Lateralized Behaviour in the Domestic Cat

Ambidextrous Cat

“Lateralized behaviour” means left or right-handedness in scientific jargon. This is a brief follow up to an earlier post on the subject thanks to VG. VG is a scientist living in America and she is able to find and show me information I would not normally have easy access to. Thank you VG. In the earlier post I wrote that cats tend to be left-handed. I referred to a popular source – a book entitled: Play It Again, Tom by Augustus Brown.

The current information comes from a study from the School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK by Deborah L. Wells and Sarah Millsopp.

In the study, the way 42 domestic cats used their paws was assessed.

The results were different depending on the test and their sex. The cats carried out three different tasks. I summarize the findings briefly.

Task One – getting a food treat out of a glass jar – complex task

This was considered to be a complicated task. Under these circumstances the cats showed a preference for one paw over the other. However, overall, there wasn’t a trend towards one side.

  • 20 cats favoured their left paw
  • 21 cats favoured their right paw
  • 1 cat was ambidextrous.

The result was significant and beyond what would be expected by chance. It seems that cats are more skilled with one paw than the other but overall there is an equal preference between right and left.

  • Male cats were more likely to use their left paw.
  • Female cats were more likely to use their right paw.

My comment: when the task was more complicated a preferred paw was used and the preference was sex related.

Task Two – cat toy, a fabric mouse was suspended over head of cat

All the cats used their paws ambidextrously.

Task Three – cat toy, a fabric mouse was dragged away from cat on string

All the cats used their paws ambidextrously.

My Conclusion

It seems that cats are much more ambidextrous than humans. However, they do have a forepaw that is more coordinated than the other, which is called into use when the task is more demanding.

There are far more left-handed cats than left-handed people. Although that is misleading because left-handed cats are far less strongly left-handed than humans. Cats favour one side when pushed.

It seems that about 50% of cat favour the left paw compared to about 10% of people. The sex of the cat has a huge influence on left and right handed bias.

Don’t trust popular books for scientific information on the cat!


19 thoughts on “Lateralized Behaviour in the Domestic Cat”

  1. I rolled Monty’s little stones across the patio for him to test this. He has several round, flat stones I found for him at the beach. They roll like a wheel. Each time in five tries he batted the stone over with his left paw. I announced to my husband that Monty is a lefty and Jeff said that he’s seen him often use his right paw when playing. He didn’t think five trials was quite enough. I’ll continue the experiment. He seemed left paw dominant to me.

    • I went out to do some more trials. As the stone rolled by him Monty flopped onto his side and actually knocked it over with the side of his face. How do I tally that? Then he watched with interest as the stone rolled by him about ten times in row, but moved only his head as he watched. Lastly it rolled toward him as he was on his side and he stopped it with his right paw, but the trajectory of the stone was right toward the right paw and had he not stopped it it would have rolled right into his ample belly. I think somehow he knows I’m trying to test him and he’s not playing along. This is an aspect of cat personality that makes research very difficult.

      • lol! Now, with all of that effort put in, if only you could take a photo [puh-leeze?] Monty says, “do it again, Mom! They want a picture of me!”

        • Maybe with Jeff’s help later this evening. It will be challenging. What is it they tell photographers and movie directors? Never work with children or animals? Probably a good reason for that.

      • I find that cats became lazy with games so after several fairly vigorous play sessions they role over and mess around.

        I still believe that cats in general slightly favour the left but are ambidextrous. That is my gut feel on observation which slightly goes against the study in this article.

        If you try the game again on a different day and roll the stone towards his right side to see if he uses his left. That may be a failure but if he used his left paw under these conditions it would indicate left handedness I would have thought.

        • I’ll try that, Michael. Maybe I was always rolling it by his left side. I can’t recall. After my friends and I get back from a walk by the lake I will take him out. When it’s very warm and sunny so that there will be more bees around I make him wait to go out until the bees go to sleep. He still cannot leave them alone, such that even supervised I am nervous. There haven’t actually been very many this summer, maybe because it has been so cold and wet. This has been good for Monty. I’m trying to figure out whether he smacks chipmunks around with his left paw or his right paw. How can a little stone rolling compete with the excitement of finding a chipmunk? I get the feeling they have all moved on. As nice as my back yard is for a chipmunk it’s probably just not worth getting smacked around by a cat. Interesting how the chipmunks never retreat, but fight back. The other day one was taking both of us on– it climbed up my leg and then was jumping and trying to bite Monty. Not wanting to be the pet parent of a cat who got his butt kicked by a chipmunk I grabbed Monty and managed to get him inside. That chipmunk was tiny, I don’t think even full grown for a chipmunk, but his ferocity was intimidating. Monty came in and laid down purring like crazy, so proud of himself. I praised him for his hunting skills and he purred even louder. We do have our adventures out there.

          • I have heard about American chipmunks living under houses and so on. The domestic cat is meant to help keep them away. I read they can damage property. I guess you know we don’t have them here. We have mice but, other than insects, the wildlife we are left with in London is birds, squirrels and foxes.

          • That description, Ruth, needs no photos. You have such a talent for writing. Thanks, lol. What an adventure that must have been for you all!

  2. Michael, who is? “Augustus Brown?” Is that not a pseudonym?
    You silly. 😉 How can you claim that one cat is ambi? I love you. You are truly the cat’s prrrr…..

    • Augustus Brown could be a pseudonym but I don’t think it is. He lives in London. He could be a neighbor for all I know! He also wrote Why Pandas Do Handstands. He presents science is a popular, easy to read way. Tabloid Science.

      • I subscribed to one of those fun “scientific” journals, yrs ago. Can’t even think of the name now… “Investigative Journal for Unexplained, Unscientific Evidence,” maybe. It was creative, and sometimes inspiring. 😉

        Hope you-we all-see some positive results in the morning, for what Elisa, and others al., have worked so hard to accomplish.

  3. Hi Michael!

    That was quick. I slogged my way through the article a long time back, and you have given a great summary.

    I was able to discover the original scientific article b/c it was mentioned in a popular piece on the internet- in 2009 ? – although I found much later.

    I recently searched for more recent info on internet about handedness in cats, and didn’t come up with anything else in popular literature. I will look further via PubMed (haven’t yet) but certainly seems that this topic has not been studied much.

    • p.s. rereading the intro to the journal article, it seems that there had been prior studies to assess paw preferences in cats, but that these prior studies had any number of flaws. So, I amend “not studied much”- “studied, but not with good methodology”.

    • I owe you for finding this study. The study is genuinely good information on this subject which is very hard to find. I try and focus on the conclusions because from a layperson’s standpoint there is lots of “waffle” that will just put off a visitor. I found that the conclusions of the study concurred with my observations over many years.

      Observationally cats look like they are ambidextrous with a slight hint of favoring one side. Thanks VG.

      • Thanks Michael. No need to go into the waffle, i.e. scientific arcana. I did that when reading the article (from a scientific perspective). Had I concluded the article was flawed, I wouldn’t have sent it along.

      • VG, what was the topic of your dissertation? [I ask, because I care.] What was your conclusion, within that framework? Postulate?


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