I have just run an informal experiment which proves to me that domestic cats can think rationally. What does thinking rationally mean? For me, rational thought means that the animal, either a non-human animal or the human animal, applies logic to a problem. For example, people don’t go out in the rain because they don’t want to get wet. It’s a very simple logical and rational thought process. But if somebody has to go to the shops to get something and it is raining, logically they have to go out even if they get wet. Once again this is rational thought.
Do cats think like this? I believe they do. I don’t think the Pavlov dog conditioning experiments prove that companion animals are rational thinkers. And I don’t think positive reinforcement training is a sign of a cat developing rational thought. It is just training a cat to react in a certain way because the rewards. It is tapping into the instincts of a domestic cat and conditioning them.
But over the last few weeks I ran an informal experiment without even knowing it. A neighbour’s cat visits my home. She comes in, in the morning, in the early hours to eat my cat’s food. I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s good for the visiting cat either. Neither is it good for their owner. So I make it known, through my demeanour and voice, to this cat that she is not welcome to eat the cat food in my house. She can visit but not eat.
Every time she visited she would call out as she approached the house. As she entered the home through my cat’s cat flap she would trill. This was her call. It was very cute and quite idiosyncratic and individualised. She unfailingly trilled as she came to my home. This was a warning of her impending visit.
This morning as I lay awake in the early hours she entered through the cat flap silently. Not a meow or a trill, nothing. I thought it was my cat who had entered and then realise that he was at the base of my bed with me. The visiting cat began eating dry cat food which you can hear being eaten. I made it known to her through body language and the tone of my voice that she must stop eating and she did. She left my home several minutes later.
The point of this story is that she had applied rational thought to her visits to my home. She decided to keep quiet. She curbed her natural instinct to vocalise her arrival. I had not trained her formally. I had not applied any positive reinforcement conditioning to her. She had simply stopped of her own volition to make any sounds when approaching my home and going through the cat flap. It’s very much looks like rational thought to me. As I said, rational thought is logical thought. In this instance she decided rationally that if she kept quiet she could avoid my interference and get at the food. It indicates that cats have a level of intelligence which is almost certainly higher than the vast majority of people realise.
Instinctive behavior or rational thought?
Taking a layperson’s viewpoint, I think it is very difficult to distinguish between instinctive behavior and rational thought. Perhaps the two work together and overlap. Instinct is based upon many years of rational thought and experiences. We bring those experiences to bear upon what might be described as our instincts in decision-making. Instincts are reliable. Some people call it a gut feeling. The reliability of instinct comes from many years of experience. Therefore this experiment that I have informally run is not very scientific, I admit that. I simply felt that it was very noticeable that my visiting cat had suddenly and very clearly changed her behaviour to get what she wanted. That to me looked like rational thought.