A few years ago, I gave a friend a book for Christmas. It was called Cat Training in 10 Minutes.
He tore open the package, held up the book, and burst into laughter. “Cat training! This ought to be hilarious!”
“No, no, it’s not a joke book,” I had to explain. “It’s a real thing.”
Okay, you can’t blame him for being skeptical. There’s a reason more animal cognition studies have been done on dogs. Cats aren’t known for their trainability. In fact, Ádám Miklósi, one of the world’s top animal cognition experts, once laughingly said, “We did one study on cats—and that was enough!”
Some behaviorists say even fish are easier to wrangle.
The issue isn’t that cats aren’t smart. Like dogs, they seem to understand the concept of pointing (a test even chimpanzees fail), which indicates they have what scientists call “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand what another creature is thinking. They also have marvelously complex brains, with plenty of folds, which is associated with higher intelligence. Their cerebral cortexes with more than 300 million neurons (dogs have about 160 million).
The problem is that cats are notoriously hard to engage. A recent Smithsonian headline read, “Scientists Confirm That Cats a) Are Pretty Smart, b) Don’t Really Care What You Want.” When scientists try to get cats to perform specific behaviors, most of the subjects prefer to do their own thing. They wander away. They refuse to look at the test materials. They sit down and lick themselves.
But the few who do deign to cooperate generally do about as well as dogs on most tasks. One notable exception was when the animals were asked to pull a bowl out from under a stool to get a favorite food. Dogs and cats performed equally well until the scientists changed the rules of the game by gluing down the bowl and thereby making the task impossible.
At that point, the dogs tried a few times, then looked to their human companions as if asking for help. The cats? Not so much. They just kept repeating what had worked before, to no avail. But does that mean cats are dumber than dogs? Or that they just don’t like asking humans for help? I’d bet on the latter.
Anyone who’s had cats can attest to their intelligence. I’ve known cats who could unlock screen doors, turn on water faucets (though they seemed to have no interest in turning them off again!), and open drawers and cabinets. At a recent Facebook party, I talked about Boots, a cat we had when I was a child. Boots was a small gray cat with a white face and four white paws. She would sit in the crook of my arm or on the arm of the couch and “read” with me.
No, really. She would track each line from left to right, moving her gaze down the page from top to bottom. When she reached the end of the left-hand page, she’d begin again at the top of the next page, and when she reached the end of that one, she’d look up at me as if to tell me to turn the page. If I tried to turn it before she’d read every line, she would plant one dainty white paw in the middle of the page and hold it down until I took my hand away and let her finish. This wasn’t a trick I taught her. She learned it all on her own. Maybe she was a writer in a previous life!
One thing I never considered doing was taking my cats on outdoor adventures, but that’s exactly what the folks at AdventureCats.org do. They have articles on how to safely take your cat backpacking, hiking, and boating, along with basic tips on traveling with a cat. If you think you might like to try it, here’s an article on clicker training to get you started.
Whether you choose to hike with your cat or not, there’s plenty of evidence that cats are intelligent and can even be trained. We still have a long way to go, though, before we truly understand how they think. As scientists have discovered, cats like to do things on their own terms. And would we really have it any other way?
Jaden Terrell is a Shamus Award finalist and the internationally published author of the Nashville-based Jared McKean mysteries. She is a contributor to the Killer Nashville Noir anthology and to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. A recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, Terrell is a former special education teacher with thirty years of experience as a teacher and trainer. She is a Nashville-based ghostwriter, writing coach, workshop leader, and developmental editor. Contact her at: www.jadenterrell.com.