New research suggests (has your heart begun to sink at those words?) that cats are less – or, as the researcher politically correctly has it, differently – intelligent than previously suspected.
Britta Osthaus* tested 15 cats on their ability to retrieve food from under a transparent screen by pulling strings. Apparently dogs can see which of two strings to pull, but cats are just as likely to pull the wrong one. Neither can cope with crossed strings.
‘This finding is somehow surprising,’ says Osthaus, with a rather charming misuse of ‘somehow’ that reminds me of my German teacher, ‘as cats regularly use their paws and claws to pull things towards them during play and hunting.’ Yes, and how often in evolutionary history are those things likely to have been on the end of crossed strings? If anything it seems more surprising that dogs can do it, but either way, BFD. Where are the Shepard & Metzler-style Big Implications?
The small number of subjects is frustrating too. Are cats rare in Canterbury? With the crossed strings, 14 cats performed in line with chance, while one picked the wrong string every time. That’s a pretty big difference. Was this Supercat? (Or Superdumbcat, depending on how you look at it.) Are there more cats like this? And what kind of dogs were they? Since almost every contemporary breed of dog has been artificially developed to fulfil a specific human purpose, such as fetching game or winning dog shows, can we learn much about anything (except dog breeding) from what they can and can’t do compared to other animals?
Hmm. Anyway, the story is notable for a quality example of a painfully strained real-world application. ‘If we know [cats’] limits we won’t expect too much of them, which in turn is important for their welfare.’ Yeah, I realise now that it’s pointless whipping the cats on my cat farm when they fail to meet their string-pulling targets – I’ll hire some dogs and put those cats back on the packaging line. Good luck with the grant, Britta.