What’s Inside Your Cat’s Head? This Is What Science Has Found So Far

Author: Agata Blaszczak Boxe


What's going on in my cat's head? Does she know how I feel? How smart is she? Is she really my friend, or a sneaky evil spirit cooking up a plan to take over my apartment and…the world?

Cat owners may have asked themselves these questions at one point or another, while researchers have been trying to answer them. Here is what they have learned so far about some aspects of feline cognition, as summarized in a new review of previous studies, published this month in Animal Cognition.

Cats may be a lot more social than we think

Scientists are only beginning to study and understand cat social cognition as, for a long time, cats were considered solitary animals. But this is a common misconception, which likely stems from the fact that they have descended from a solitary ancestor, said the lead author of the review Kristyn R. Vitale Shreve, of Oregon State University. However, "cats exhibit a very diverse social life," she said. While some of them can indeed be solitary, others live in complex colonies, with hundreds of other cats, she said. Moreover, millions of cats across the world live with humans, forming bonds with their owners and other animals such as dogs and birds.

Research on bonds and interactions with humans has shown that cats can change their behavior in response to human mood. In one study, researchers found that cats responded to people who reported feeling depressed by spending more time rubbing their bodies against the humans. Other studies have shown that cats approach their owners differently, depending on their mood, Shreve said.

Cat can count!

Well, almost. Cats can be trained to visually distinguish between groups of two and three dots, according to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Ethology. And studies on lions have shown that they can discriminate between the vocal recordings of one lion and a group of three lions. Scientists have suggested that being relatively competent with numbers may help cats obtain the largest quantities of food, but more research is needed to determine the evolutionary advantage of this ability, according to the new review.

Do cats have a sense of time?

Some cat owners believe their cats seem to know when it is time for dinner or sleep. While a sense of time in cats would be consistent with timing abilities in other species, there is no definitive support for this idea from science, simply because it has not been thoroughly examined in cats. There is, however, some support for the idea that cats can discriminate varying different time intervals, according to the review. In 1976, researchers found that cats were able to distinguish between different periods of confinement that lasted 5 versus 20 seconds. "The ability to discriminate time intervals may imply that cats have an internal clock that is responsible for assessing the duration of events," wrote the authors of the new review.

Can they look for 'disappearing' objects?

One cognitive milestone for human babies is being able to recognize that an object they have seen continues to exist after disappearing from sight, a phenomenon called object permanence. So researchers wondered whether cats might also have this ability, especially considering that they are adept hunters that would benefit from it. They have tested their potential for recognizing object permanence through so-called visible displacement tests, which involve the disappearance of an attractive object like food behind an obstacle such as a box. The completion of such test is deemed successful when the animal ends up looking for the object behind the obstacle where it was last seen. This means that the animal is able to cognitively represent the object even if it is no longer visible. And studies have shown that cats are indeed able to solve such tests.

Another line of evidence comes from this Vine video:

[vine https://vine.co/v/MmwZFZ70mzb expand=1]

Different tests, different results

Object permanence can also be tested through a harder test, called an invisible displacement test, in which an attractive object is placed in a container that is then moved behind a wall. This is where the object is removed from the container, and the empty container is shown to an animal. To solve this test, the animal needs to understand that if the object is no longer in the container, then it must have been removed while it was behind the wall. A very smart animal, such as a human, would then search for the missing object at the wall. However, most studies using this type of test have shown that cats are unable to solve it.

But when scientists used an alternative version of the invisible displacement test, the results were different. In this version, 19 cats were shown an apparatus that was made of transparent and opaque screens, with a piece of food attached to a transparent string. The food could be seen through a transparent portion of the screen and it was moved to attract the cats' attention. When the cats started to approach, the food was pulled behind an opaque part of the screen, out of their sight. There, the food was actually pulled again behind a second screen. So the cats had no way of seeing that the food disappeared behind the second screen.

The cats in this study were generally able to solve the test and find the food. The researchers suspect it is because it was better adapted to the way cats have evolved, compared with the other version of the test. For example, the movement of the food on the string may have been more similar to the natural movement of prey and the cats may have therefore been more interested in the task.

Do cats understand the cause-and-effect relationship?

Understanding cause and effect is a skill that allows for the transfer of learning gained in one situation to a new one, and could therefore be very useful to many species. Researchers have tested this ability in cats through the use of a string-pulling test. In a study published in 2009 in Animal Cognition, researchers first trained cats to obtain a piece of food attached to a short string that had been placed perpendicularly under a box, and only the tip of the string was visible to the cat. The cats were then shown various arrangements of the strings such as one long string, two parallel strings and two crossed ones. When two strings were present, the food was attached only to one of them. The cats in the study had 10 attempts to retrieve the food by pulling on the correct string. While they did pull the single string to get the food, they could not perform the same consistently when shown either of the two arrangements with the two strings. Therefore, the cats did not seem to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between the string and the food reward in this study.

But it is possible that researchers would need to develop different, more species-appropriate methodology to accurately test cats' understanding of physical causality. The authors of the 2009 study suggested, for instance, that the cats could have found the very act of string-pulling rewarding in itself, regardless of whether they actually received food.

This cat, for example, agrees with that statement:

Cognitive decline

Just like in humans, cognition in cats tends to get worse with age. Our feline friends are living longer today thanks to better nutrition, care and advances in veterinary medicine. But this also means the prevalence of age-related cognitive decline, known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome has been on the rise. The condition is caused by the irreversible loss of brain cells and shrinkage of brain tissue, and it is both tough to diagnose and to treat.