The baffling feline mind

How does your cat see the world? We don't know. Even scientists who are paid research grants to know don't know.

Everyone knows that dogs can be trained. Dogs are (relatively) easy, because dogs want to please humans. Cats prefer to please themselves. Also there have been numerous studies on canine cognition in recent years. These have revealed fascinating secrets of how dogs think and otherwise see the world.

It has been shown that dogs understand the concept of fairness, can do basic counting, and can understand over a hundred words. But no-one knows if cats can do any of this, because no-one has found a way to get the cats to co-operate in the experiments.

For example, one experiment taught dogs that food could be found in boxes with three dots on them. However, boxes with two dots on them were empty. Once they had grasped that concept, the dogs went for the right box every time. When the experiment was tried with cats, most cats were too upset by being in a lab with a scientist to worry about food. Others wandered off in the wrong direction, and some preferred the box with two dots, but only to see if they could fit into it.

It turns out that there is a reason why dealing with a group of wilful independently-minded individuals is referred to as 'herding cats'. Dogs are social animals that have had millennia of working with humans. Dogs are trained right down to the genetic level to try to understand what humans are thinking, and to work with their masters. Cats on the other hand are pretty sure that they are the masters, cats only started to live with humans relatively recently, and cats are not social animals in the first place.

This is why cats are terrible at conflict resolution and co-operation. The best that you can hope for with two cats that don't get along is that they will learn to ignore one another. Some feral cats do live together in groups (a group of cats is called a 'clowder'), because it is more convenient and secure. However, there is not a lot of co-operation between the members, and there is a lot of competition. There's a reason a sick or injured cat goes off to hide. It's because the other members of the group would sense her weakness and start to pick on her.

So can a cat be trained? The answer is definitely 'yes' as you will know if you have ever seen a cat conscientiously using her litter tray. However there are limits, and they are rather narrow limits at that. Firstly, the training must be something a cat wants to do. In the wild, cats prefer to hide their scat because they are small, vulnerable creatures who do not want to advise larger predators of their existence. So teaching a cat to use a litter tray is nudging a cat in a direction she is inclined to go anyway.

Likewise, you can train a cat not to scratch your furniture, because cats like to scratch both to strop their claws and to mark things with their scent; because cats have scent glands in their paws. When you discourage a cat from scratching the sofa, the cat decides that obviously you prefer to leave your scent there instead, and as you are bigger, the cat isn't going to press the point. (Unless of course you and the cat have dominance issues, in which case the problem is much more than a mauled ottoman.) It helps if you leave a dedicated scratching post somewhere obvious.

People who train cats admit that the animals have a lousy attention span ten minutes a day if you are lucky and that cats need plenty of positive reinforcement. A negative outcome means that the cat is likely to think 'to hell with it' and never try again. Overall, most humans agree that it is easier to let their cats train them.

There have been studies on how cats see the world. They have shown that cats can be aware of things out of their sight. This is called 'object permanence' and its why they know exactly where in the house their cat food is kept.

In experiments with using tools, cats had to pull strings to get food. Dogs quickly worked out which string produced the goods. Cats pulled at all the strings or some strings at random. Scientists still don't know if this is because cats can't figure out the right string or because they just like pulling strings and figure that dinner will be along eventually anyhow.

In other words, experiments to figure out how the feline mind works tend to fail because the experimenters don't know enough about the feline mind to design relevant experiments.

Of course, the biggest experiment of all is still going on. That's the one where every day millions of humans and cats try to figure out how to get along with the mysterious and perverse creatures they have chosen to live with.

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