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Feline Cognition


Time spent with cats is never wasted”

- Sigmund Freud

Feline Cognition © 2017 Carla Eatherington



Carla Eatherington asserts the right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, without the express written permission of Carla Eatherington.


Introduction 4

Feline Cognition 7

Perception 9

Cause and effect 13

Memory 16

Cognitive dysfunction 19

Sense of time 21

Counting 24

Discrimination 25

Social cognition 27

Attachment 30

Conclusions 32

References 34


It’s probably safe to say that we’re crazy about cats! A walk around most major cities will undoubtedly reveal a ‘cat café’ where you can get your feline-fix whilst grabbing a drink and a bite to eat. However, this obsession with cats isn’t new, in fact, we’ve worshipped them since the time of the Egyptians. That’s not to say that cats haven’t kept up with the times though, in recent years we’ve flooded the internet with amusing memes anthropomorphising their behaviour.

Within modern society cats are valued companions, so much so that they’re the second most popular pet in the US after freshwater fish. This might come as a surprise to the dog owners amongst you since dogs have traditionally been thought of as ‘Man’s best friend,’ but there are an estimated 94 million cats owned in the US compared to 90 million dogs according to a survey conducted in 2017 by the American Pet Products Association. Globally it has been suggested that approximately 600 million cats live with humans (Driscoll et al., 2009). Although admittedly there are more dog owners out there than cat owners, people are more likely to own multiple cats as opposed to more than one dog.

Currently there are over seventy registered breeds of cat, although they are less physically diverse than dog breeds owing to their shorter period of domestication and therefore selective breeding. That said, the largest breed of cat – Maine Coon – can reach up to 12kg, whilst the smallest breed of cat – Singapura – weighs less than 2kg. Cats also come in a wide range of coat colours which according to Dmitry Belyaev’s fox experiments is a tell-tale sign of domestication.

Further physical characteristics of the domestic cat are their flexible bodies and sharp reflexes. Cats have superior senses that often exceed our own, including great night vision which is approximately six times better than humans thanks to a reflective layer at the back of their eyes which magnifies low light levels. On the other hand, they have relatively poor colour vison and only perceive a reduced spectrum from yellow to blue, termed dichromatic vision. Another interesting fact is that unlike humans, cats have a third eyelid called the nictitating membrane which extends from the corner of the eye to protect it.

A cat’s natural diet consists of small mammals and birds, and they are still perfectly designed for hunting these – often to the owner’s dismay! In fact, cats are so successful that they’ve been primarily responsible for the extinction of thirty-three species of birds (Winter & Wallace, 2006). To pinpoint the location of a prey animal, cats have thirty-two muscles in their ears which they can move independently. Moreover, they can hear noises which are too quiet and high in pitch for humans to hear (Heffner, 2004).

Cats are incredibly agile, able to jump five times their height and balance using their tails. They can also run up to 30km per hour, but make up for these short bursts of energy by sleeping up to eighteen hours a day! Even their whiskers which just look cute to us have a practical function, measuring the size of a gap to determine whether the cat can squeeze through to make sure they don’t get stuck trying.

Unlike dogs, cats are often referred to as semi-solitary because they hunt alone and are territorial, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t need to communicate socially. On the contrary, cats possess a wide array of behaviours, vocalisations and pheromones by which they communicate with each other. When asked, ‘What do cats say?’ a young child is likely to reply, ‘Meow’, but cat vocalisations are far more complex than this, including meowing, purring, trilling, chattering, hissing, yowling and growling.

As cat owners, you’ll know that one of the most important relationships that a cat forges is not with others of the same species but with you, their human companion. Although, in cats this is much more subject to individual differences than dogs, with some cats being very needy and others more aloof. Unfortunately, there’s not too much that you can do to change this. At around seven weeks old the socialisation window closes and if kittens haven’t been adequately socialised with humans by that time, it’s unlikely they’ll be very interested in them as adults (Sunquist & Sunquist, 2002).

