9 Facts how smart cats are spektrum der wissenschaft

And they're capable of amazing mental feats: 9 facts about four-legged cognition.

Not surprisingly, scientists prefer to use dogs more often than cats in behavioral experiments; entire research groups and conferences are devoted to the topic of dog cognition, which has led to the fact that we understand our four-legged friends better and better. Cats, on the other hand, are less cooperative by nature, behave more nervously in social situations and are therefore less suitable for experimental studies. Kristyn Shreve and Monique Udell compiled the knowledge gathered so far about the thinking of our (sometimes quite dismissive) companions.

The sensory perception of cats

One of the best-studied areas of cat cognition is their perception, that is, their ability to hear, smell, see, and use their whiskers to detect stimuli. Olfactory perception (the ability to smell) is especially important for kittens, because it significantly influences the relationship with the mother. On the other hand, young cats react to acoustic stimuli only at the age of 11 to 16 days, and visual stimuli are perceived even after 16 to 21 days.

This article is included in Spectrum – The Week, 39/2016

Smell signals also play an important role in the further life of cats; adult animals set scent marks to mark their territory and can recognize the territories of other individuals via their nose. As with dogs, the scent of their conspecifics provides cats with social information. Despite the importance of odors for cats, the vast majority of behavioral experiments in these animals nevertheless focus on vision. So our current knowledge of how cats perceive the world through their nose is quite limited.

Bad-tempered cat | If cats are imprinted on humans very early, they can become very affectionate – otherwise they may be rather annoyed by us at times.

The object permanence of the four-legged

Object permanence is the ability to "remember" an object, even if this moves out of sight. In other words, knowing that the disappearance of something does not mean that it is gone forever. For example, if a ball rolls under a sofa, we know it is still there, even if we can no longer see it. In humans, this ability develops quite early; infants under two years of age are already able to hold things in memory. Anyone who has ever had a toy mouse disappear under a piece of furniture and been observed by a cat staring after the mouse would correctly ame that cats have also developed object permanence.

Cat with toy mouse | The object permanence of cats is less good than that of dogs – but when researchers hide their toy mouse, they have some idea of where to look.

In one experiment, for example, an experimenter showed a cat a food hiding place, whereupon the animal actually looked for food there a short time later. What's more, cats apparently can't just remember an object that disappears from their line of sight. They also deduce where it must have gone – even if they don't directly see someone move the object. To test this in the experiment, a cat is shown a container of food, which the experimenter then makes disappear behind a privacy screen. The food is secretly removed, and the cat gets to see the empty container. If the animal now concludes that the food is hidden behind the screen, it would have to look for the food in that place. In this so-called "invisible displacement test" cats may not perform quite as well as dogs, but it is difficult to say whether the results actually reflect the animals' abilities or are simply due to the experimental design.

Recognizing physical causality

Cognitive researchers often investigate the question of whether animals recognize "physical laws" Understand: whether an animal grasps how objects in its environment are related to each other. Birds are tested, for example, in experimental setups in which they must reach food attached to the end of strings that hang down vertically. In doing so, the bird should understand exactly how to pull up the string with the help of its beak and feet to get to the reward. Unfortunately, such studies have hardly ever been conducted with cats; however, there is one study in which the animals were able to demonstrate their abilities in such an experiment. In this experiment, some of the strings were "sensibly" attached to the food, but others to the food, but others ran horizontally or crosswise in a way (at least for us) unsuitable to reach the food by pulling. The cats didn't seem to understand what was going on in this experiment, because they pulled randomly on all the strings. However, this could also be due to the experimental setup. Less on the limited abilities of the cats. Or it is simply because cats like to pull on strings – whether there is food hanging on them or not.

cat plays with string | they just like to pull strings? Or does the cat's physics perception not extend to recognizing which strings to pull for its reward? This has not yet been definitively determined.

Elsewhere, however, cats have shown that they are capable of physical reasoning: They react perplexed when physical rules seem to be disobeyed. They observed in an experiment how a container was first shaken and then turned upside down. Some runs followed an unsurprising pattern: the cats first heard a rattling sound when the container was shaken, and then watched an object roll out when the container was turned upside down. Other passes, however, seemed to contradict the rules of physics: For example, the animals heard a noise when the cup was shaken, but nothing fell out. Or they heard nothing, and still an object appeared in the end. The analysis of the video recordings showed that the cats generally looked longer at a rattling container than at a silent one. But they also paid more attention to contradictory processes than to those with an expected result – as if they suspected that something was amiss.

Distinguishing between quantities

There is little research in this area, but cats can learn to distinguish between two and three points. This means that they are able to recognize small differences in size.

