Can cats form memories, use deductive reasoning?

The Yomiuri Shimbun

An interest in pets has been on the rise as people tend to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic. Among all the various types of pets, cats have remained the most popular nationwide since the number of pet cats surpassed that of dogs four years ago.

Cats have established an unshakable position as companion animals. In recent years, research in the field of cat psychology has been advancing, which is likely to make cat enthusiasts more excited about their favorite animal.

1 million more pet cats

As long as there have been dogs and cats, there have been “dog people” and “cat people,” and it has divided mankind throughout history.

Pet dogs have outnumbered domestic cats since 1994, when records started being kept, but their numbers reversed in 2017, according to the Japan Pet Food Association in Tokyo. While the number of dogs has been on a downward trend every year, the number of cats has remained about the same. Last year, there were a little over 1 million more cats than dogs nationwide.

“This phenomenon is likely related to the 2005 revision of the animal welfare law, which tightened regulations on breeders,” said Hisashi Ishiyama, 74, president of the association.

Cats have been less affected by the new regulations as purebreds make up less than 20%, while more than 80% of dogs are purebreds.

Demand for pets has been on the rise amid the pandemic. Last year, the number of new pet cats was about 480,000, a 16% increase compared to the previous year.

“People are seeking comfort as they spend more time at home,” said Ishiyama, analyzing the data.

Surprising results

The result of a study suggesting cats maintain their memories, which probably tickled the hearts of cat lovers everywhere, was presented by Saho Takagi, 30, a special researcher in comparative cognitive science at Azabu University.

In an experiment involving multiple cats, Takagi prepared four bowls. Cat food was placed in two bowls, bobby pins covered another and the fourth was left empty. She let each cat eat from one of the bowls then removed the cat from the room.

Takagi then replaced the four bowls with four empty ones before bringing the cat back into the room. The cat walked to and sat in front of the other food bowl from which they did not originally eat, even though it was now empty. Many other cats behaved similarly.

“It is possible that cats have episodic memory, meaning they can remember where something was,” Takagi said. “This suggests that cats can form memories.”

Another experiment of placing a speaker inside a box showed that cats can utilize deductive reasoning.

In an experiment, a speaker was used to emit a rattling sound. As the cat heard the sound, the box was shaken and turned upside down. Sometimes a toy would come out and sometimes nothing would come out.

When nothing emerged from the box, it was observed that the cat stared at the box, suggesting the cat was thinking that something should be inside.

The result of “cats understand the laws of physics” was surprising to many when it was published in a scientific journal in 2016.

However, conducting research on cats is difficult.

When they are surrounded by strangers, cats tend to become very shy, which makes it difficult to conduct experiments, Takagi said. Also, because they lack facial expressions to convey their feelings, their emotions are hard to read as well.

“It was actually pretty hard,” Takagi said laughing. “I went to cat cafes pretty often to not only try to recruit cats but their owners as well for my experiments.”

Friendliness ingrained in DNA?

The genetic traits of domestic cats are also becoming better understood.

Minori Arahori, 29, a researcher at Tokyo’s Anicom Specialty Medical Institute Inc., which specializes in veterinary medicine, compared the DNA of wild species, such as a lion and Tsushima wildcat, with those of domestic cats. Arahori discovered genetic differences that affected how the animal received hormones related to affection and bonding.

It is believed that because cats have cohabited with humans for thousands of years, friendlier cats that displayed characteristics more suitable for domestication were artificially selected, which may have led to the evolution of the present-day house cat.

Even some stray cats exhibit friendly behavior. Such stray cats are likely to be taken home by humans and become spayed or neutered. If this continues, it is possible that only cats who fear humans will pass on their genes. Cautious males will mate with cautious females, and it may result in them living in a forest somewhere away from humans.

“The environment surrounding cats may change, and humans may no longer see stray cats in the near future,” said Takagi, predicting the changing relationship between humans and cats.

Human-cat relationship

There are various types of domestic cats worldwide as a result of artificial selection, but it is said that they originated from an African wildcat that inhabited the Middle East.

Cats began cohabiting with humans about 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period with the start of farming and herding. Humans developed a relationship with cats to get rid of the rats that were eating their grain stores.

In 2004, the bones of a cat were discovered with the remains of an about-30-year-old man in an about 9,500-year-old tomb that was excavated in Cyprus. As the cat’s bones were found at the man’s feet, it indicated that they were buried together. It is thought to be the earliest record of a domestic cat.

Cats have had a long relationship with humans in Japan as well. Bones thought to be from a domestic cat that was alive about 2,100 years ago were discovered at an archaeological site dating back to the Yayoi period on Iki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture. The discovery suggests that cats already existed in Japan at that time.

In the Nara period (710-784), cats were brought into the county by ship when Japanese envoys returned from China during the Tang dynasty. The cats were intended to be used to protect the Buddhist scriptures, which the envoys brought back from China, from rats.

During the Heian period (794-late 12th century), cats became household pets. In the Edo period (1603-1867), the ukiyo-e painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi, known for his unusual love of cats, created many woodblock prints using cats as a motif.