Cats also communicate with chemical messages but since they have a far better sense of smell than us, we rarely pick up on this. Cats either spray or rub their pheromones onto objects to mark their territory such as a tree in the garden – or person! Yes, it turns out that your cat isn’t just rubbing their face on you to show you how much they love you, they’re also telling everyone else that you belong to them…but that’s okay because they give us so much back. For example, research has found that cat owners have a lower risk of cardio-vascular disease (Qureshi, Memon, Vazquez & Suri, 2009) and elderly owners suffer less from depression and loneliness (Needell & Mehta-Naik, 2016).

To date, unlike dogs, feline cognition has been the focus of little academic research but that’s not to say that your cat isn’t capable of amazing things that you might not even realise. The aim of this book is to summarise the scientific evidence for cat intelligence and provide demonstrations of your cat’s cognitive abilities using simple techniques that you can try at home for yourself.

Feline Cognition

Intelligence refers to the ability to solve problems, adapt to your surroundings based on prior experience and communicate effectively with others. When you think about animal intelligence I’d be surprised if the first animal you thought of was a cat, maybe a chimpanzee or a dog? But don’t let that air of cool indifference fool you into thinking that cats aren’t smart!

Despite having a brain that is much smaller compared to the size of its body than a human’s – not even 1% – cats can perform a range of complex cognitive feats. In fact, brain size is only loosely correlated with intelligence. Consider the Neanderthals: they had larger brains than Homo Sapiens but were unable to adapt whereas we were, and that’s why we’re still here today. However, a factor that does correlate with intelligence is the speed of electrical transmission between cortical neurons. Furthermore, cats have about twice as many neurons in their cerebral cortex than dogs which is the area of the brain responsible for information processing (Roth & Dicke, 2005).

In humans intelligence is determined by standardised intelligence quotient (IQ) tests which measure verbal and non-verbal abilities. An example is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) which measures an adult’s verbal comprehension, perceptual organisation, working memory and processing speed. Obviously you’re not going to be able to get your cat to sit a formal exam to test its verbal comprehension, but we can test their ability in areas associated with intelligence by designing tasks which tap into this.


If you want to optimise your cat’s cognitive powers make sure that they are getting enough: manganese, potassium, and vitamins D, B1 and B6.


There’s a tendency to think that other animals view the world like we do, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Cats can hear sounds that are too high in pitch for humans and dogs to hear. The evolutionary advantage of hearing these high-pitched frequencies is that rodents use ultrasonic sounds to communicate with each other (Blumberg, Efimova & Alberts, 1992), thus being able to hear them assists cats in locating prey during hunting.

It’s also not always appreciated how sensitive a cat’s sense of smell is. Smell is actually the first sense that a kitten develops and is crucial for the kitten-mother relationship (Mermet, Coureaud, McGrane & Schaal, 2007). Cats can perceive a range of pheromones used to mark territory and will often go off their food if they cannot smell it. This is because for cats, smell is intrinsically tied to taste through the Jacobson’s organ. Interestingly, cats have far fewer taste buds than humans and although they have sweet taste buds, they’re unable to bind to sugary molecules and therefore taste them (Li, et al., 2006).

Like humans, cats have binocular vison because both eyes are located on the front of their head giving them good depth perception which is crucial for hunting. They also have amazing night vision which means they’re able to hunt in low light levels. Cats can see at one-sixth of the light that humans need, thanks to a reflective film at the back of the eye (tapetum lucidum). This is also the reason that cats’ eyes appear to glow in the dark. In addition, a cat’s pupil swells to cover almost all of their eye in low light levels to let in more light. On the other hand, cats have reduced colour vison because they’re dichromatic which is like being red-green colour-blind. Instead they see the world in hues of yellow and blue which is somewhat counterintuitive considering the amount of luscious green vegetation within their environment.

The limited use of cats in research has tended to focus on vision, including sensory deprivation. In 1959 Hubel and Wiesel accidently discovered neurons in the cat’s visual cortex that are responsible for detecting edges in different orientations. During the famous experiment by Blakemore and Cooper (1970) a litter of kittens was divided into two groups. One group of kittens was raised in an environment that consisted entirely of vertical lines and the other group was raised surrounded by horizontal lines. Once the cats were old enough they were released into a normal environment but the impact of their early experience was profound. Cats raised surrounded by vertical lines were perfectly adapted to perceive these (e.g. a chair leg), however, they were unable to perceive any horizontal lines – they just couldn’t see them! On the other hand, the cats raised in the horizontal environment had the opposite problem. These findings highlight the importance of early experiences and provides evidence for a critical window in brain development.

