Cat Minds: The Next Frontier

Several studies have been done on dog intelligence, but the feline mind has yet to get its moment.

This week, Slate posted a piece on the little studied field of cat intelligence. A recent story by David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs,” recounts his research for a chapter on pet intelligence and how he reaped several studies on dog smarts but few on cat smarts.

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“We did one study on cats — and that was enough!” a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi said to Grimm during a phone call. He calls Miklosi of the world’s top animal cognition experts, and Grimm says the phone call “effectively ended my research into understanding the feline mind.”

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In the past decade, scientists have published hundreds of articles on canine cognition. They’ve concluded that dogs can learn hundreds of words, might be capable of abstract thought and have a rudimentary ability to suss out what people are thinking, known as “theory of mind,” which researchers believed was held only by people.

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After exhausting a contact list of animal cognition experts, Grimm turned to someone he’d heard might have done a study on cats, Christian Agrillo. Agrillo, a comparative psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy, seemed to focus on fish. Agrillo had apparently done one study on cats but insisted: “It’s easier to work with fish than cats. It’s incredible.”

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Agrillo studies an animal’s ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one, known as “numerical competence.” His test is simple: Researchers put three black dots over a something desirable (such as food or a door that leads to friends) and two dots over something undesirable (empty plate or a door that leads to nowhere interesting).

Grimm explains: “Agrillo and colleagues then look to see if, over multiple trials, the animals can distinguish between the two quantities. Besides fish, his team has worked with monkeys and birds — all of which have been fairly cooperative. But when he tried the experiment with cats, he practically gave up.”

Agrillo’s team conducts the studies in the laboratory to cut down on variables but when pet parents brought over their cats, they either freaked out or showed no interest. Agrillo ultimately wound up with only four cats, which were still difficult.

“Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction,” Agrillo told Grimm. “It was really difficult to have a good trial each day.”

Some conclusions resulted from the study. Cats paid more attention to the size of the dots than to their number; this makes sense considering that wild cats live solitary lives and when they hunt prey, they’re more concerned about size than quantity.

While Agrillo’s work “didn’t break open the mystery of the feline mind,” Grimm said, it was something. Turning to Ádám Miklósi, whose previous research included the “point test” with animals. His team determined that apart from humans, dogs were one of the few animals that could understand the meaning of pointing, which could indicate that dogs can understand what another animal is thinking (in this case, that the human volunteer was trying to show them something).

Miklósi had also conducted the pointing test with cats, whom he, too, found were difficult to work with, so he went to their homes instead of brining them to the lab. Grimm explains the results: “Even then, most of the animals weren’t interested in advancing science; according to Miklósi’s research paper, seven of the initial 26 test subjects ‘dropped out.’” Those who remained performed worse than the dogs, but with some success, proving that cats might also have a basic theory of mind.

Taking the study further, Miklósi spotted an interesting difference between cats and dogs. His team made two puzzles: one solvable, the other unsolvable. The solvable test included food in a bowl beneath a stool, which dogs and cats had to find and pull out if they wanted to eat. Cats and dogs both passed with flying colors. The second test included food in a bowl beneath a stool, tied to the stool legs so the pets could not move it. The dogs pawed at the bowl for a few seconds, gave up, then looked up at their owners as if asking for help. The cats, on the other hand, rarely looked at their owners. Cats kept trying to get the food on their own.

The conclusion Grimm draws is this:
 “Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years — 20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the “human radio frequency” — the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that’s why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don’t hang on our every word like dogs do. They’re surfing other channels on the dial. And that’s ultimately what makes them so hard to study. Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box.”


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