If I fits I sits

We all know our cats love to squeeze themselves into impossibly small boxes. The smaller the better it seems!

Now research by Smith et al (2021) has found that cats don’t just enjoy sitting in boxes but in “imaginary” boxes as well. Of course we do not know whether these cats actually imagined they were sitting inside a box, but the cats showed a preference for sitting inside a square, even if it was just an illusion.

How did they test this?

Cat owners were asked to test their cats at home, meaning the cats were not subjected to a test environment. This is a huge bonus because cats often do not perform well (or at all) in test environments due to stress or being unfamiliar with the environment and/or the researchers.

These cats did not know they were being tested, but their owners did. However, in order to avoid owners influencing their cat’s behaviour they were asked not to interact with their cats during the short tests. The owners were also instructed to wear sunglasses so they could not inadvertently guide their cat’s actions. Owners were also asked to record videos of their cats during these tests.

Roughly 500 owners signed up to participate, but only 30 cats completed the whole study. Whether the cats or owners gave up is unknown 😉

The participants received all the material and instructions from the researchers and were given “six randomized, counterbalanced daily stimuli to print out, prepare, and place on the floor in pairs”. There were three possible stimuli: an outline of a square, a Kanizsa illusion of a square using Pac-Man shapes or a control that had the Pac-Man shapes facing outward.

The control outline (left) and the cat sitting inside the Kanizsa illusion

The study found that cats chose to sit in the Kanizsa illusion of a square just as often as inside the actual outline of a square and sat in the control outline less frequently.

What does this mean?

As one of the researchers says, “[t]he major takeaways are that cats are susceptible to the Kanizsa illusion in a human-like way, and are most likely attracted to 2-D shapes for their contours (sides), rather than solely novelty on the floor”.

Why do cats like to sit where they fit?

Although more research is needed, I agree with Nicholas Dodman who wrote that “cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure. Instead of being exposed to the clamor and possible danger of wide open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas.”

Catnip: its other effect

Research has found that there is more to catnip than just its crazy effect!

We all know our cats can go crazy for catnip: drooling, rubbing, licking, etc. Research by Uenoyama et al (2021) has found that this is not its only effect though. Both catnip and silver vine also function as mosquito repellants. How does that work?

The main component of both catnip and silver vine that elicits rubbing behaviour is called nepolactol. When cats rub against or roll over catnip or silver vine nepetalactol is transferred from the plant to the cat’s face. The researchers found that mosquitoes avoided the faces/heads of those cats that had rubbed their faces against catnip or silver vine. It thus works as a natural mosquito repellant. This research therefore suggests there may be a biological reason for this behaviour and that it is not solely related to feelings of euphoria.

To read the study yourtself, click here,

Flat faces negatively impact cats’ ability to communicate

Most of us know that flat-faced cat and dog breeds have breathing difficulties, but research by Finka et al (2020) found that “exaggerated” features may make it more difficult for pets to communicate with us.

Facial expressions help owners understand whether or not their pet is in pain. However, the researchers found that the “neutral faces of several of the brachycephalic breeds (e.g. Exotic short hairs, Persians and particularly Scottish folds)” showed more pain associated features “compared to the neutral expressions of most other breeds”. In fact,”[i]n the case of Scottish folds, their neutral facial landmarks indicated greater pain-like features even compared to the DSH cats that were actually in pain.”

These findings are potentially relevant when facial expressions are used to identify pain, especially in flat-faced breeds. This research suggests that facial expressions of domestic shorthair cats cannot be confidently applied to flat-faced breeds.

“The ability of companion animals to readily solicit care from humans is obviously advantageous. However, it is possible that permanently vulnerable looking individuals might have a diminished capacity to clearly indicate when care is or is not required, as well as to display other information relevant to their actual state or intentions. Thus, if certain cat breeds are being selected to display “pain-like” features on their faces, these features may serve to solicit unwanted or inadequate attention from their caregivers.”

“More generally, such types of anthropocentric selection might lead to increased anthropomorphic tendencies. If, for example, the animal has the appearance of an expression which humans find relatable on some level, even if it is not necessarily reflective of that animals’ affective state, it may be used to attribute emotions or characteristics to them. For example, “grumpy cat” a cat made famous by her coverage on social media achieved her moniker due to her perceived “frowning” facial appearance. However, this was likely a result of a combination of her feline dwarfism and paedomorphic features, rather than an expression of her irritability.”

Do cats recognise emotions?

Amost every cat owner or cat lover I know will tell you that their cat knows how they are feeling. They know if you are happy or sad or angry. They are extra cuddly or sweet when you are feeling sad as if trying to comfort you.

It is difficult to say for certain that cats know how we feel and adjust their behaviour accordingly. However, research by Quaranta et al (2020) suggests that cats do indeed recognise happy and angry emotions in other cats as well as people. The also link audio recordings of angy or happy sounds to the correct visual representation of the emotion. When they heard angry sounds they looked longer and more intently at the face with an angry expression, of a cat or human. When they heard purring they looked at the picture of a cat with a content facial expression and when they heard a happy human voice they looked at the picture of the smiling human.

It also seems that the cats in this study showed more signs of feeling stressed when confronted with an angry human; however, this needs further research. If cats do indeed feel stressed when a person is angry then this indicates a functional understanding of anger in humans. It would mean that cats have learned that this emotion in humans may well have negative consequences for themselves and therefore they adjust their behaviour accordingly to avoid this.

What this study definitely shows is that cats have developed social skills that allow them to understand human emotional signals. This skill is important for domesticated cats as it helps strengthen the bond with their owners.

Problem-solving ability and laterality in cats

I started teaching Dirk to give paw a few months ago and we have now progressed to one knock = right paw and two knocks = left paw. Of course he makes mistakes occasionally, but overall he is pretty good at giving me the paw I’m asking for.

When I first started training Dirk I noticed he has a slight preference to use his left paw. He would always use that oe first and also uses it most frequently. He also uses his left paw most when playing with his puzzle feeders (though he does switch to right paw as well).

Intrigued by his paw preference I started looking into research about domestic cats and left- or right-pawedness and found a very interesting research paper on this topic. Obviously, food was involved in testing the cats as participation needs to be rewarding for them too 😉 However, even that could not convince all cats to participate as 3 out of 41 cats tested did not move a paw at all. Of the other 38 cats, 10 were right-pawed, 12 left-pawed and 16 were ambilateral: they showed no preference for either left or right paw.

The study showed that cats with a clear paw preference, either left or right, were better at solving the food puzzles than those cats that did not have a paw preference. The cats with a paw preference found their way to the food a lot quicker with fewer paw movements.

The researchers discovered that domecats actually preferred opening the food puzzles with their head rather than paw. Those that had a head preference opened fewer sections of the puzzle feeder than those with a paw preference. This means that cats that perfer to use their paws possibly have better motor skills and problem-solving skills than those that prefer using their heads. One possible explanation that some cats have a head preference may be related to domestication: we tend to feed our cats from bowls which does not require any motor skills from the cat.

Does it matter whether a cat is left-pawed or right-pawed, ambilateral or prefers to use their head? In a domestic cat probably not, but perhaps this research gets us one step closer to proving just how intelligent cats are 😉

Left-pawed or right-pawed, just stretch them all