Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What is going on in your cat's head?

More than just a pretty face? What are cats thinking? (This is a car I came across on a recent dog walk. Clearly the driver is feline oriented).
Many of us live intimately with domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus), but do we know what’s going on in their heads? Sure, we anthropomorphise wildly on the assumption that they think in similar ways to us. Hero opens the blinds every morning so he can see what’s going on outside. Michael gets annoyed if I want to sit on my office chair. These explanations come naturally and when I share them with fellow cat-companions they know what I am talking about.

Detail from the same car.

But none of these conclusions are based on controlled experiments. And there seems to be comparatively much more info around about canine cognition.
So what is going on in your cat’s head? The authors of a recent review first state that, at least on the surface, cats make pretty unlikely companions. They’re generally solitary creatures who only engage in social behaviour during mating and kitten rearing – yet they’re one of the world’s most popular pets. And they mean popular – they are an estimated 600 million companion cats worldwide. Many of us start the day cleaning their litter trays or serving them breakfast a bit earlier than we’d like to.

Where were we? Ah yes. Cognition is defined as the ways in which cats take in information through the senses, then process, retain or act on this information.
Our scientific knowledge about what cats think about is based on experiments, the methodology of which may be questionable. For example, if you tie a bit of food to a string, is the cat pulling the string because string pulling is just fun if you’re a cat (i.e. it is inherently rewarding), OR because the cat expects food to be found at the end of the string? Who are these scientists who have spent days, weeks, months in the lab, pulling these strings and waiting for cats to respond? (The clinician in me can’t help but fret about the potential for linear foreign bodies).

I should stress this vehicle also features butterflies but somehow the feline faces were compelling subjects.
So what can science tell us about feline cognition?
  • Whiskers or vibrissae aid movement in low light conditions and help mitigate the feline lack of short-distance vision.
  • Cats raised in an impoverished laboratory environment have impaired responses to visual and auditory cues compared to free-roaming cats. It’s well established and worth remembering that barren environments just aren’t good for the nervous systems of sentient creatures.
  • Olfaction is a very important sense for cats, providing social information, defining the home range and influencing the human-cat relationship – so we need more studies that actually take that into account. (It is possible, for example, that we do things routinely that totally offend the feline sense of olfaction. Like wear perfume or cologne or light scented candles).
  • Cats get the concept of object permanence (i.e. if you remove something from their site it continues to exist). As hunters this makes sense – they need to be able to work out that their prey is hiding behind a tree (or in a mouse-hole). You can try a crude experiment at home. If you happen to be lying in bed, and your cat happens to be in the room, waggle your toes and watch your cat’s pupils dilate. Then hide them under the doona. Your cat is likely to continue to look at the site where the toes were waggling, hoping they might reappear. In my household, this provocation is enough to have one’s hidden toes vigorously attacked. There is a real risk that such objects will not remain permanent unless one gets out bed and puts shoes on.
  • There is some dispute about whether cats get the concept of causality, although again the testing may not be species appropriate. (If I may be indulged yet again, Hero has deduced that knocking items off my bedside table at 4am results in me waking up, and me waking up MAY result in breakfast. N=1, but there you have it).
  • Cats seem to be able to discriminate between quantities of something. (Again, yep, certain feline associates of mine behave very differently if they’ve been short changed in relation to their portions).
  • Cats that are handled more at a younger age are more amenable to handling and may mature earlier. Other than socialisation, other factors known to affect the human-feline bond include gender of the human involved, marital status of said human (no mention re marital status of the cat), number of cats and humans in the household, and feline personality.
  • Cats are sensitive to human cues and will do things like follow gestures and adjust their behaviour in response to cues from owners. Feline behaviour is influenced by the mood of the human he/she keeps company with.
  • They seem to recognise human voices, although little is understood about their vocalisation and the purr remains poorly understood.
  • Cats form attachment bonds with their owners, exhibit attachment behaviours and can – like dogs and humans – experience separation associated distress.
  • Like people, cats suffer from cognitive decline as they age – although just like us, some individual cats actually demonstrate improved performance in learning tasks (There is hope for us all!).

Do they have a personality? The authors discuss a range of interesting experiments designed to determine this, and ultimately it seems that the evidence suggests that cats do indeed have personalities. Of course many cat owners go right on and assume their companions have personalities, but it’s important – particularly when making claims about the welfare of cats – to try to back this up with some objective data.

As someone who lives with cats and as a clinician it is easier for me to assume that cats are capable of reasonably complex cognition. In most cases it helps me understand their behaviour. But our interpretation of feline thoughts and intentions can be wrong. I do see clients, for example, convinced that their cat is urinating in a certain place to spite them. I’ve seen cats “punished” as a result of this interpretation of their behaviour, when it’s often a matter of simply changing the cat litter more often or appreciating that sitings of the cat next door are causing stress and triggering territorial behaviours.

The cat mobile.
The authors astutely observe that the study of feline cognition is not unbiased and in fact some studies have implied that cats have negative character traits such as “selfishness” and lack of feeling, or being manipulative, putting a negative spin on cognition in this species. This is bad for the welfare of cats, they argue, because it shapes the way people – including those who cohabit with cats – perceive and treat cats.

They conclude that more research is needed, and raise some excellent questions: To what extent, if at all, do our feline companions modify their behaviour so they can communicate with us? Are there cognitive differences between cats in different contexts (for example, companion cats versus free roaming cats)? And how do experiences such as training or trauma influence the way cats think?

If we know the answers to these questions, we can hopefully improve the ways we interact with and look after cats, both on an individual level as well as on a broader scale, e.g. reflected in the policies of shelters and veterinary hospitals – to improve their welfare.

The full paper is a fantastic read if you’re interested in feline behaviour, the study of cognition, animal welfare, and scientific methodology.


Vitale Shreve KR & Udell MAR (2015) What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Animal Cognition DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0897-6