When I began writing the chapter in my book about how new scientific discoveries are blurring the line between pet and person, I knew it was going to be tough to find anyone studying the feline mind. As the owner of two cats, I’m aware that they probably don’t make the best research subjects. But even I was surprised by how few researchers study them. A canine revolution has been taking place in labs around the world for the past 15 years, but cats have been largely left in the dark.
After a few weeks of hunting, and more than a dozen e-mails, I finally found a researcher who studies cat cognition: Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova in Italy. When I got him on the phone, he confirmed my suspicions about why there aren’t more scientists like him out there. “I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” he laughed. “It’s incredible.”
Agrillo studies something called numerical competence. That’s essentially the ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one. To figure out how and when the skill evolved, he’s studied it in a number of animals, including monkeys, birds, and inch-long mosquitofish. And yes, he’s also looked at cats.
The test Agrillo uses is fairly simple. He places three black dots over a desirable object (like a plate of food or a door that fish can swim out to be with other fish), and two dots over an undesirable object (like an empty plate or a door that leads to an empty part of a fish tank). Agrillo and colleagues then look to see if, over multiple trials, the animals can distinguish between the two quantities. He’s published ten papers on fish, but only one on cats. Here’s why:
Cats are very hard to motivate, Agrillo told me (though he didn’t really need to). To reduce the number of variables, he needed to bring cats into his lab—not study them in their homes. And that meant looking for owners with extremely docile and compliant animals. Even then, many of the cats didn’t take to the lab and Agrillo had to turn most of them away. “We had to say to the owners, ‘Sorry, we can’t use your cat. It’s not interested in the experiment.’”
At the end of the day, Agrillo wound up with just four cats: Nerina, Wieso, Wilde, and Suesse—all females. But even these select felines were a pain to work with. “Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction,” he said. “It was really difficult to have a good trial each day.”
Still, when the cats did decide to cooperate, they seemed to do as well as the fish. Placed in a room with black dots stuck to a wall behind food bowls, they learned to differentiate between two and three dots (see picture above). But Agrillo wondered whether the cats were actually counting the dots—or whether they were just looking at the overall quantity of black on the wall. And sure enough, when his team increased the size of the two black dots so that they took up the same amount of space on the wall as the three black dots, the cats failed the test. They couldn’t distinguish between the two quantities. The mosquitofish, on the other hand, had no trouble.
As a cat owner, I found the results a bit humiliating. Were my cats really dumber than a tiny fish? But then I remembered something biological anthropologist Brian Hare once told me. “It’s sort of silly to say one animal is more intelligent than another, because every animal is uniquely adapted to solve the problems in its environment,” he said. “You’d be a horrible cat, I’d be a horrible dog.” Every species, it turns out, has evolved the skills it needs to survive.
Put another way: Counting is very important for fish. They’re highly social animals that need to keep track of each other in large schools. They use numbers every day. Cats, on the other hand, are solitary in the wild, and when they hunt they’re not concerned about number—they’re concerned about size; the bigger the prey, the better. A fish that couldn’t count would be in big trouble; for cats, counting is a waste of time.
Still, Agrillo isn’t totally convinced that cats can’t count. And, believe it or not, he wants to keep studying them to find out. Research on cats, he says, could tell us a lot about our own cognitive skills—and almost everyone else is ignoring them. “We want to study a species that no one else is studying.”
October 29, 2011 at 8:12 am
I can’t agree more that we need more cat research. More and more people live with cats than ever before and cat research is sorely lacking. Kudos to any an all that are willing to do more cat research.
October 29, 2011 at 8:14 am
That makes perfect sense. We can’t communicate what aspect WE are looking for to the cats. It’s as if you showed someone ten shelled peanuts on one side and two large muffins on the other and asked which is more. Individually there are more peanuts; by mass, you have more muffin. For cats, that might translate to ten crickets or two mice. . . but then the question would be skewed because it would depend on which one moved the most!
November 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm
I had the same problem when I was working on my thesis. I ended up studying cat personality and coat color. It was really difficult to find studies on cats! We need more cat studies!
June 18, 2012 at 1:13 pm
We have two cats and I’ve been gently experimenting on them since they came to live with us; seeing how many words I could teach them and encouraging them to be vocal to get what they want (I now slightly regret this ).
I quickly realised how bright and curious cats are, but also how impossible they are when things don’t interest them. I started with their favourite treat, a little piece of ham, holding it in clear view and repeating the word several times before surrendering it. The sound, or an approximation of it at least, was easy for them to make and they quickly started using it. I then tried other treat items, such as chicken, using the same technique. I found they responded to the word, but wouldn’t really try to mimic the sound. Perhaps a little with “chicken”, occasionally, but never with “beef” or “cheese”. However they do clearly recognise these words and will come running if they hear them.
