Why It’s So Hard to Study Cat Intelligence

The state of the universe.
April 21 2014 9:47 AM

What Are Cats Thinking?

Inside the mind of the world’s most uncooperative research subject.

Inscrutable cat.
No, I will not participate in your experiment.

Photo by Astrid860/Thinkstock

“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.”

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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.

David Grimm is a deputy news editor at Science and the author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. Follow him on Twitter.

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