Another influential experiment on kittens, this time into perceptual-motor development, was conducted by Held and Hein in 1963. In this experiment kittens were kept in dark conditions from birth and only given one hour of daylight each day when they were put into the ‘carousel’ in pairs. One kitten, called the Active kitten, was permitted to move freely but the other kitten, called the Passive kitten, could not move by itself and was only moved by the other kitten’s movements. It was a rigorous experimental design because both kittens had the same amount of visual experience but only for the Active kitten was this experience connected to an action. When they were older both kittens were released into the light and it became clear that the Active kitten had developed normally but the Passive kitten had no sense of depth perception, demonstrating how perception and motion are interconnected.

A robust visual phenomenon demonstrated in humans is the visual left-side bias where people look more and first towards the left-side of their visual environment (Gilbert & Bakan, 1973). Amongst other reasons this has been suggested to develop from a reading bias in western countries. However, this visual left-side bias has also been demonstrated in dogs (Guo, Meints, Hall, Hall & Mills, 2009) suggesting that it might be more biological. To the best of my knowledge side bias has not been investigated in cats, so here’s your chance to conduct some citizen science to further our understanding about visual attention in cats.

Test it at home:

Conceal a treat in one of your hands but don’t let your cat see which one. Then stand above your cat with your hands curled into fists, side-by-side in front of your body. Now extend both arms outwards in opposite directions so your cat has to move its head to look at each hand, and watch which way your cat looks first. If they follow your right hand, then you cat has a left-side visual bias. Repeat this five times to see which direction they look most often.

Another interesting observation regarding vison and movement is that more cats are left paw dominant (so are dogs) in the same way that most people are right-handed (Tan & Kutlu, 1991). This finding has sparked speculation about how cats think since the opposite side of the brain controls each side of the body. If cats are more left-pawed then they are also more right-hemisphered which is loosely thought to be linked to creativity (Leonhard & Brugger, 1998).

Test it at home:

Slide a treat far enough under the sofa so your cat can see it, but it’s just out of reach of their mouth. Watch to see which paw they reach out to pull the treat towards them. Repeat this five times to see which paw they use most often because this is their dominant paw.

Cause and effect

Researcher Edward Thorndike (1898) claimed that animals learn through a process of trial and error. In his famous experiments a cat would be placed inside a puzzle box and the lid closed. Thorndike claimed that the cat would make lots of incorrect responses trying to get out of the box but would eventually trip the switch on the side which opened the door. He suggested that as the association between the response (hitting the switch) and reinforcement (escaping the box) increased, the cat would take less time to get out the box. The reverse is also true; for example, if your cat burns its paw whilst walking over the hob since this is punishing, it is less likely that the cat will repeat the behaviour (walking over the hob) in the future.

Thorndike’s law of effect has become known more generally as operant or instrumental conditioning. This principle is used in animal training, including cats – they might not be very motivated but they can be trained! In Moscow there’s a whole circus of cats performing amazing tricks. Operant conditioning is also what is used in zoos to facilitate animal care. A good example of this is training great apes to accept hand injections because it’s stressful to dart them if they need to be anesthetised. This seems incredible, but it’s all achieved using positive reinforcement to shape the animal’s behaviour until they get the desired response.

There is a tendency amongst researchers to only report the findings that ‘work’, however, it’s also important to know what things cats can’t do. For example, Whitt, Douglas, Osthaus and Hocking (2009) found that when cats were presented with a piece of string which was attached to food, they were able to pull it to receive the reward. However, when presented with multiple arrangements (a long string, two parallel strings or two crossed strings), cats pulled them at random seemingly not understanding the casual relationship that birds did when tested using a similar design. However, it could be argued that the string-pulling task was rewarding by itself, or that the experimental procedure doesn’t tap into a cat’s natural abilities but a different type of task could.

Test it at home:

Clearly there are many things you could train your cat to do using positive reinforcement, some of which you might not even realise you’re doing. For example, if every time you call your cats name and they come to you, you give them attention or a treat then they’ll be more likely to come over when you call their name again in the future.

