example, a clown may seem scary at first, but if everyone else is having fun, we quickly learn that we don’t need to be afraid in that situation (although there are always exceptions, of course). To test the phenomenon in cats, they confronted them with a fan to which streamers were attached and which appeared potentially threatening to the animals. A cat was brought into a room with its owner, the fan was turned on, and the cat’s owner was asked to respond either neutrally, frightened, or content/relaxed.
Most cats (about 80 percent), the researchers found, looked back and forth between the fan and the human, apparently to gauge their own reaction. The animals also responded to the emotional reactions of their owners: If they looked frightened, the cats were more likely to move away from the fan and interact with the humans. This result is difficult to interpret; according to the authors, the cats may have been seeking comfort from their owners. The results of further studies equally show that cats react to human emotional states: They are less likely to seek out people who are feeling sad, and more likely to approach those who are in extroverted or excited moods. Why this is so, however, remains unclear.
Recognition of human voices
In 2013, scientists Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka demonstrated that cats can recognize their owner’s voice. To prove this, the researchers played audio recordings to cats of the animals being called by name by their owners or other humans. The cats reacted most strongly when their owner called for them; the reaction was mainly seen in movements of the ears or head and less in the animal moving in the direction of the voice – like a dog for example.
Communication by meow
Young cats have about nine different types of vocalizations, whereas adults have about 16. Interestingly, domestic cats and feral cats also differ in their vocalizations. This suggests that the relationship with the human has an influence on the "cat language" has. Perhaps one of the most familiar sounds cats make is purring. However, the animals not only purr when being petted by humans, but also when interacting with conspecifics and kittens. In addition, cats change their purrs to give the vocalization a different meaning. For example, if they demand food from their owner, the purring becomes more urgent and unpleasant; in doing so, the animals usually also embed a high-pitched meow in the low-pitched purring. However, whether this type of demand for food is specific to the cat-human relationship or is also used in other contexts is not known at this time.
Bonding with the owner
In 2007, Claudia Edwards and colleagues conducted what is known as the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test Through to check whether cats are more closely bonded to their owners than to any other person. In this test, the cat was brought into a room and had to stay there either alone, with its owner or with a stranger. The researchers found that the animals sought physical contact with their owner for longer than with the stranger. Moreover, they exclusively followed their owners and played only with them. When in the presence of their owner, cats generally appeared more eager to explore and move around. If the animals were alone or in the presence of the stranger, they behaved more vigilantly and sat near the door for longer periods of time. The cats made the most vocalizations when they were alone in the room. So it seems that cats actually have a bond with their owners that is stronger than with strangers – this may be a small comfort to some.
Cats also seem to experience separation anxiety; this also indicates a bond with their owners. When separated from their human caregivers, animals are more likely to exhibit stress behaviors such as urinating and defecating in inappropriate places, excessive vocalizations, destructiveness, and excessive grooming.
While existing research on cognition in cats has helped bring to light at least some abilities of our elusive housemates, much of feline behavior is still poorly studied, and there are many aspects we don’t understand. A more complete knowledge of cat behavior and how we influence it will lead to better human-cat interaction and increased well-being of these animals. And hopefully it will also help reduce the number of cats that end up in shelters or are euthanized.