Tag: University of Kyoto

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.”

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.