Can Cats Rival Dogs in Social Intelligence?

Can cats rival dogs in social intelligence? Recent research suggests that they can. In this article, I’ll briefly summarize the work of Kristyn Vitale, a postdoc at Oregon State University who studies cat socialization. I’ll also share four experiments that Vitale says pet owners can try at home with their cats. I tried them with my cats, and I’ll share their results in this article as well

In November 2018 I interviewed Vitale, who grew up wanting to work with cats. Not seeing many opportunities in the field, she initially pursued zoology as a career, then switched to feline research after she met a professor who studied cat behavior. Vitale now works for the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University. According to Vitale, a career in cat research has allowed her to both ask questions about cat behavior and to find ways of applying what she’s learned to help build the human-cat bond. It’s Vitale’s belief that “cats can live both solitarily or socially, depending on their environment and upbringing.”

Vitale works with Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist who has published studies on various animals including dogs. The two have conducted studies in a variety of settings: the university laboratory space, animal humane societies, cat owner homes, and public spaces such as cat cafes. To date, they have shown that cats as a whole prefer interaction with people to food or toys, spend more time with the people who pay attention to them, are sensitive to the moods and cues of their owners, and can develop secure attachments to people. Vitale believes that cats are now where dogs were a couple of decades ago in research, and she hopes to give cats a chance to show what they can do. In May 2019, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported on their work, saying that they may have started a cat revolution

In the aforementioned article, the AAAS also described four simplified social intelligence tests that cat owners can try on their own cats. Last month, I tried them on my cats with mixed results.

Test #1: Does your cat know its name? Pick four words that sound similar to your cat’s name. Say each word one at a time, then after the fourth word say your cat’s name.

According to the AAAS, “if your cat gradually reacts less to each random word, but responds to its name, it probably knows its name.” When I tried this test, none of our family’s cats reacted to me, and yet I know each of them recognize their name. “Our cats ignore me when I’m speaking to my husband, but their ears will perk up if I say their names. In addition, if I call for our dog from another room our cats will ignore me, but if I call them by name they’ll often come running.

Test #2: Is your cat tuned in to your emotions? Take your cat into a room with an object it has never seen before. Sit on the floor with your cat, then interact with the object with a calm and friendly voice.

According to the AAAS, “If your cat is initially freaked out but then calms down—and even approaches the object—your cat likely can pick up on your emotional cues and alter its behavior in kind.” When I tried this test using a blowing fan, all three of my cats were initially startled. After a short time, Cinder cautiously watched from afar, Bootsie slowly approached the fan, and Rainy ignored it. Success!

Test #3: How social/independent is your cat? Sit on the floor with your cat. Ignore your cat for two minutes. Then pay attention to your cat for two minutes by actively calling and interacting with them. See how much time they spend with you in either phase.

According to the AAAS, “Highly social cats immediately come to you when you begin to pay attention to them, whereas more independent cats keep their distance.” In both scenarios, my cats sought me out. Again, success!

Test #4: Does your cat prefer you, food, or toys? Pick a treats and toys you think your cat may enjoy. Set them on the ground, sit nearby, and see where your cat lingers.

According to the AAAS, “Your cat prefers whatever it spends the most time with. But it may just be hungry. Repeat the experiment in varied situations to be sure of its preferences.” I tried this twice with my cats. Both times my cats came up to me, but they also checked out my offerings. Cinder chose toys and the other two wanted food.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry hosted a live Facebook event with Vitale, in which she suggested a fifth test that I’ve described in the next paragraph.

Test #5: Does your cat follow pointing gestures? Put two identical empty bowls to your left and right. Have another person hold the cat in front of you. Get your cat’s attention and point at a bowl. Have the other person let go of your cat and then wait for your cat to approach. Allow between 30-40 seconds before resetting the experiment. If your cat approaches the correct bowl, give praise and reward. Then restart, switching which side you point to.

Vitale gave a couple of overall recommendations. She encouraged owners to video-record the tests to make it easier to record the results. In addition, she suggested conducting the tests about 10 times and then averaging the results. I’ve set these as future goals for myself.

I’d love to hear how your cats do on these tests! Next week, I’ll be back with another article on social intelligence from a different source. If you’d like to watch Vitale’s lecture in full (including an extensive Question and Answer with viewers), follow these two links.

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