To demonstrate the principle of positive reinforcement learning you could train your cat to perform a new behaviour. Training your animal to sit in a certain place on command can be very useful. To do this, first buy a new mat that your cat hasn’t seen before, preferably one with a unique texture. Place it on the floor and every time they go near it say “mat” and give them a tasty treat. Slowly you need to become more selective in the behaviour that you reward, say “mat” and only give them a treat if they’re touching, followed by completely on, then sitting on, the mat. It will take dedication but your cat will eventually learn to sit on the mat on command.


Like humans, cats have both long-term and short-term memories – yes, they remember that time when you locked the cat flap and it rained! Cats can retain two pieces of information in their short-term memory for around 30 seconds (Cowan, 1923) which is approximately the same time that humans can retain seven. A recent study by Takagi et al. (2017) put cats’ episodic memory to the test and found that cats encoded ‘what’ and ‘where’ information. In this study cats were presented with several bowls but only one contained food. The important manipulation was that in each trial food was never presented in the same bowl consecutively. It is clear that cats had retained this information because they chose to return to bowls they had previously not eaten out of for longer.

Test it at home:

Buy two children’s buckets, one blue and the other yellow – don’t make the mistake of buying a green and red bucket because your cat won’t be able to tell them apart! Now every time you get the buckets out, place a high value treat (e.g. piece of chicken) in the blue bucket and a low value treat (e.g. piece of dried cat food) in the yellow bucket. Make sure that you always put the same value treat in the same colour bucket. After you’ve done this approximately twenty times, just produce the two buckets with nothing in them (make sure they’ve been washed so your cat can’t smell a difference) and see whether your cat approaches the blue bucket first which suggests that they remember which colour bucket had the high-value treat in previously.

Working memory also underpins the concept of object permanence which is knowing that an object still exists, even after it’s out of sight (Piaget, 1936; 1937). Object permanence is a cognitive milestone for human babies who develop it up until two years of age. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for cats to be able to do this, otherwise they would give up the hunt as soon as the mouse ran into tall grass or down a burrow. Perhaps an example of object permanence that indoor cat owners will be more familiar with is that even though the cat’s toy rolls under the sofa and therefore can no longer be seen, the cat doesn’t think that it’s just vanished and no longer exists.

An experiment into object permanence in babies which has been adapted for cats is the invisible displacement task (see: Doré, 1990; Triana & Pasnak, 1981) in which cats watched an experimenter place food into a box and then place the box behind a screen. Unseen the experimenter then removed the food and showed the cat the empty container to see whether the cat reasoned that the food must be behind the screen. Results have been mixed but cats seem to perform poorer than dogs, perhaps because they are generally less motivated by food.

Support for this interpretation was provided by Dumas (1992) who tested cats using a modified version of the invisible displacement task which comprised of transparent and opaque screens and a piece of food attached to a piece of transparent string. During the experiment the string was pulled moving the food behind the opaque screens and then unseen by the cat behind a second opaque screen. Findings revealed that cats looked for the food behind the second screen demonstrating their understanding of object permanence. It might be that cats were more motivated in this task because the movement of the string mimicked a prey animal and therefore tapped into a cat’s hunting instincts.

Test it at home:

A cat’s understanding of object permanence can be tested very easily by playing a game with your cat using one of their favourite toys, say a mouse. Then during the game, unexpectedly put the mouse under a pillow. If your cat has no understanding of object permanence then they shouldn’t bother looking for it because it simply doesn’t exist anymore, but I think we both know that they will!

Cognitive dysfunction

Thanks to improved nutrition and veterinary care, cats are living longer than ever (Gunn-Moore, 2011). However, this has also lead to an increase in age-related cognitive decline known as feline cognitive dysfunction (Pan et al., 2013). The equivalent disease in humans might be Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia, and in dogs it’s known as canine cognitive dysfunction.

In felines, like dogs, symptoms of cognitive dysfunction are spatial disorientation, walking around aimlessly, getting trapped behind furniture, differences in their waking/sleeping and eating routines, and also urinating or defecating outside of the litterbox. However, a definitive diagnosis is only possible post-mortem since it is caused by brain shrinkage due to cell death.

