Category: research

Cats Know Where We Are Even If It Seems Like They’re Not Paying Attention

A new study from Japan found cats keep track of their humans even when they’re not looking at them.

A research team from the University of Kyoto conducted the experiments in a cat cafe and in individual cats’ homes. Each cat was placed in a room without their humans. Then the researchers tested the way felines reacted to hearing their people calling their names from outside the room, followed by their reactions to hearing them inside via speakers.

When the cats heard their humans calling them from inside the room the furballs were surprised, expressing their confusion with ear twitches, whisker movement and uncertain body language.

On the other hand, when cats heard “non-social stimuli” — scientist-speak for sounds other than familiar people calling to them — they didn’t react to changes in the location and direction.

Some people might shrug and wonder what the fuss is about, but the experiment actually confirms a great deal about feline intelligence. It’s a test of what scientists call “socio-spatial cognition,” meaning cats form a mental map of things that are important to them, and nothing’s more important to a house cat than the person who provides food, security and affection.

That’s significant because it’s confirmation that cats understand object permanence, and that they are more than capable of abstract thought. Abstract thought — the ability to picture and think about something mentally, without having to see it — is hugely important in intelligence, allowing everything from creativity to understanding that other animals and people have their own points of view. For context, it takes about two years for human children to develop rudimentary abstract thinking skills.

Cats “may be thinking about many things,” Saho Takagi, the study’s lead author, told CNN.

“This study shows that cats can mentally map their location based on their owner’s voice,” Takagi said, per The Guardian. “[It suggests] that cats have the ability to picture the invisible in their minds. Cats have a more profound mind than is thought.”

Things like object permanence and spatial awareness were necessary for cats to thrive as hunters for the millions of years they’ve existed on Earth.

The results aren’t surprising from an evolutionary perspective, biologist Roger Tabor said.

“That awareness of movement – tracking things they cannot see – is critical to a cat’s survival,” Tabor told The Guardian.

“A lot of what a cat has to interpret in its territory is an awareness of where other cats are. It is also important for hunting: how could a cat catch a field vole moving around beneath the grass if it couldn’t use clues, such as the occasional rustle, to see in its mind’s eye, where they are? A cat’s owner is extremely significant in its life as a source of food and security, so where we are is very important.”

The study is also another piece of evidence showing cats are just as aware of — and concerned about — their people as dogs are, even though the conventional wisdom says they don’t care most of the time. That has implications for the way people bond with their cats, and the decisions we make about caring for them — like, for instance, how long we’re willing to leave them on their own while planning a trip.

“This is a great example of elevating our expectation of the cat a little bit,” cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson told CNN, “and realizing that they do have the capability of having that bond in that relationship where they actually will take comfort in their people.”

Unlike Other Animals, Cats Always Take The Free Meal

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.

Except cats.

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.”

Puzzle feeder
A puzzle feeder used in the study. Credit: UC Davis

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.

Screenshot 2021-08-13 at 08-31-22 MikelDelgadoProfile jpg (WEBP Image, 800 × 800 pixels)
Mikel Delgado with a kitty. Credit: Community Cats Podcast

Ever Wondered How Many Surfaces Your Cat’s Butt Touches? A Kid Has The Answer

I remember the first time I saw my brother’s dog drag his posterior across the living room carpet.

The friendly little good boy, a terrier-Chihuahua mix, had just returned from a walk with my brother. He hopped up onto the couch, then down, leaning back into an odd-for-a-dog sitting position.

Then, with his little back legs spread, he used his front paws to drag his butt across the carpet with a heavy exhale, the canine equivalent of an “Oh yeah!” sigh of relief.

I know there are many feline behaviors that gross out dog loyalists, but thank God we don’t have to watch our kitties use carpets and area rugs as butt-scratchers.

Cats have more dignity than that. Cats are legendarily fastidious animals.

Or are they?

Kaeden, an enterprising sixth-grader from Florida, set out to “tackle the challenging task of answering the internet’s most burning question, drum roll please,” his mother, Kerry Griffin, wrote on Facebook. “Does your cat’s butthole really touch all the surfaces in your home?”

He would go on to present his findings and methodology at his school’s science fair.

Kerry has a doctorate in animal behavior with a concentration in feline behavior that she says she “never used.” She put it to good use for the project, helping her son come up with a plan: They’d use non-toxic lipstick and apply it to the cats’ “bum-bums.” Then they’d place each cat on a sheet of paper and run through commands.

“Both cats have been trained since kittenhood with a variety of commands. They also know how to high-five, spin around, and speak,” Kerry wrote. “They were compensated with lots of praise, pets and their favorite treats, and the lipstick was removed with a baby wipe once we collected our data in just under 10 minutes.”

They tested each cat on soft surfaces, like carpet and bedding, and on hard surfaces like tiled floors. If the cat left lipstick residue on the sheet of paper, it was counted as positive contact.

