Could cats be used as search and rescue animals?

We are all very used to seeing dogs being employed as search and rescue animals. It has now been suggested in a paper published in Applied Animal Behaviour Sciences that the domestic cat could replace the German Shepherd as a search and rescue animal. The reason is twofold but there is one obstacle.

The domestic cat is more athletic than the dog. The cat is lighter, usually smaller and has superb climbing and balancing abilities. Perhaps more importantly the domestic cat’s olfactory abilities are an untapped resource which could be used to locate survivors in emergencies such as avalanches, earthquakes and bomb explosions. They could also be used, it is suggested, in identifying drugs and explosives at airports.

It is accepted that most dogs have more sensitive noses than cats which is partly why they are used in search and rescue. However, cats have the well-known vomeronasal organ (a.k.a. Jacobson’s organ). This is situated in the roof of the cat’s mouth and it enables cats to taste pheromones and other chemical stimuli. Scientists say that cats have 30 “VIR” receptor gene variants” associated with this organ. Dogs have nine.

The scientists who carried out the study, Kristyn Shreve and Monique Udell (Oregon State Uni), believe that cats can be trained suffiently well to be search and rescue animals. Training is the barrier I refer to above.

They said:

“Although many hold the false belief that cats are untrainable, both empirical and applied evidence has demonstrated that cats can be trained”.

This is where good cat owners may come in to have their say. I would expect cat owners to say that cats cannot be trained sufficiently well to work as a search and rescue animal. Yes, cats can be trained; the question is can they be trained to a sufficient standard and maintain focus throughout their duties to be effective. I think the focus issue is the big problem. However, this may be incorrect because when a cat is hunting you can see them displaying endless amounts of patience and focus while waiting for prey to appear.

I, for one, would have doubts about this suggestion despite loving cats. Others have expressed doubts as well. The well-known cat behaviour expert, Dr John Bradshaw (the author of the book Cat Sense) said:

“It would be a very unusual cat that was able to focus on the rescue task it had been trained for and not try to find its way back home, probably getting lost in the process. Even if kept on a leash…I suspect that the cat would be unlikely to focus sufficiently well on the task required.”

What do you think?

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Could cats be used as search and rescue animals? — 2 Comments

  1. I think dogs have been good at it because they evolved to be not only willing but intent on doing man’s bidding. They look to people for focus and bond intently to their trainer. They can operate well with lots of people around whereas cats – not so much. Actually not at all. I always say everything is a matter of degree so perhaps here too. Cats do bond to us but not in a trainer I’ll do what you say kind of way… not with too much else going on… they are hyper vigilant (too aware), and I think can’t focus on a job like this. Yeah they do have focus and patience, for a search and find that is programmed into their genes. If they could be trained with all this in mind, they’d be good at it. They’re certainly physically capable. They could find people in collapsed buildings much better than a dog could.

    • I agree with you Albert. We may be surprised though if a cat was trained. Some therapy cats are very laid back with crowds etc.. It should be tried I think. And the training would probably allow them to be focused.

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