Your Cat Is Smarter Than You Think.

They're smarter than they look too. Photo by Tim Walsh of his cat, Pickles

They're smarter than they look too.

Photo by Tim Walsh of his cat, Pickles

Your cat is smarter than you think.

A lot of research has gone into dog cognition. Dogs can learn hundreds of items by name, respond to human body language, and imagine what other animals or humans are thinking. Cats are tougher nuts to crack. They often become nervous or shy in lab environments, leading them to be famously uncooperative in behavior and intelligence experiments. Research on cat cognition has been slow in progress, but the information that has come out shows that our furry little companions are far more complicated than many give them credit for.


Understanding Human Cues

Humans use a lot of gestures to communicate. One of our most common gestures is pointing, indicating that attention should be given in the direction our finger is oriented. It’s not too hard for other humans to figure out what it means when we point at things, but what about cats?

In 2005, Mikósi et al. found that cats can follow our pointing to find food. That’s a good start for cats understanding human social cues, but there are other signs that cats know how to interpret their owners’ behavior. Social referencing is something that humans do every day. Whether we realize it or not, we are always on the lookout for how other people are reacting to situations and stimuli. A child might have no fear of snakes if the adults around her are calm in the presence of one, but the same child might grow fearful if she sees that the adults are afraid. We use the response of others to educate our own reactions. As it turns out, cats do this too.

Frightened by the unfamiliar outdoors, my cat kept returning to cling to my leg.  Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz of her departed cat, Vlad

Frightened by the unfamiliar outdoors, my cat kept returning to cling to my leg. 

Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz of her departed cat, Vlad

Researchers brought a cat and their owner into a room with something that a cat might find scary, a fan with streamers attached. The owners were directed to either act happy, neutral, or scared of the fan. 79% of cats looked between the fan and their owner, apparently measuring the owner’s response. When their owners seemed scared, the cats were more likely to react with fear of their own, and were also more likely to interact with their owner. These cats may have been seeking comfort and security with their owners in a scary situation.


Objects That Are There, Not There, and How Many

Another area researchers have explored is how much cats understand about their physical environment. An important aspect of this is object permanence, the ability to comprehend that an object exists even when the object is out of sight. Humans don’t develop object permanence until around the age of two. Before this time, babies will appear surprised if something passes behind cover and then emerges again. It’s readily apparent that cats have a sense of object permanence.

Cats are avid hunters. It would be very hard to hunt if you thought prey stopped existing whenever it went into hiding. I’ve seen my own cat chase an insect into shelter and then continue prowling around that side of the room until the bug was flushed into the open. This ability has been demonstrated in an experimental setting as well. Cats remember where food was hidden and are able to seek it out even after time has passed.

Cats also understand that objects they cannot see can move. In another experiment, a researcher showed cats food in a container and hid the container behind a screen. They removed the food behind the screen and then showed the cat the empty container. The cats were able to intuit that the food was probably where the full container was last seen, and went looking behind the screen to search it out.


What do you think this cat is communicating? Photo by Hope Simpson of her cat, Luna

What do you think this cat is communicating?

Photo by Hope Simpson of her cat, Luna

Communication with Humans

Cats have a variety of methods for communicating with other cats, including: Vocalizations, scent, and body language. Some of these carry over in how they interact with humans, but others are unique. The ways that cats use meowing is one big difference between cat-cat and cat-human interactions. When cats are interacting with each other, meows are mostly reserved for kittens communicating with their mother. Adult cats very rarely meow to each other. When they meow, they’re meowing for us.

Cats meow when they’re hungry, when they’re lonely, when they’re frustrated, and in countless other situations. In a truly fascinating study, researchers tested people’s abilities to determine the context and meaning of recorded cat meows. When listening to the recording of an unfamiliar cat, people widely failed the test, unable to tell a hungry meow from an angry one. However, when cat owners listened to recordings of their own cat’s meows, their performance markedly improved.

What this shows is that cat meows aren’t universal. There is no single cat language. Apparently, each cat develops its own meow system, possibly based on interactions with its owner. If you think your cat is meowing because it wants attention, you’re probably right. The cat wouldn’t meow if it didn’t want to communicate something to you, and you’re better at interpreting your cat than any stranger. The communication goes both ways. Cats have been shown to be able to recognize their owner’s voices. Of course, just because a cat knows you’re calling it, doesn’t mean the cat will respond. They are still cats, after all.


Cat Attachment

Minou is especially attached to his owners. Photo by Daniel Ksepka, of his cat Minou

Minou is especially attached to his owners.

Photo by Daniel Ksepka, of his cat Minou

Cats are often accused of being uncaring and otherwise apathetic animals, undisturbed by our absence so long as the food gets delivered on time. This turns out to be more stereotype than fact. In 2007, Edwards et al. tested how cats behaved in the presence of their owners vs a stranger. For cats, head-butting is a sort of grooming, rubbing their scent on an object as a way of showing ownership or affection. When confined in a room, cats will head-butt their owners more than strangers. In the same experiment, the cats would also sometimes follow and play with their owners, but never did so with strangers. When their owner was around, cats showed increased confidence as well. They explored the room more when their owner present, spending more time alert and staring at the door while only with a stranger.

Cats also display separation anxiety when apart from their owners for too long. When separated, cats increasingly relieve themselves in inappropriate locations, behave destructively, excessively groom themselves, and excessively meow. The combination of these two research studies show that cats are most comfortable when you’re around and miss you when you’re gone.

It might be easy to dismiss cats with accusations of stupidity, coldness, and disinterest, but the research clearly shows otherwise. Cats look to us to understand new situations. They communicate with us and understand some of what we communicate to them. They even like having us around. There’s a lot more to learn about cats and the way they interact with the world, but it may have to wait until they become more helpful in a lab setting…

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow

(Need more cat science? See: A Kitten a Day Keeps Distraction at Bay, Why Are Black Cats Black?, Cats of Connecticut)