If you’ve sometimes caught your cat behaving in a strangely human way, you’re not alone. According to research, clever kitties are doing far more than just studying their owners: they’re even starting to mimic them. Up until now, the only animals believed to be capable of mimicking human behaviour on command were dogs, dolphins, parrots, apes, and killer whales. Now, new research suggests that cats are just as capable of doing the same. The latest study to suggest cat’s might not be ignoring us to quite the degree their aloof reputations suggest was published in September in the scientific journal Animal Cognition. The study looked into the case of Ebisu, an 11-year-old cat who lived with her owner Fumi Higaki (a professional dog trainer) in Ichinomiya, Japan. Animal behavior researcher and study author Claudia Fugazza lived alongside the pair for several weeks as part of her studies into canine cognition. When Higaki mentioned to Fugazza that she had trained Ebisu to imitate her, Fugazza’s studies were suddenly given a new direction, and a new subject.
Do As I Do For Cats
Using the Do as I Do paradigm (a training technique that’s long been used in the canine world), Higaki claimed to have taught Ebisu to mimic her behaviors. The method works by having the trainer shout out a command, carry out the corresponding action themselves, and then encourage (by way of reward) the animal to do the same. Once the animal has learned that “Do It” is an instruction to repeat the same action the trainer has just performed, they can start learning new behaviors using the same technique. Once the dog has become well versed in the technique, the trainer will often add a verbal or visual cue so they don’t have to perform an action in order for the dog to intimidate it. As a professional dog trainer, Higaki was already a master of the technique in dogs (in fact, her role in developing and promoting it for the world wide stage was the initial reason for her involvement in Fugazza’s research). But she was keen to see if it could be as successfully applied to the feline world as to the canine one. Being a cat who was in Higaki’s own words, “exceptionally motivated for food,” Ebisu quickly proved herself the ideal student.
The Studies Begin
Determined to find out if Ebisu was really capable of doing as Higaki claimed, Fugazza set about putting the cat’s abilities to the test over the course of 18 separate trials. As gizmodo.com notes, the results of the trials proved conclusive. Regardless of what Higaki did, Ebisu seemed to follow suit, whether it involved spinning around, touching a toy, opening a small drawer, or laying down horizontally. What proved particularly interesting to Fugazza was how Ebisu would give her own cat like spin to her owner’s actions – if Higaki raised her arms, for example, Ebisu would sit on her hind legs and lift up both front paws. As proof it was no fluke or one time thing, Fugazza recorded the sessions. Reveiwing the film back, she found that over the course of the trails, Ebisu copied Higaki an impressive 81% of the time. “Based on (Ebisu’s) performance, we would argue that she has the ability to map out different parts of the body and the movements of the human demonstrator into her own body parts and movements, at least to an extent,” Fugazza concluded.
But Fugazza doesn’t think Ebisu is alone in her abilities. Even though her studies concentrated on just the one cat, she believes that Ebisu’s talents are likely to be shared by all felines, and may even have wider application across the animal kingdom. If she’s right, it suggests that cats aren’t just watching us, they’re learning from us. “It’s really exciting,” Kristyn Vitale, a cat cognition researcher at Unity College says of the findings. “People think of cats as being solitary and antisocial. This study suggests that they’re watching us and learning from us.”
For cat lovers, Fugazza’s research is exciting news. But not everyone is buying into it. Claudio Tennie, an ethologist at the University of Tubingen, is one of the critics that have yet to be convinced. Speaking to Science, Tennie asserted that it’s not possible to tell if cats have the innate ability to mimic human behaviors, or whether they simply have the ability to be motivated enough by rewards to go along with the training. “We can train bears to ride motorcycles. That doesn’t mean bears ride motorcycles,” Tennie told the magazine. Moreover, she argued, many of the mimicking acts Ebisu engaged in were ones that a cat would do naturally. Rubbing her face against a pillow after her owner did the same could be less imitation, more scent sharing. “I’m not convinced we’re seeing true imitation,” Tennie concluded.
The Rise of the Smart Cats
Leaving action imitation to one side, there’s undoubtedly a great deal of evidence to suggest that cats adapt and copy the behaviors of their owners. In an earlier study published by the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (http://www.digitaljournal.com/entertainment), two groups of cats were studied. The first group were kept indoors in close proximity to their owners; the second group were allowed the freedom to come and go as they pleased. The first group of cats adapted sleeping and eating patterns similar to their owners. Their activity levels were also found to be a close match (as, in some cases, where their elimination patterns). The second group of cats who experienced more limited human interaction became nocturnal, and began to adopt the behaviors and habits of feral cats.
“Our conclusions emphaise the influence of human presence and care on the daily rhythm in cats,” the study’s lead, Giuseppe Piccione from the University of Messina’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, concluded. “Cats are intelligent animals with long memories,” Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, added in agreement. “They watch and learn from us, noticing the patterns of our behavious, as evidenced by knowing where their food is kept, when to expect to be fed, how to open the cupboard door and where their feeding and toileting areas are”. More studies are unquestionably needed before we can truly understand if, and by how much, cats can learn from our actions. But until then, you can guarantee there’ll be a lot of cat owners trying out the Do as I Do method in their own homes.