Social awareness

While the domestic cat is considered by many people to be a loner, free-roaming domestic cats seem to specifically seek out certain individuals to hang out with on their forays. While some of these interactions are aggressive in nature, others happen out of pure curiosity or even to make contact. Cats also have different relationships with different people. Typically, animals learn social behavior during the first two to seven weeks of their lives – interacting with other cats as well as people. In general, cats that have had more contact with humans during this crucial phase are more trusting of humans for the rest of their lives.

Do cats have a sense of numbers? | This has also not yet been sufficiently tested. But initial results indicate that they can recognize crowds, at least to a small extent.

Receptivity to human signals

Cats were bred as pets and have lived in the company of humans for a long time – so you would expect them to be able to interpret human signals to some extent. Every cat owner knows, however, that the animals are not always as responsive as we might wish them to be.

We humans often try to interact with animals in our environment by pointing at things. Since this is a typical human communication tool, this behavior highlights our own limitations rather than those of our animal friends. Nevertheless, a 2005 study by adam Miklosi and colleagues found that cats can indeed follow human gestures to find food. The researchers also investigated whether cats generally sought help from humans when they were unable to complete a task. But the animals did not do this.

In another paper, scientists explored the question of whether cats turn to humans in situations they perceive as unsafe. This so-called "social referencing Is a behavior that both children and adults exhibit. For example, a clown may seem scary at first, but when everyone else is having fun, we quickly learn that we don't need to be afraid in that situation (though there are always exceptions, of course). To test the phenomenon in cats, they were confronted with a fan to which streamers were attached and which had a potentially threatening effect on the animals. A cat was brought into a room with its owner, the fan was turned on, and the cat's owner was expected to respond either neutrally, frightened, or content/relaxed.

Cat in front of filled food bowl | When it comes to eating, cats can purr especially insistently.

Most cats (about 80 percent), the researchers found, looked back and forth between the fan and the human, apparently to gauge their own response. The animals also responded to their owners' emotional reactions: If they looked scared, the cats were more likely to move away from the fan and interact with the humans. This result is difficult to interpret; according to the authors, the cats may have been seeking security from their owners. The results of further studies equally show that cats react to human emotional states: They are less likely to seek out people who are feeling sad, and more likely to approach those who are in extroverted or excited moods. Why this is so, however, remains unclear.

Recognizing human voices

In 2013, scientists Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka demonstrated that cats can recognize their owner's voice. To prove this, the researchers played audio recordings to cats in which the animals were called by name by their owners or other people. The cats responded most strongly when their owners called to them; the response was seen mainly in movements of the ears or head, rather than the animal moving in the direction of the voice, such as a dog would do.

Cat sits in front of computer | Cats are not as easily studied in behavioral tests as dogs are. But with certain tasks you can capture their attention.

Meow communication

Young cats have about nine different types of vocalizations, while adult animals have about 16. Interestingly, domestic cats also differ. Cats living in the wild in their vocalization. This indicates that the relationship with the human has an influence on the "cat language" has. Perhaps one of the most familiar sounds cats make is purring. The animals purr, however, not only when they are stroked by people, but also when dealing with conspecifics and kittens. In addition, cats change their purring to give a different meaning to the sound they make. For example, if they demand food from their owner, the purring becomes more urgent and unpleasant; in the process, the animals usually also embed a high-pitched meow in the low-pitched purring. However, whether this type of demand for food is specific to the relationship between cat and human or is also used in other contexts is not known at this time.

Bonding with owner

In 2007, Claudia Edwards and colleagues conducted the so-called "Ainsworth Strange Situation Test" by to check whether cats are more closely tied to their owner than to any other human being. In this test, the cat was brought into a room and had to stay there either alone, together with its owner or with a stranger. The researchers found that the animals sought physical contact with their owner longer than with the stranger. They also ran after and played only with their owner. In the presence of their owner, cats generally appeared more eager to explore and move around. If the animals were alone or in the presence of the stranger, they behaved more alertly and sat near the door for longer periods of time. Cats made most vocalizations when they were alone in the room. So it seems that cats do indeed have a bond with their owners that is stronger than with strangers – this may be a small comfort to some.

Man cuddles with cat | In fact, cats seem to have a stronger bond with their owners than with strangers. Perhaps this is a small comfort to some humans.

Cats also appear to experience separation anxiety; this, too, indicates a bond with their owners. If they are separated from their human caregivers, the animals more often show stress behaviors, such as urinating and defecating in inappropriate places, excessive vocalizations, destructive urges, and excessive grooming of fur.

While existing research on cognition in cats has helped bring to light at least some of the abilities of our elusive housemates, much of feline behavior is still poorly understood, and there are many aspects we don't understand. A more comprehensive knowledge of cat behavior and how we influence it will lead to better coexistence between humans and cats and increased welfare of these animals. And hopefully it will also help reduce the number of cats that end up in shelters or are euthanized.

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