Diagnosing feline cognitive dysfunction faces a lot of the same problems as in humans. Firstly, it is difficult to diagnose because in the early stages of the illness it’s almost impossible to distinguish from normal age-related cognitive decline. Furthermore, by the time the symptoms have reached sufficient severity to be diagnosed the damage is debilitating and irreversible. Research is currently being conducted in humans and animals to create a cheap, easy to administer and reliable indicator of early dementia so that the progression can be slowed and therefore the cognitive impact limited.

Test it at home:

[* A task that is commonly used assess cognitive dysfunction in dogs is to walk out of a door and film how long it takes them to forget where you have gone and wander off. This is a little more difficult for cats, especially if they have feline cognitive dysfunction. Instead what you could do is turn two bowls upside- down and let the cat watch you place a dried cat treat under one bowl. It’s important to use a dried treat to reduce the chances of your cat smelling the treat out. Before letting the cat inspect the bowls distract your cat for a few seconds by stroking them or playing with a toy, then walk away and see whether your cat remembers about the treat and which bowl it’s under. *]

Sense of time

I can almost feel the cat owners out there nodding, a slow defeated nod. “Yup, not sure whose schedule they’re on but at least they’re consistent.” Actually, in my experience I’ve found that some cats are better at this than others. I had the privilege of living for a few years with a longhaired black female called Gypsie, and in that time almost dispensed with my alarm clock because she woke me up at 6 o’clock every morning. She also used to astound me by meowing for her dinner at 4pm in the evening, regardless of the time of year or what I’d done in the day. She really seemed to have a grasp of what time of the day it was.

Researching this book I was surprised to find that timing has been almost completely neglected in feline cognition – cue citizen science! The only study I found which investigated cats’ ability to time was conducted in 1976 by Rosenkilde and Divac who found that cats were able to discriminate between periods of confinement lasting five seconds or twenty seconds. I’m sure that cats can do better than this.

Let’s prove that cats have a sense of time! The problem with timing is that it’s also confounded by other things that are going on. For example, I was amazed that Gypsie always knew when it was 4 o’clock but I often got home around 4 o’clock too. Meowing for dinner when I get home is not the same as meowing when it’s 4 o’clock.

Test it at home:

To combat this issue and test out your cat’s ability to time you could use what’s known as a peak procedure, often used with rodents. This is a more complex task, firstly you need to buy a cork mat and establish a predictive relationship between making a distinct noise (e.g. whistling) and placing a treat on the mat. This will take a while because you need to slowly increase the delay, otherwise your cat will have trouble learning it. Start off by whistling and then waiting one second before putting the treat on the mat. Increase the delay slowly, one second at a time, until you reach ten seconds. Then when your cat is reliably waiting for the treat after ten seconds you can now perform the test trial. It’s useful to video record this so you can watch it back later. During the test trial you need to whistle like normal, but this time you do not place a treat on the mat after ten seconds. Instead you are looking to see how much time your cat spends on the mat during the ten seconds before and after the time they usually receive a treat. Also notice other behaviours such as meowing, pacing and pawing you. If your cat can time ten seconds they should respond most strongly around ten seconds after you whistled.


Cats can count! Alright, maybe not count. You’re not likely to come home and find your cat extending its claws one by one or bashing numbers into a calculator but they can discriminate between quantities. In 2009 Pisa and Agrillo trained cats to respond differently when they saw either two dots or three dots. There’s an understandable evolutionary advance for this ability since it might allow them to decide what is more food or to know how many kittens they have, but more research needs to be carried out to reveal its true nature since cats appear to be more concerned by size.

Test it at home:

Take three treats in one hand and one treat in the other, now hold them out to your cat about a metre away so they can see. Whichever hand your cat walks over to, give them the treats in that hand. Repeat the task several more times (remember to swap which hand has the most treats in) and see whether your cat approaches the hand with multiple treats in more often as training progresses.


It’s also been observed that cats are able to discriminate between different synthetic steady-state vowels (Hienz, 1996). In this experiment cats were trained to press down a lever to produce a string of vowels and release the lever when they heard a different vowel. Results showed that cats were able to discriminate higher frequency changes. This is good news for cat owners who use a squeaky voice when talking to their furry friends!

