July 27, 2009
I tried an experiment this weekend, inspired by a new study about the handedness of cats. Psychologists from Queen’s University Belfast in North Ireland, in a study published in Animal Behaviour, conducted a series of experiments on 42 kitties to discover if they are left- or right-pawed.
In two of the experiments, in which the cats had to reach for a toy mouse, the kitties were ambidextrous. But in the third experiment—in which bits of tuna were placed in a jar for a cat to fish out—showed a definite paw preference: 20 out of 21 female subjects used their right paw, and 20 out of 21 male subjects used their left.
Inspired by these results, I decided to try out the tuna experiment on my own test subject: Sabrina, my 12-year-old female tortoiseshell. Like the cats in the Animal Behaviour paper, she would be tested in her home environment. My one concern was that she was older than the kitties in the paper, which ranged up to only eight years, but I didn’t think that would be a problem. And while she has never shown much desire for human food, she has enjoyed tuna in the past.
Attempt 1 (Saturday afternoon): Half a teaspoon of canned tuna is placed into a small, clean, empty mayonnaise jar. The jar is placed on the floor. Sabrina sniffs the tuna with interest but quickly turns away. The jar is left on the floor for an hour, but the subject finds napping more interesting. I wonder if the jar, which has a small lip, is too intimidating for the cat. Perhaps she did not see a way to remove the tuna. Or maybe she did not find the tuna appetizing.
Attempt 2 (Sunday afternoon): A teaspoon of canned cat food (Science Diet Baked Tuna Dinner) is placed in plastic cup (to eliminate the potential problem of the jar’s lip). The cup is placed on the floor. Again, Sabrina sniffs the offering but, unable to reach the food with her mouth, she turns away and goes to eat her dry food. She returns to the cup a short time later and sniffs it. She then settles for a nap within a foot of the cup.
Conclusion: Sabrina is either uninterested in the offered food or not smart enough to figure out how to obtain it. With attempt 1, the more likely explanation for her inability to reach the tuna is that she was not tempted enough by the tuna to retrieve it. With attempt 2, I suspect she knows that she does not have to try too hard to get the food out of the cup because she knew I would be feeding her the rest of the can in a short time. Cats may not be too smart, but they know enough about how their humans work to live very comfortable lives.
And now I not only have no idea about my cat’s handedness (although I suspect she is a rightie like most of the females in the Animal Behaviour study), I also was unable to obtain any video of the experiment. In its place, I offer a video from one of Smithsonian magazine’s readers of their cat:
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