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Cats and string: It's a tangled relationship after all

July 9, 2009 |  4:19 pm

Kitty2Sorry, cat people. Although your pets of choice are independent, clean and able to use a litter box, dogs have at least one leg-up on them: They're more able to understand the concept of cause-and-effect. Or so says psychology lecturer Britta Osthaus, who recently conducted a study on cats' thought processes using 15 feline subjects.

To test the cats, Osthaus and two graduate students attached treats like fish to pieces of string and hung them below a plastic screen.  (In this way, the cats could see the treats but were unable to reach them.)  Would the cats, she wondered, be able to figure out that they could pull the treats closer to themselves by pulling on the end of the string?

The answer: Sort of.  When the cats were presented with just one "baited" string, they were able to make the connection between string and snack, the Guardian reported.  But when Osthaus and her team made things trickier, the cats were unable to keep up.

To increase the difficulty of the task, the team added "decoy" strings, without treats attached. Now the cats had to choose between two strings, one with and one without a treat, either parallel to each other or crossed.  Faced with two strings, none of the cats were able to consistently choose the one connected to the treat.  (Most of them chose the correct string at least part of the time, but interestingly, one cat chose incorrectly each time he was presented with the crossed-string test.)

Osthaus has conducted similar tests on dogs, which were able to solve the parallel-string problem but were also stumped by the crossed strings.  "This finding is somehow surprising as cats regularly use their paws and claws to pull things towards them during play and hunting," she told the Guardian. 

Some cat lovers are taking the study a little too personally, Osthaus told the Edmonton Sun, contacting her to argue that her study is flawed and maybe the cats just didn't feel like giving their all to her research.  "But they were motivated," she insists.  "You can see them trying to figure it out. They just couldn't."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Los Angeles Times

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