We also picked up sounds they naturally make and turned them into things that we mutually understand. Cats seem to naturally make an “oooww” sound (like “out”) when they want to get through a locked door, The male cat used to make a “mEEay-el” sound when he wanted his dinner which we’ve adopted as the word for their normal mealtimes. Their standard chirping noise they make in response to birds we crudely approximated as “ack ack” – if we use it now they come running to see where the bird or insect is. The final one is “wack wack”; a noise our female cat made when she was given grass from the garden (they’re mostly indoor cats), occasionally she will use the sound to request grass, but more often she’ll make it when we’ve already announced we’re getting some and she’s anticipating it. They both recognise all these sounds and will come running in response.
The male cat was the most responsive to my attempts at communication initially and he picked up on an affirmative “yeah” type noise pretty quickly; introduced as a response to the question “to you want this ham?”, then “yeah” was introduced and when he tried to copy it, he’d get the treat (or fairly quickly even if he didn’t – never wanted to frustrate them). This is something he still uses, but he more often now uses an emphatic “UM” sound (rather as they do in Japanese) to indicate a positive response. It’s not something I tried to teach him, but my wife thinks that I do it myself and that he’s picked it up from there. I also tried to teach him “no”, but that was something he very rarely uses. Very occasionally he makes a “nah” sound when he doesn’t want something, but 99.9% of the time he’ll just ignore you or walk away instead. Most recently my wife joking placed a pair of my boxers across his back as he walked out of our bedroom. He walked over to me and I, laughing, removed them, I asked him “do you want them?” and he replied with an emphatic “nuh”. Cracked us up even more.
I also tried to see if they had any concept of numbers, but my conclusion is that they don’t. I tried counting treats and they certainly understand “two cats” (at night when it’s time for bed, I say “I need two cats” if they’re not both in the room already and the second one will always come in too) to mean both of them, but I don’t think they they see it as number. I suggest this is down to their nature as hunters; you have to focus on the one bird in the flock that you’re going to try to catch and ignore the rest. I notice if I take two pieces of ham, one much larger than the other, and offer them in either hand to the male cat, he will fixate on the one he sees first, even if smaller. Even wiggling the larger piece won’t distract him from the one he’s already focused on.
There’s a lot more I could write here, but I encourage cat owners to engage with their cats, you might be surprised at the communication you can achieve. Just remember – it has to be something the cat is interested in and you must keep the words you use simple, clear and consistent. And don’t expect them to “talk”, they may well try to mimic words, but they’re limited in the sounds they can make.
June 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm
Very interesting, thanks for your comment Kieran. I’d be interested to hear what other out there have learned from “experimenting” with their cats!
August 10, 2012 at 10:04 am
I have two cats, Miss Moses and Clyde. I have often suspected that Moses is quite intelligent–Clyde, darling, but not really as smart. In the morning, I give my cats small crunchie treats before their regular meal. I have often noticed that Moses carefully watches me place the treats on the floor. At times, I have wondered if she is, in fact, counting the pieces, so I started to play with the numbers. She always goes to the larger treat amount, even if it is only by one small piece, and even if it means nudging Clyde over to the side. Maybe, this is not exactly “counting,” but it is pretty exact discrimination.
August 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm
Thanks for your comment, Dana. Sounds like counting to me!
May 28, 2013 at 5:39 am
I have been Looking at some of the studies which have been done on cats counting.
I would say that if a queen (mother cat) has had a kitten removed from her nest, most of the time she will go around searching, How ever I have also noticed if one of her kittens is taken away and replaced with another kitten from a another litter, She does not seem to favor her own and treats all as one.
This must have some bearing ?
May 28, 2013 at 9:44 am
Interesting, thanks for your post Val. This at least sounds like cats have a rudimentary ability to add and subtract.
July 24, 2013 at 7:19 pm
Call that researcher back! I think my *3* cats can count!
Here’s the scenario: 3 cats, all different temperaments. None were litter-mates, all were rescues (2 from animal shelter, 1 from wild). Oldest is a male, about 12 years old & been with us for 7 years, next adopted is female about 3 years old, been with us about a year & the baby is a female, about 2 years old and Sept. she would be with us about a year. All are fixed.
They all come running when we shake the food bag or fill up the bowls. Ditto for cat snacks which we call “Cat crack.” (Additionally, ADHD kitty, aka the baby, comes running when we get ice from the ice machine in the fridge. And she prefers to drink from human cups. She’s weird).
