Domestic cats are great hunters and many people keep them specifically to find and hunt pests such as mice and rats. Recent research published in the journal Animal Cognition shows that they understand some basic physical laws and can make causal predictions based on what they see and hear.
Japanese researchers from Kyoto University originally performed a study to see if cats could predict whether or not a container holds an object. They did this by shaking a container, sometimes along with a rattling sound. When the container made a rattling sound, the cats looked at the container longer. The researchers concluded that cats use a causal rule to decide if a container holds an object. The cats were deciding based on whether or not they heard a noise.
In total, the researchers videotaped 30 domestic cats. The cats were allowed to move freely and could explore the experimental environment. Building on the initial research, the scientists did a new trial with two possible experimental conditions. In both conditions, the cats were shown the container being shaken along with a possible noise. In the first condition, an object always fell out of the container when there was a rattling noise. If there wasn’t a noise, no object fell out. Predictably, the cats concentrated on the container more when there was a sound. In the second condition, the container shaking didn’t follow physical laws. The container would drop an object when there hadn’t been a noise or the container would rattle but then no object would fall out.
The cats spent much more time staring at the container in the second condition, when the trial didn’t follow normal physical laws. The researchers noted that the cats seemed to be aware that the conditions didn’t agree with their predictions. The cats were using causal logic to determine if an object was in the container based on whether or not they heard the rattling noise. The paper goes on to conclude that this makes sense based on a cat’s natural hunting style. Cats are attuned to small sounds and can use the presence of noise to determine whether or not a small animal is hiding somewhere. Future research will try to determine just how much information cats can gather based on sound alone.
Saho Takagi et al, There’s no ball without noise: cats’ prediction of an object from noise, Animal Cognition (2016).