A study published in the journal Animal Behavior tackles an unprecedented subject, and makes a funny discovery: cats use one side more than the other with their paws like us, so we can describe them as right-handed or left-handed. And you, is your cat right-handed or left-handed?
As surprising as it may seem, at a time when the cat dominates the internet, it should be noted that scientists know very little about its specific behavior. As much as the dog is well known, and while scientific theories around dog behavior are constantly evolving, there is some evidence.
But the cat offers us an experimental desert: indeed, it is not so easy to study! Because it is very difficult to find a motivation capable of making a cat work in a protocol, and observation in the field is delicate, with its independent character.
An American study wanted to test whether the cat had a preference in the use of its paws. And as much, we had already shown that the cat had preferences in the use of its paw on constrained exercises (such as pressing a lever to have a reward in an experimental device), but we had never observed the cats on spontaneous and natural behavior!
Which paw do cats prefer to use?
The study, published in January 2018 in the journal Animal Behavior, focused on 44 cats (20 females, 24 males) in their owner’s home, observing the privileged side in three situations: entering the litter, descent of up a staircase, and lie on your side. A food test was also carried out, with a tower on 3 levels forcing the cat to use a paw to collect the kibble. Each situation was observed and scored 50 times.
The results show that the cat does have a dominant paw, which it will use more often in the same situations. On the other hand, there is no difference between the right and the left, unlike humans, for example, where 90% of people are right-handed. In cats, half of those using a dominant paw are right-handed, and the other half are left-handed.
In practice, 73% of the cats studied have lateralization in the use of the lower limb (in other words: a preferred paw) to retrieve food, 70% to go down the stairs, and 66% to enter the litter box. On the other hand, there are a lot less cats with a preference to lie down on one side or the other: only 25% of cats had a preferred side. The lateralization is really about the use of the paw.
But cats are constant: those who have a preference stick to them in carrying out the different behaviors tested, and preferably always use the same paw . Those who eat with the right paw also tend to use it first when getting into the litter box or down a step.
This means, to roughly summarize, that three-quarters of cats are lateralized, half of which are right-handed, and the other half are left-handed! And you, do you know if your cat is right or left-handed?
Males prefer to use their left paw, females the right
In addition, the study found a significant difference between males and females: males who have a dominant leg are rather left-handed, and right-handed females!
This result had already been observed in a previous study, in 2009 . This study focused on constrained behaviors, so we can now extend these results to spontaneous and natural behaviors.
It is still too early to dare to interpret this result. It had been hypothesized in dogs, where there is also lateralization, that hormones could be an intervening factor, but this study on cats vitiates this hypothesis since the 44 cats in the study were sterilized.
The results do suggest that there are differences between brain structure and function in males and females, but there is no way yet to understand the mechanisms at work or even the exact cause. . It still takes a lot of observation, and more data, to focus on a potential cause.
The study also showed that the food test makes it possible to know the right-handed or left-handed status of the cat with relatively good confidence.
This study is a fine example of progress in scientific knowledge, in particular in ethology. She shows you how scientists have to fight against the urge to interpret too quickly, and where research on cat ethology currently stands. It also shows that knowledge really progresses step by step.
Finally, the cat still has many mysteries in store for us about its behavior , it is really important to remain humble in relation to our knowledge of the animal and its intelligence.
How do you know if your cat is right-handed or left-handed?
To find out if your cat is right-handed or left-handed, you can recreate the study tests at home!
To do this, observe closely which paw your cat uses first when entering the litter box, when descending a staircase, or when it lies on its side. You can also place the kibbles in places where they will need to use the paw to access them, and see if your cat is right-handed or left-handed that way.
To be sure of your conclusion, repeat the tests several times to see if the paw used is almost always the same. Thus, you will see if your female cat is right-handed or your left-handed male cat, or if your animal stands out!