Cat Cognition

How do cats remember where they are?

Last Friday my wife and adopted two kittens. Their litter box was originally kept in the pantry. This was done in a sanitary manner, but it still wasn’t ideal. Yesterday, we were able to clear a space in the mud room for the litter box and moved it there. The next step was to explain to Moshe and Noah where to find their litter.

When we brought them home, we taught them the location by picking them up every hour or two and carrying them to the litter box. It took most of the day, but they eventually caught on.

We tried the same method for teaching them the new location. Noam caught on reasonably well. Over the next day, I would see him march purposefully into the pantry, get to the wall, then stop and look puzzled. Finally, he’d begin to mew. I would pick him up and carry him to the mud room, where he found the litter box and proceeded to do his business. Through the day, he seemed more and more confident, but we still found him searching through the pantry.

Moshe had even more difficulty adjusting. I would find him in the pantry looking for the litter box. I would carry him from the pantry to the mud room and place him in the litter box. Sometimes he left immediately. Sometimes he’d scratch at the litter, or even lie down in it for a few minutes. He’d do anything but his business. Then he would go straight back to the pantry.

After a full day of him refusing to use the litter box, or go anywhere else, we moved it back. The new plan is to move it little by little each day from the pantry to the mud room (they are next to each other).

This says something interesting about the cat’s conception of where to go to the bathroom. As humans, we see it as the litter box, but the cat may not see it that way at all. When given conflicting signals between the learned physical object (the box with litter) and the learned location (the pantry), Moshe chose the pantry. Even Noah, the more flexible of the two, perserverated on the pantry.

Humans, I admit, perservate on locations as well. You may get up in the middle of the night and expect to find your glasses on the shelf, only to remember you just through out that shelf yesterday and the glasses are on the new nightstand. Where we differ is you would not refuse to use your glasses just because they are on the nightstand, not on the shelf.

I’ll keep an eye out for research on cat cognition, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll post it here. I’m still on vacation, but when I get back to the lab in a couple weeks, I’ll be posting more actual research rather than observations. Feel free to comment with links to cat cognition research.

This whole matter might have been simplified if cats could talk. Please help us study human language by participating in the Find the Dax experiment, which takes about 5 minutes. If you have already participated, thank you!

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