In a study conducted at Lincoln University, UK it was found that: ‘most cats used the visual cue to learn the location of the food’ (by ‘cats’ she means the domestic cat – felis silvestris catus). The participating cats had a choice: use your nose or your sight and 4 out 6 used their sight. Because it wasn’t 6 out of 6 the researchers concluded that although there is a preference to use sight to locate food, the choice is a personal trait. They say that if a individual cat favours the sense of smell, olfactory stimuli in the home will have a greater impact on that cat. This should assist us with cat welfare, they state.
The researchers also concluded that cats can use their nose instead of their eyes if they have to (i.e. no visual cues).
I don’t understand how the test was conducted but I’d like to comment on the findings. I don’t think this study is useful for the following reasons, but I may have missed something.
A domestic cat does not have to locate his food if it is provided by his caretaker which is what happens 99% of the time. For outdoor cats, who hunt, food is prey. Because prey is small (mouse) and initially out of range of the cat’s sense of smell (or it is not downwind), he locates it with eyesight; detecting movement. A cat’s eyes are geared to spotting movement and seeing in gloomy conditions. This practical observation appears to undermine the study results but I am probably missing the point.
In addition, the cat’s sense of hearing (auditory senses) is also important in locating prey, more so than the cat’s olfactory senses, I’d suggest. Domestic cats will detect the sound of his classic prey, the mouse, and pinpoint the source extremely accurately when the prey item is beyond the ability of the nose to pick up odour. Sound is perhaps ahead of smell but behind sight in locating food.
In my experience cats most often use their sense of smell to help ascertain what an object is – whether it is edible or not for instance. But this is close-up work. The nose is up against an object.
The study appears to fail to take into account the concept of range (distance) and its impact on detecting objects. Eyesight is a long and close range tool. Detecting smell is often, but not always, close range. Therefore it seems we cannot directly compare the two without reference to distance in respect of a specific task such a locating food.
The most common use of smell is to pick up territorial markers (urine spraying). The cat’s nose can deduce how long the urine has been there and therefore the likely location of the cat who deposited it.
The lead researcher was Evy Mayes who works at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. The research was carried out as part of her masters degree into feline behavior and welfare.
I sense (gut feel, not one of my senses!) that she’d have done better if she had been more practical. Perhaps I have misunderstood the study.