The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Community News Network

April 22, 2014

Cats outsmart the researchers

"We did one study on cats - and that was enough!" Those words effectively ended my quest to understand the feline mind. I was a few months into writing "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs," which explores how pets are blurring the line between animal and person, and I was gearing up for a chapter on pet intelligence. I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

We are living in a golden age of canine cognition. Nearly a dozen laboratories around the world study the dog mind, and in the past decade scientists have published hundreds of articles on the topic. Researchers have shown that Fido can learn hundreds of words, may be capable of abstract thought and possesses a rudimentary ability to intuit what others are thinking, a so-called theory of mind once thought to be uniquely human. Miklósi himself has written an entire textbook on the canine mind - and he's a cat person.

I knew I was in trouble even before I got Miklósi on the phone. After contacting nearly every animal cognition expert I could find (people who had studied the minds of dogs, elephants, chimpanzees and other creatures), I was given the name of one man who might, just might, have done a study on cats. His name was Christian Agrillo, and he was a comparative psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy. When I looked at his website, I thought I had the wrong guy. A lot of his work was on fish. But when I talked to him he confirmed that, yes, he had done a study on felines. Then he laughed. "I can assure you that it's easier to work with fish than cats," he said. "It's incredible."

Agrillo studies something called numerical competence. That's essentially the ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one. The test his lab uses is fairly simple. Researchers place three black dots over a desirable object (like a plate of food or a door that leads to friends) and two dots over an undesirable object (like an empty plate or a door that leads to nowhere interesting). Agrillo and colleagues then look to see if, over multiple trials, the animals can distinguish between the two quantities. Besides fish, his team has worked with monkeys and birds - all of which have been fairly cooperative. But when he tried the experiment with cats, he practically gave up.

To reduce the number of variables, Agrillo's team always conducts the studies in its laboratory. But when owners brought their cats over, most of the felines freaked out. Even the docile ones displayed little interest in the test. Ultimately, Agrillo wound up with just four cats - and even they were a pain to work with. "Very often, they didn't participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction," he told me. "It was really difficult to have a good trial each day." Still, he was able to get some results. Unlike fish, which can distinguish three dots from two, the cats paid more attention to the size of the dots than to their number. That makes sense when you consider that, in the wild, cats (unlike fish) live solitary lives and that when they hunt prey, they're more concerned about size than quantity. Counting just isn't that important to them.

Agrillo's work didn't break open the mystery of the feline mind, but at least it was something. I hoped Ádám Miklósi could provide me with a bit more. He's half the reason there has been so much work on the canine mind. In 1998, he and Duke University biological anthropologist Brian Hare independently showed that dogs can understand human pointing. Both labs conducted experiments demonstrating that when a volunteer pointed at one of two cups containing a treat, dogs almost always went for the correct cup. Though it may seem a simple test, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, fail miserably; they ignore the volunteer, pick cups at random, and rarely score above chance. The ability to follow a pointed finger isn't just a neat trick; it shows that dogs may have a rudimentary "theory of mind" - an ability to understand what another animal is thinking (in this case, that the human volunteer was trying to show them something). The skill is so important to our species that without it, we would have trouble learning and interacting with the world around us. That's why so many labs have begun studying the canine mind; dogs, the thinking goes, may provide clues to the evolution of the human mind.

But what about cats? Miklósi, I was surprised to learn, had also conducted the pointing test with felines. Like Agrillo, he had a hard time getting cats to cooperate in his laboratory - so he went to their homes instead. Even then, most of the animals weren't interested in advancing science; according to Miklósi's research paper, seven of the initial 26 test subjects "dropped out." But those that did participate performed nearly as well as dogs had. Cats too, it appears, may have a rudimentary theory of mind.

But when Miklósi took the study a step further, he spotted an intriguing difference between cats and dogs. This time, he and his colleagues created two puzzles: one solvable, the other impossible. In the solvable puzzle, the researchers placed food in a bowl and stuck it under a stool. Dogs and cats had to find the bowl and pull it out to eat. Both aced the test. Then the scientist rigged the exam. They again placed the bowl under a stool, but this time they tied it to the stool legs so that it could not be pulled out. The dogs pawed at the bowl for a few seconds and then gave up, gazing up at their owners as if asking for help. The cats, on the other hand, rarely looked at their owners; they just kept trying to get the food.

Now before you conclude that cats are dumber than dogs because they're not smart enough to realize when a task is impossible, consider this: Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years - 20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the "human radio frequency" - the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that's why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don't hang on our every word like dogs do. They're surfing other channels on the dial. And that's ultimately what makes them so hard to study. Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box.

Still, there may be hope. As scientists begin to experiment with new ways to study animal intelligence - from eye-tracking technology to fMRI machines - they may yet find a way to peek inside the feline mind. Brian Hare, for one, is optimistic. Though he's one of the world's foremost experts on canine cognition, he says he wouldn't be surprised if researchers start studying cats next. "Before 1998, no one thought that dogs were worth looking at, and now look at how much they've shown us," he tells me. "I think cats are going to be the next frontier."

The feline mind may be a black box, but it's a box worth exploring.



 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • 072214 Diamond Llama 1.jpg Llama on the loose corralled in Missouri town

    A llama on the lam cruised Main Street Tuesday before it mistook a resident’s fenced backyard for a place to grab a meal and freshen up.

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • 20110929_bowling.jpg Why fewer people go bowling

    Like other industries facing tough economic times, America's bowling centers are trying to reinvent themselves.

    July 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • President Barack Obama mug Best president? Worst president? Don't read too much into those polls

    The questions about who are the best and worst post-WWII presidents are useless. What they mainly show is that Republicans are far more unified around a single story than are Democrats.

    July 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • lawgrad.jpg Things looking up for law school grads

    This might sound weird, but here goes: Now might be a pretty good time to think about law school. For the sixth year running, the employment rate fell, as schools produced a record number of graduates for an industry without the room for them. There was, however, a nugget of good news buried in the data.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140625-AMX-HEALTH-EXERCISE252.jpg Fitness program caters to people with developmental disabilities

    Spirit - which stands for "Social Physical Interactive Respectful Inclusive Teamwork" - offers classes that help clients with developmental disabilities build muscle, increase flexibility and improve their diets. As a population, they have limited opportunities when it comes to health, Smith says. "And a lot need more social interaction," he adds.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • twitter.jpg Mobile web siphoning revenue from U.S. cities as landlines fade

    Tweeting, Facebooking, Skyping smartphone users are costing U.S. states and cities revenue as taxes rooted in old-fashioned telephone service fail to keep up with the Internet era.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 10.42.53 AM.png VIDEO: Police say thief forgets to log off Facebook while robbing home

    A Minnesota man was jailed after he logged on to Facebook from a home he broke into, then forgot to log out.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • breaking-up.jpg Thinking about breaking up? Flip a coin

    In their latest book, 'Think Like a Freak," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner suggest that, contrary to what many people have told you in life, you should quit. That is, when things get tough, you shouldn't always tough them out and stick with it. Instead, you should quit and do so sooner rather than later.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Starbucks tests Greek yogurt smoothies in California, Missouri

    Starbucks Corp., which started selling handmade sodas in the southern United States Tuesday, is now testing three flavors of Greek-yogurt smoothies as it continues trying to broaden its appeal beyond coffee.

    June 24, 2014

  • Bq6uCTrCQAAlzeo.jpg Tornado touches down near Indianapolis

    A band of storms containing heavy rains, lightning and gusting winds spawned at least one tornado near Indianapolis Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

    June 24, 2014 1 Photo 1 Slideshow

Graduation Salutes
Seasonal Content