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Cats understand the laws of physics and cause-and-effect © iStock

Cats understand the laws of physics and cause-and-effect

Published: 15th June, 2016 at 14:00
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Hunter instincts remain strong in domesticated cats, whose expectation of events is based on hearing.

The domesticated cat is a cute, loving, subdued and lazy creature, right? Well yes, most of the time, but lurking within remains an agile hunter from an age of pre-domestication.


A new study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, has discovered that domestic cats deploy a basic understanding of the elements of physics and the principle of cause and effect, which when combined with their keen sense of hearing, makes them formidable predators.

Researchers from Kyoto University in Japan conducted the study to find out whether cats use a causal rule to infer if a container holds an object, based on whether it’s shaken with an accompanying rattle or not. They also wanted to establish if cats expect an object to fall out of the container or not.

Shake it off

The cats were recorded with a video camera while an experimenter shook a container that either agreed with the laws of physics or contradicted it. Those that agree had either a rattling sound and an object dropping out when it was turned over, or no rattle and no object. Alternatively, the physics-deifying scenarios had a rattle and no object, or no rattle with the object dropping out when turned.

What they found was that cats stared longer at containers that when shaken had a rattling noise, suggesting the felines could predict that an object would be inside the container (mmm, maybe a tasty mouse?). They also found that they also paid attention to those boxes that went against the laws of physics, as if they realised something was amiss (are those pesky scientists perhaps hiding another tasty mouse from me).

"Cats use a causal-logical understanding of noise or sounds to predict the appearance of invisible objects," says lead researcher Saho Takagi.

This underlines the domestic cat's important predatory instincts, as cats hunt in the dark and when prey is out of sight, so they have to rely on hearing alone to determine its location. Unfortunately the study doesn’t conclude whether their grasp of the laws of physics explains how cats are able to land on their feet.


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