Furthermore, Saito and Shinozuka (2013) found that cats can discriminate their owner’s voice from that of a stranger. To test this, cats were played a recording of a stranger saying their name until the stopped reacting. This is called habituation. Then they played a recording of the cat’s owner calling their name and found that cats oriented more towards the recording of their owner saying their name – perhaps because they thought it was dinner time.

However, Saito and Shinozuka (2013) also claimed that although cats can recognise their owner’s voice, individual differences between cats might mean that they choose to ignore them. They also suggested that this unresponsiveness is caused by their evolutionary history. Cats have been domesticated for a relatively short amount of time, around 9000 years, compared with dogs which have been domesticated for up to 33,000 years (Ovodov, et al. 2011).

Test it at home:

Make a recording of you (the cat’s owner) and one of your friends who hasn’t met your cat, both calling your cat’s name. When you’re home play your friends voice back and see if your cat comes running over, followed by the recording of your own voice. If you really want to challenge your cat’s powers of discrimination replace your friend’s voice with a sibling’s or someone trying to do an impression of you to see whether your cat can tell the difference.

Social cognition

This is often a bone of contention between cat owners, claiming that cats are sociable, and non-cat owners, saying they’re too aloof and just do their own thing. And here’s the strange part, they’re both right because it just depends on the individual cat.

Like I mentioned in the introduction, cats are equipped with a range of communicational tools from vocalisations to behaviour and pheromones, but it’s still often assumed that they’re not very sociable. This is because it used to be thought that cats are solitary animals but now we know this not to be the truth. It’s true enough that they did descend from a solitary ancestor (Shreve & Udell, 2015) but modern domesticated cats are far more individualistic in their approach. Indeed, some cats are still very aloof and like to spend time alone whilst others live in colonies (clowders) of over one hundred cats. These large feral colonies tend to form around a food source with females cooperating with each other. In addition, cats aren’t only able to communicate with other members of their own species, they also form close attachments with us, dogs, or any other pets that we share our houses with – even birds!

Cats communicate their mood using a range of behaviours from flattening their ears to indicate aggression, kneading with their paws to convey contentment or raising their tail up in a happy greeting. Vocalisations are also very important tools with which to communicate and cats have many more types of vocalisations than most people realise including meowing, purring, trilling, chattering, hissing, yowling and growling. From an evolutionary perspective vocalisations are vital because they’re a way of conveying your intent without the risk of physical injury; however, if the warning isn’t heeded then a fight will break out although these are not life-threatening.

Research has even found that cats are sensitive to our moods and modify their behaviour accordingly. A touching finding by Rieger and Turner (1999) was that cats spent more time rubbing around the legs of owners who reported feeling depressed. Be warned though, before buying a kitten do your research and make sure it has been properly socialised. There is a critical socialisation window within a kitten’s life (2-7 weeks) and the more humans they encounter in this time, the more social they will be as cats for the rest of their lives (Sunquist & Sunquist, 2002) – that’s a big responsibility for someone that you’ve never met before!

Test it at home:

This time I’m not giving you a task to try yourself, just observe your cat’s behaviour next time you’ve had a bad day to notice whether they give you any special attention. My ginger tomcat, Murphy, had bags of character but not much social awareness, although I’m sure he knew when I was upset and it made the times when he came over to sit with me even more special.

It has also been suggested that like dogs, cats are able to use information that we convey using human gestures. Miklósi, Pongrácz, Lakatos, Topál and Csányi (2005) used a hidden food task during which a human would point to tell the cat where the food was located and using this information cats were more likely to go to that location. Amazingly, this shows that cats have a theory of mind, they understand that you know something that they don’t. They also conducted another task in which visible food was impossible to access. During these tasks, dogs and even goats (see: Miklósi, 2003; Nawroth, Brett, & McElligott, 2016) have been found to look to humans as if asking for help, but cats don’t do this. Combing these two findings suggests that although cats are able to understand what we are trying to communicate, they’re not able to reciprocate and communicate back with us.

