What’s Going On in Your Cat’s Head?

Unsurprisingly, scientists use dogs in behavioural experiments a lot more often than cats. There are whole ‘canine cognition’ lab groups and conferences, which has led to a much greater understanding of our canine friends (see for example the blog ‘Dog Spies’). Cats are generally less cooperative and more nervous in social situations, meaning it’s difficult to use them in experiments. However, a recent paper in Animal Cognition by Shreve & Udell at Oregon State University reviewed what we do know about our (sometimes unfriendly) friends regarding how they think. I’m going to divide what we know about cat cognition into two main areas over two posts: firstly, what we know about cat cognition per se and secondly cat cognition that relates to their relationship with humans.


One of the best-studied areas of cat cognition is cat perception; their ability to hear, smell, see and use their whiskers to detect stimuli. Olfactory perception (ability to smell) is particularly important to young kittens, especially in governing their relationship with their mother. In contrast, kittens don’t respond to auditory stimuli until 11-16 days old and visual stimuli until 16-21 days old. Olfactory cues continue to be very important to cats throughout their lives: adult cats use scent to mark territories and smell the territories of other cats. Like dogs, they also gain social information from the scent of other cats. However, despite the importance of smell to cats, the vast majority of experiments on cat behaviour have focused on vision in cats, meaning our current understanding of how cats perceive the world is fairly limited.

Object permanence

Object permanence is the ability to ‘keep in mind’ an object even when it goes out of view – or the ability to know that just because something has disappeared doesn’t mean that it’s gone forever. For example, if you saw a ball roll under a couch, even though you can’t see it any more, you know that it’s still there. Humans develop the ability to do this pretty young: babies can keep in mind objects before the age of two. Anyone who’s ever kicked a toy mouse under a piece of furniture and had a cat sit there and stare at it would guess correctly that yes, cats have object permanence too. For example, in one experiment, the experimenter showed a cat where they were hiding some food, and later the cat searched for the food there. What’s more, cats not only seem to be able to keep an object ‘in mind’ when it goes out of sight, but also reason about where the object must have moved to even when they don’t see the experimenter moving it. To test this, an experimenter shows the cat food being hidden in a container, which is then placed behind a screen. The experimenter then surreptitiously removes the food and shows the cat the empty container. If the cat reasons that, because the food is no longer in the container, it is probably behind the screen, then she should go to search for the food behind the screen. Cats may not be quite as good at this ‘invisible displacement test’ as dogs are, but it’s hard to say whether their poorer performance is a true reflection of their abilities or just due to the way in which they’ve been tested.

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Physical causality

One thing animal cognition scientists often look into is whether an animal understands ‘folk physics’. This is, understanding how objects in their world relate to one another. For example, birds are tested in scenarios where they have to pull on string to access food hanging at the end of it. To get to the food, the bird has to understand how to pull up the string (using its beak and feet) to access the food. Questions of this sort have hardly been addressed in cats at all. However, one study attempted to do this by giving cats the chance to pull on bits of string to access food. Some of the string was attached to the food in a way that ‘made sense’ whereas other bits of string were placed horizontally to the food or crossed over in a way that wouldn’t make sense (at least to us) to pull on to get food. In this experiment, it didn’t seem like the cats understood what was going on: they pulled on all the bits of string indiscriminately. However, this could be because of the limitations of the design of the experiment rather than the limitations of the cats. For one thing, it could just be that cats love pulling string, whether or not it seems to be attached to food.

Quantity discrimination

There is limited research in this area, but cats can be trained to discriminate between two dots and three dots, indicating that they can tell the difference between (at least, small) quantities.

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Social cognition

While many people think of domestic cats as solitary, free-roaming domestic cats seem to choose to hang out with particular individuals while they are out and about. While some of these interactions are aggressive, others are just investigatory or even affiliative. Cats also have different relationships with different people. Cats generally learn how to socialise within the first two and seven weeks of life (with both other cats and humans). Generally speaking, those exposed to more humans during this critical time will be friendlier towards humans for the rest of their lives.

In my next blog post, I’m going to discuss further cat cognition specifically relating to cats’ relationship with humans.


Shreve, K. R. V., & Udell, M. A. (2015). What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Animal cognition, 18, 1195-1206.

Photo Credits

Featured photo of cat: Mohamed Aymen Bettaieb

Dog and cat: reader of the pack

Kitten sniffing: Florence Ivy

‘Samantha’ (3 plate white cat): Karla Wagner

Cat with string: Ian Livesey

Two cats: Felicity Muth