Silently slinking along the living room baseboard, I spy my cat plotting an imaginary kill. Out of her sight and around a corner, our household robotic vacuum has accidentally snagged a string, whipping it around like some alien reptilian tail. Without missing a beat, my cat springs around the corner and lands on the cord, tucking into a roll and ripping the strand free.
I’ve just witnessed a feline’s innate grasp of physics, cause-and-effect principles and the ability to predict where an unseen object will be based solely on sound. Pretty cool. And scientists from Japan’s Kyoto University recently published research that backs up what I saw. Even cooler.
It’s no secret cats are extraordinary acrobats. They’re also incredibly impressive predators, able to stalk and tackle prey from both high and low, still or in-flight. Cats are so remarkably gifted that I’ve often said they’re only an opposable thumb away from world domination. Japanese researchers wanted to better understand how cats achieved these exceptional physical feats and devised a clever experiment.
In simplest terms, the experiment evaluated if cats could predict where an invisible object would fall and land if they heard it first. They shook an object in a container, allowed it drop freely and, voila, the cats pounced on the previously unseen object with astonishing accuracy. If they altered the natural falling behavior of the object, for example, slowed down its rate of falling or made it go left or right instead of straight down, the cats seemed confused and vigorously explored the environment for a reason why the thing behaved oddly.
In other trials, researchers would shake the container and produce no sound. In these instances, the cats weren’t as likely to swatch the “prey” from the air or predict its landing spot. In other words, they found it perplexing that an object could fall out of a container without making any noise. The publication concluded that cats used logic and basic understanding of natural laws of physics to fill in missing informational gaps. Genius.
Cats tend to hunt during low-light conditions. They often hear prey before seeing it. To be effective predators, they’ve evolved the ability to connect sounds with motion, speed and direction to give them an understanding of where an invisible noisy mouse will be located in few milliseconds. This has given them an advantage over other species unable to incorporate higher logic into their stalking routines. It also means it’s harder to sneak up on your cat.
This research provides cat lovers with additional insight into how to enrich the home environment. Devices that rattle and hum and dispense food hidden within tap into this deep instinct. I foresee technology able to engage cats in a richer hunting simulation to make felines feel more at home in an urban setting. It also serves notice that pet parents must actively engage their cat’s inner predator to avoid behavioral problems and reduce stress and anxiety. They were born to do this stuff; let them.
We already knew our cats were capable of some pretty stunning feats. This study validates our feelings and reinforces the need to provide our pets with the stimuli and environment they need to thrive. Next time your cat is creeping around play-hunting, watch closely and you may glimpse feline intellectual greatness in motion.