Test it at home:

Place a treat under a plastic cup and every time your cat goes near the cup lift it up to reveal the treat for them to eat. Do this until you cat is reliably walking over to the cup whenever it sees it to get the treat. In the test phase, you need to provide two cups, with a treat only under one of them (make sure your cat doesn’t see which one). Now enlist the help of a friend to restrain your cat gently whilst you point towards the cup that has the food under it and see if your cat understands that you’re trying to convey information, and walks up to that cup first.


Attachment theory was proposed by psychologist John Bowlby (1958) to describe the relationship between the primary caregiver and infant. He proposed four different attachment styles for children: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment. The optimal attachment style is secure attachment where the child feels they can rely on the caregiver to take care of them physically and emotionally, and use the caregiver as a base from which to explore the world. This is demonstrated in the Strange Situation Task designed by Ainsworth and Bell (1970) in which a mother and child enter a playroom where the child is encouraged to explore. A stranger then enters the room and tries to play with the child before the mother leaves. After this, the mother returns and the stranger leaves, before the mother leaves again and the stranger returns. Finally, at the end of the test the mother returns and is reunited with their child.

More recently, Edwards, Heiblum, Tejeda and Galindo (2007) used a variation of Ainsworth and Bell’s strange situation task to assess attachment styles between cats and their owners. They found that cats behaved very differently when they were on their own, with the stranger or with their owner. Cats moved around more when their owners were present and only followed or played with their owner.

Test it at home:

Being careful not to upset your cat, it’s possible to stage your own version of the Strange Situation Task by inviting a friend over who your cat hasn’t met before. Start by setting up a video recorder (phones are good for this), now play with your cat for a while before leaving and being replaced by your friend. Get your friend to try and interact or play with your cat, before returning to the room. When watching the video back observe the difference in your cat’s behaviour towards you compared with your friend. Look for eye contact, physical contact and locomotive activity


I hope by this point I’ve managed to convince the doubters out there that cats are more amazing than we give them credit for. Cats have far superior senses to our own and therefore experience the world in a multi-sensory way that we’ll never understand. Particularly in visual perception, cats are good models for humans and have taught us a lot about ourselves. Cats can also be trained to perform complex tricks using operant conditioning, just like dogs. They can understand abstract concepts like object permanence and have a theory of mind. In addition to this, it’s been shown that cats have a sense of time and a rudimentary concept of quantity. Domestic cats are even more social than perhaps we give them credit for and form close relationships with humans. With all this going for them, perhaps the biggest question left to answer is why don’t we use them more? Dogs are used by a wide number of employers to do a variety of different tasks, from police dogs, military dogs, fire dogs, therapy dogs, seeing dogs, hearing dogs and medical dogs.

I think the answer is multi-fold. Firstly, a cat’s sense of smell is not as good as a dog’s, so dogs make far better scent detectors. In addition to this, dogs are much easier to train because they have a predisposition to want to please us resulting from our long shared evolutionary past – perhaps cats are now on this trajectory. Cats do not have the same drive and are considered more impulsive and therefore less easy to train. Cats also have territories which they do not like to go outside of, and are not very intimidating physically which makes them less useful for the police and military. Furthermore, their small stature makes them less useful even as a home help because they probably won’t be physically able to pull your sock off, even if they wanted to – which they probably don’t.

Perhaps why we love cats is less to do with them and more to do with us – and not only us. In a BBC1 series called ‘Spy in the Wild’ a chimpanzee is shown playing with it a genet kitten it found in the forest, and protecting it from harm by other members of the troop. It seems that their big eyes, head and paws are just so similar to our own babies that we can’t help but want to care for them. Even their ‘meow’ sounds remarkably like a baby crying, and makes them hard to refuse. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters. The arrangement seems to benefit both parties, and I for one wouldn’t have them any other way.


If you want to find out more about the experiments mentioned in this book the references are provided in the next section and most are now available freely on open access sites.


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Blakemore, C. & Cooper, G. F. (1970). Development of the brain depends on the visual environment. Nature, 228(5270), 477-478.

Blumberg, M. S., Efimova, I. V. & Alberts, J. R. (1992). Ultrasonic vocalizations by rat pups: the primary importance of ambient temperature and the thermal significance of contact comfort. Developmental psychobiology, 25(4), 229-250.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350–373.