The results?

“Long and medium haired cat’s buttholes made NO contact with soft or hard surfaces at all,” Kerry wrote. “Short haired cats made NO contact on hard surfaces. But we did see evidence of a slight smear on the soft bedding surface.”

So there you have it. If your cats are long- or medium-hair, congratulations. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to have a little chat with the short-haired Buddy…catbuttproject

Can You Tell The Real Cats From The Computer-Generated Kitties?

There’s a new tool that uses algorithmic artificial intelligence to create random images of cats, and the results are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

Can you tell which cats are real and which ones are computer-generated? (Kindly share your answers in the comments, numbering them from left to right. The person with the best score gets bragging rights!)

We’ll follow up with the answers after everyone’s had a day to make their guesses or informed choices, as it were.

The algorithm was created by a process called machine learning, which you’ve probably heard at some point even if you haven’t sought out information about artificial intelligence. 

In simple terms, machine learning means the creators fed massive amounts of data — millions of photos of cats — to the software algorithm. The algorithm analyzes the data and learns how patterns in the data create accurate images of felines.

Crucially, the algorithm never learns what a cat actually is. It doesn’t know a cat is an animal in the real world. It doesn’t know what the real world is, and it doesn’t know what animals are. All it knows is that data, organized a certain way, produces images that look like the photos it’s been fed.

That’s a key difference because, while we have made huge strides with machine learning, that’s not the kind of artificial intelligence the Elon Musks of the world freak out about when they smoke pot and watch The Matrix. We’ll never have to worry about our cat-generating algorithms rising up and eliminating humanity. 🙂

Artificial general intelligence — or AGI — is the potentially dangerous form of AI, but that’s a whole other piece of business: It involves recreating consciousness and the mind on a machine substrate.

We can’t even define consciousness and we know shockingly little about how the brain works, so that’s not happening any time soon. And even if we could it off, there’s a growing body of evidence supporting the concept of embodied cognition. That’s the idea that the mind cannot be separate from the brain, and the brain cannot be separate from the body, as well as a recognition that everything from pain signals to gut flora has an effect on our cognitive routines.

The bottom line: “AI” can get pretty good at making pictures of cats, but it’s not taking over the world any time soon.

Study: Cats Will Happily Accept Food From Jerks

Taking studies designed for children and dogs and applying them to cats has been all the rage lately after a series of studies yielded new insights about the way cats bond with their humans.

Earlier studies showed cats, like kids and dogs, look to their humans for reassurance in strange situations and derive comfort from the latter’s presence. Likewise, they’re less confident if they’re forced to face unknown situations without the “security blanket” of their big buddies nearby.

Now a research team in Kyoto has taken another study designed for dogs — known as the “helpful stranger” study — and placed cats in the same situation to find out how they react.

Sure, I'll Take A Treat!
A new study shows cats don’t discriminate when it comes to who’s giving them food.

Both humans and dogs show a preference for what researchers call “prosocial individuals.” In plain language, it means they pay attention to the way strangers treat the people they care about. A dog who sees a stranger respond negatively to its caretaker will avoid the stranger, even if the latter is waving a delicious treat.

In the study, cats watch their owners try to open a box while two strangers are present:

“[C]ats watched as their owner first tried unsuccessfully to open a transparent container to take out an object, and then requested help from a person sitting nearby. In the Helper condition, this second person (helper) helped the owner to open the container, whereas in the Non-Helper condition the actor refused to help, turning away instead. A third, passive (neutral) person sat on the other side of the owner in both conditions.

After the interaction, the actor and the neutral person each offered a piece of food to the cat, and we recorded which person the cat took food from. Cats completed four trials and showed neither a preference for the helper nor avoidance of the non-helper.”

At first glance it looks like cats really don’t care if a person is helpful or friendly toward their “owners.” If a person is offering them yums, why shouldn’t they take them?

That sounds like exactly the sort of thing cats would do, but the research team says we should hold off on judging our food-loving feline friends. It may be that cats simply don’t understand that the stranger(s) aren’t being helpful. After all, if your cat sees you struggling with a package, does she offer to help?

If it is true, it’s not necessarily cats’ fault: We’ve long known they aren’t as well-attuned to human social cues as dogs are, a fact that can be attributed to their route to domestication. There simply wasn’t any reason to carefully breed cats to pick up on those cues, as we did historically with dogs, because cats were already wildly successful at their primary job, which was rodent extermination. Taking on cuddle and companionship duties didn’t happen until later when people began to value the little ones for more than their sharp claws and teeth.

“We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation abilities as dogs, at least in this situation, because unlike the latter, they have not been selected to cooperate with humans,” the scientists wrote.

The research team says the results are suggestive, but more studies should be done before drawing any real conclusions about our furry friends. Knowing cats often get a bad rep due to stereotypes and misunderstandings, we agree.