Cat-Like Instincts


By Justin Kovach

Your furry feline friend “Mr. Whiskers” may seem docile, but in reality he’s a natural predator with superb instincts. Cats’ instincts are actually a combination of hearing and an understanding of the cause and effect of some elements of physics, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Kyoto University in Japan. The research team was led by Saho Takagi, and their study was published in the journal Animal Cognition

The team previously discovered that cats use their excellent hearing to predict the presence of unseen objects. After learning this, the researches wanted to find out if our nine-lived friends used a causal rule to determine if a container held an object based on the sound (or lack thereof) that it made when shaken. They further wanted to learn a cat’s expectation towards the container:  Would the cat expect something to fall out when the container was turned over?

Physical laws were tested using two experimental conditions. One was congruent: shaking was accompanied by a sound and an object falling out of the container, or shaking with no sound and no object. The other was non-congruent: no shaking sound accompanied by an object falling out of the container or vice versa.

The cats looked at containers that were shaken and produced a noise for longer periods of time, which suggests that they used a physical law to predict the existence of an object based on the rattling sound. The cats also gazed much longer at things that didn't make sense, such as an object dropping despite having made no noise while being shaken. Basically, the cats realized when something should or should not happen based on the physical characteristics of the situation.

What does this all mean?

The researchers concluded that cats use sounds to predict the presence of objects in their environment, even when they can't see them. Because of this understanding, cats have developed a natural hunting style. Using their understanding of basic physics, cats can stalk prey and predict where it will be even with poor visibility. 

So remember, Mr. Whiskers may be lazily lying on your couch or lap, but he knows what's going on around him. If he decides to pounce, he’ll know exactly where to jump without ever seeing the object that caught his attention. Which, as we all know, was probably something dangling from a string of yarn.

Discussion Questions

  • What environmental factors do cats use to understand their surroundings?
  • Have you ever seen a cat react to something that came up from behind it, or something it could not see?
  • Physical Laws
  • Congruent