Chesler, P. (1969). Maternal influence in learning by observation in kittens. Science, 166(3907), 901-903.

Doré, F. Y. (1990). Search behaviour of cats (Felis catus) in an invisible displacement test: Cognition and experience. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 44(3), 359.

Driscoll, C. A., Clutton-Brock, J., Kitchener, A. C. & O’Brien, S. J. (2009). The taming of the cat. Scientific American, 300(6), 68-75.

Dumas, C. (1992). Object permanence in cats (Felis catus): An ecological approach to the study of invisible displacements. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 106(4), 404.

Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A. & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2, 119–125.

Fiset, S. & Doré, F. Y. (2006). Duration of cats’ (Felis catus) working memory for disappearing objects. Animal cognition, 9(1), 62-70.

Gilbert, C. & Bakan, P. (1973). Visual asymmetry in perception of faces. Neuropsychologia, 11(3), 355-362.

Gunn-Moore, D. A. (2011). Cognitive dysfunction in cats: clinical assessment and management. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 26, 17–24.

Guo, K., Meints, K., Hall, C., Hall, S. & Mills, D. (2009). Left gaze bias in humans, rhesus monkeys and domestic dogs. Animal cognition, 12(3), 409-418.

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Held, R. & Hein, A. (1963). Movement-produced stimulation in the development of visually guided behavior. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 56(5), 872.

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Hienz, R. D., Aleszczyk, C. M. & May, B. J. (1996). Vowel discrimination in cats: acquisition, effects of stimulus level, and performance in noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 99(6), 3656-3668.

Hubel, D. H. & Wiesel, T. N. (1959). Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex. The Journal of physiology, 148(3), 574-591.

Leonhard, D. & Brugger, P. (1998). Creative, Paranormal, and Delusional Thought: A Consequence of Right Hemisphere Semantic Activation? Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, 11(4), 177-183.

Li, X., Li, W., Wang, H., Bayley, D. L., Cao, J., Reed, D. R., … & Brand, J. G. (2006). Cats lack a sweet taste receptor. The Journal of nutrition, 136(7), 1932S-1934S.

Mermet, N., Coureaud, G., McGrane, S. & Schaal, B. (2007). Odour-guided social behaviour in newborn and young cats: an analytical survey. Chemoecology, 17(4), 187-199.

Miklósi, Á., Kubinyi, E., Topál, J., Gácsi, M., Virányi, Z. & Csányi, V. (2003). A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Current Biology, 13(9), 763-766.

Miklósi, Á., Pongrácz, P., Lakatos, G., Topál, J. & Csányi, V. (2005). A comparative study of the use of visual communicative signals in interactions between dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans and cats (Felis catus) and humans. Journal of comparative psychology, 119(2), 179.

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Ovodov, N. D., Crockford, S. J., Kuzmin, Y. V., Higham, T. F., Hodgins, G. W. & van der Plicht, J. (2011). A 33,000-year-old incipient dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: evidence of the earliest domestication disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS One, 6(7), e22821.

Pan Y, Araujo JA, Burrows, J., de Rivera, C., Gore, A., Bhatnagar, S. & Milgram, N. W. (2013). Cognitive enhancement in middle-aged and old cats with dietary supplementation with a nutrient blend containing fish oil, B vitamins, antioxidants and arginine. British Journal of Nutrition, 110, 40–49.

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Rieger, G. & Turner, D. C. (1999). How depressive moods affect the behavior of singly living persons toward their cats. Anthrozoös, 12(4), 224-233.

Rosenkilde, C. E. & Divac, I. (1976). Time-discrimination performance in cats with lesions in prefrontal cortex and caudate nucleus. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 90(4), 343.

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Saito, A. & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal cognition, 16, 685-690.

Shreve, K. R. V. & Udell, M. A. (2015). What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Animal cognition, 18(6), 1195-1206.

Sunquist, M. & Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

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Feline Cognition

This book summarises the scientific evidence of cat intelligence, including areas in which they excel and others where they fall down – not literally of course! Suggestions are also provided for quick tests you can try at home to see how your cat performs.

  • Author: Carla Eatherington
  • Published: 2017-06-14 19:20:12
  • Words: 7497
Feline Cognition Feline Cognition