Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about canine social cognition, but what about feline social cognition? That may sound a bit oxymoronic to some, but cats, like other domesticated species, live closely alongside humans, so it makes sense that they could have social cognitive abilities.

However, an important difference between cats and other domesticated species lies in the domestication process itself: whereas most domesticated species were actively domesticated by humans through artificial selection, researchers hypothesize that cats were domesticated through natural selection. Unlike dogs, which could be trained to aid humans with hunting, herding, etc., cats had little usefulness to humans (except maybe killing rodents, which could also be accomplished by dogs). Cats were actually probably first attracted not to humans, but to the mice and rats that infested their fields and grain stores. The cats that were least averse to humans were more likely to hang around humans in order to have greater access to rodents. These less-averse cats then bred with each other, causing successive generations of cats to be less and less averse to humans. Cats essentially selectively bred themselves the same way Dmitri Belyaev selectively bred silver foxes.

The upshot of this difference in domestication between cats and other species is that cats weren’t bred to work with humans; rather, they were bred to be less averse to humans. This is basically the difference between cooperating and tolerating. And although both characteristics allow cohabitation with humans, being tolerant doesn’t entail the possession of any social cognitive abilities.

Fortunately for us, some researchers have investigated the influence of the differential domestication in cats and dogs by directly comparing their performance on social cognition tasks. Miklosi et al. (2005) first tested cats and dogs on the hidden food task, where a human indicates the location of food by pointing at it. Cats, like dogs, were able to understand the human social cue of pointing to find the food.

CatMiklosi et al. then observed cats’ and dogs’ behavior in a task where the food was impossible to access (very similar to this study). While dogs looked to humans for help, cats rarely did so.  Taken together, these results suggest that cats can understand human social cues, but are unable to communicate with humans.


A more recent study investigated whether cats could recognize the voice of their owner. Saito & Shinozuka (2013) played recordings of people saying a cat’s name and examined the cat’s response. In order to gauge recognition, the researchers used what’s called a habituation task. The basic principle behind a habituation task is that if you experience a stimulus enough (many times or over a prolonged period), your response to that stimulus will decrease. For example, when you first hear a fire alarm, you instantly become alert, adrenaline rushes through your body, etc. However, if the alarm goes on long enough and nothing else happens, your body will return to normal. Similarly, when you first put on clothes in the morning, you’re probably aware of how they feel against your skin for a minute or two, but then you stop noticing. Habituation is the brain’s way of filtering out unimportant stimuli so you can focus on the important stuff. In a habituation task, experimenters habituate a subject to a stimulus, then change the stimulus in some way and see how the subject responds. If the subject perceives the stimulus as different, then her response will be comparable to the first time she heard the habituation stimulus. If she doesn’t perceive the stimulus as different, then she will have little or no response.

For each cat, Saito & Shinozuka played three recordings of different strangers saying the cat’s name, followed by a recording of the owner saying the cat’s name. They were interested in comparing the cat’s habituated reaction to the third recording (a stranger) and the potentially different fourth recording (the owner). If the cat has a greater response to the owner’s recording than the third stranger’s recording, then he probably recognizes his owner’s voice.

The researchers found that overall, the cats had a greater response to their owners’ recordings than to the third strangers’ recordings, demonstrating that they recognized their owners’ voices. Interestingly, the responses were limited mostly to ear and head movements – no cats actually stood up and moved toward the sound. (The media have had some fun with this result – here’s an informative but slightly biased video about the study and its results.)

So it seems that although cats are domesticated and can understand some human social cues, they may not have all the social cognitive abilities of dogs, and this is likely due to their domestication through natural selection.

I’ll leave you with a video about an interesting study comparing the relationships between humans and cats, dogs, and babies. Do the results fit with our hypotheses about dog and cat domestication?

Sources Cited:

Miklósi, Áam, et al. “A comparative study of the use of visual communicative signals in interactions between dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans and cats (Felis catus) and humans.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 119.2 (2005): 179.

Saito, Atsuko, and Kazutaka Shinozuka. “Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus).” Animal cognition (2013): 1-6.

If you’re interested in reading more about domestication, here’s an interesting paper:

Driscoll, Carlos A., David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O’Brien. “From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.Supplement 1 (2009): 9971-9978.


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