For the love of cat

I had a post not long ago about going into the minds of dogs to see what they like; now to explore cats. Might as well for several reasons: I have cats, this is the Internet (sorry, dog lovers – cats appear to be the mascot of the Internet), and this study appeared on my social media feed. So now let’s talk about cats.

Those who have an extensive background in behaviorist psychology (the kind of people who talk about reinforcement, operant conditioning, Pavlov’s dog, and know what all of those things are) can tell you that dogs would respond to stimuli, good or bad, as at least a reflex. It goes beyond simply responding to stimuli, though; responses can be tuned by introducing stimuli that could make some certain behaviors occur more or less. This is operant conditioning and why one rubs their dog’s nose in it. You know what it is.

Public Domain (Author: Amaya Eguizabal, 2014)

Anyway, that’s dog training, but what about cats? It’s been long believed that cats are not as easily trained as dogs. After all, you don’t see a lot of cat training places compared to dog trainers. However, the authors do cite several studies where cats can be successfully trained, but they do note that success depends on what’s motivating cats. Those of you who are reading this and just happen to own cats likely have your own stories of being able to train cats in doing something. One of mine, Freya, knows her name and will, 7 times out of 10 (I guess) come to me or my wife when summoned. I don’t remember how I got her to do that, I don’t know what kind of reinforcement I’ve done that enabled this, but she does respond to her name.

Author: Jonny Velasco (CC-BY-SA-40, 2010)

(that’s her)

The aim of the study according to Vitale Shreve et al. is to not just look at individual cats’ preferences between social interaction (with humans), food, scent, and toys, but also to investigate how these preferences play out in both pets and shelter cats. They had a rather large sample – 50 adult cats (25 pets, 25 shelter cats) from 1-16 years old (5.5 years by average), although they could only use 39 for several reasons, including being nervous or, in the case of one, not interacting with any stimulus. A cat not caring, quelle surprise, some of you might say. Human interaction involved petting, playing, or calling them; the toy was either one of two feather toys or a mouse (also a toy, relax); food was either chicken or tuna treats; and scents were either gerbils, catnip, and the scent of an unfamiliar cat. They’re going to run into these things anyway in life, so why not throw these stimuli into the study?

Unlike the study on dogs that I linked early in this post, this study didn’t hook up the cats to an fMRI. Ever try getting an outfit on a cat? Try electrodes. In an enclosed space. Good luck.

So what did the authors find? First, they found no difference between shelter cats and pets when it came to preference, so I (like the authors) will pool all of their results. As far as human interactions, cats would much rather play than be called, but it appears that the cats by and large loved being petted. More cats prefer tuna treats over chicken treats, although I’m sure you cat owners have your own stories about that. All three cats that have hung out with me all these years love turkey-flavored treats, their food is chicken flavored, and a feeding frenzy occurs whenever I open a can of tuna (and it’s been forever since I have had tuna – you can guess where it ends up). Cats prefer moving toys over mice and feathers, and of course cats preferred catnip over gerbils and other cats. Going outside the research here, you think cats are going to appreciate other animals getting close to their stash?

But what about between the stimuli – so what is it that cats like most, then? Interaction? Treats? Toys? Smells? According to the authors, half of the cats preferred social interaction, about a third preferred food, four of them preferred toys, and one preferred scent. The cats did spend a lot of time interacting with humans and food, but most of the cats spent a lot of their time with their favorite stimulus. So, different cats and dogs have different favorite things. Good to know – part of pet ownership involves research, because you can’t just go all-in and make it up as you go along. Well, not completely.

The results of this study can go a long way to cat training; if you know what your cat wants, you can figure out a way to reinforce behaviors you want them to have. Granted, there’s also the flipside where you try to punish your cats when they do something you don’t like, but I don’t want to undertake that study, and I don’t know who will (or who would want to). So, feed your cats and play with them – there’s a good chance they’re in the majority who likes either/or (for all you know, even both), and they’ll love you for it.

Not that you aren’t already doing that, I’m sure.

Mush time: whenever you can, please support your local animal humane societies, including the ASPCA, RSPCA, and their equivalents in your respective countries. I’m sure donations are welcome, or you could do a real large for a cat or dog and adopt. They would love to have a forever home – maybe yours?

Flickr/Public Domain (Author: Nate Steiner, 2006)
Flickr/Public Domain (Author: Andy Miccone, 2016)

Featured Article: Vitale Shreve KR, Merkham LR, Udell MAR. (2017) Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat (Felis silvestris catus) preferences. Behavioural Processes (Accepted Manuscript). DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.03.016

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Baillard, 2015)


  1. When I took a psychology I always found the pavlov’s dogs study interesting. Great post I always had a cat that come she was called as well, no idea how she got trained to do that. It is great of you include an excerpt about adopting animals. Thanks for the great read, I am such an animal person.

    Liked by 1 person

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