We are a family of 5, so they are fed by all 5, including snacks. We have no set “rules” on how many pieces of “cat crack” they are fed each time, but generally I advise no more than once a day 2-4 pieces each & we play fair. If one gets 3, they all get 3 (unless one fails to show up for cat crack for some reason, such as being too far away in the house at the time the cat call comes in & we try to remember we “owe” them a snack).
These 5 human feeders are myself, my husband, a 21 year old son, 17 year old son & 12 year old son. I suspect we all feed them differently as well, but generally I would presume, at least in my case, since I only have 2 hands & 3 cats (& they will try to take the other’s crack), I try to toss one to each of 2 and then a further distance away to the 3rd so that they all receive one at a time as much as possible. (i.e. I don’t set 3 in front of each at the same time or feed one his 3, then feed the 2nd then the 3rd). I assume they are fed similarly by the others as this seems (to me) to be the only thing that would work fairly (& assuming too that they might be like “hey he got more than me” if they wait too long for their own).
Today, we discovered that when my 21 year old fed them “cat crack,” and he said he ALWAYS ONLY gives them 2, that each of our 3 cats ran off after their 2nd piece rather than sticking around wondering if he was going to give them a 3rd or more or even if they could beg another off him. It was like not only did they count out two, but they remembered “this is the human that ONLY gives us 2.”
I have not before noticed this when I have fed them – i.e. that they seem to “count” and move on, but informally polled the other 2 sons (who are home) & they generally give out 3 as do I. Hubby says the number he gives varies.
But it seems even if though 3 of us are consistent with always 3, and my husband varies, they counted to 2 and remembered it was THIS human (oldest son, son #1) that only gives 2.
Also, if this were only one cat & especially one cat on one occasion, you might could assume he only wanted 2, but this is 3 different cats. And the youngest one is a piglet. Her hips don’t lie. It’s doubtful they would all simultaneously decide 2 was sufficient.
I’m going to watch what they do next time especially with one of us others that feed them.
Oh yeah, seems a far better experiment than sized dots since those may be estimated the size of the black in that experiment. These pieces of cat crack are all roughly the same size & shape. And if / when doled out individually, would seem more of a “counting” than based on size of pile of dots or size of pile of cat crack.
Incidentally, my oldest male cat bonded the most with my oldest son & they have very similar personalities (quiet with social anxiety). My oldest son is in college about 2 hours away, about to be a senior. As he has social anxiety, he comes home ALMOST every weekend without fail, though sometimes he will stay there if he has more studying or some kind of thing to do. Our oldest cat literally gets depressed when he is gone. And he also instinctively “knows” when he is leaving to go back for the week, because he runs from him and won’t let my son tell him goodbye. It’s almost as if he is thinking, “Maybe he wont’ go if he doesn’t say goodbye.” Or maybe he is just in a huff and mad at him.
However, when my son is away and especially if it has been longer than usual, such as when he went to China for 2 weeks, this cat will obviously be anxious about his return.
Even if this cat is in my lap sound asleep, if I am talking to my husband, and even say “the G word” (G being the 1st letter of my son’s name), he will not only perk up wide awake, but will look towards the door to see if he is home. And one day, when he was gone, and we were all getting ready for the day, I noticed my son’s bedroom door was shut. This cat parked himself at the top of the stairs feet away from that bedroom and just watched that door, waiting to see if he would come out. Since then, I haven’t decided what is easier on him, keeping the door shut while he’s gone so the cat at least hopes he will come out soon, or keeping it open so he can go and see that he’s not in there. (*Caveat: we generally keep my bedroom door shut as well as the rec room door shut for various reasons and sometimes the boy’s bathroom, so he might also think he is in one of those if we kept his bedroom door open).
Anyway, whether they can truly count or not, they are no dummies and they have feelings (& get depressed) too & they definitely need more research!
July 25, 2013 at 11:44 am
Thanks BSF for your very insightful comment. I agree, more research is needed!
August 9, 2013 at 12:35 pm
Cats are curious!! I have a cat, and she is ineeersttd in whatever I do; if I open a drawer or a cupboard, she hurries over to see if anything she might like is there. In fact, she has learned to open closet doors by herself. She also likes to scratch on paper, especially newspaper, and she has a photo album which I made with her own pictures in it that also intrigues her. She wants to share my food when I eat. She’s the only cat I’ve ever had, but I think that it is the nature of cats to want to investigate things that appear novel. Cats are also prone to licking, so there might have been a texture or flavor to your photos which appealed to her. My cat is always fascinating to me; I’m still amazed by how much I love her Was this answer helpful?
December 1, 2013 at 4:24 am
I think I inadvertently did some ground breaking scientific research. My cat loves those temptation treats so occasionally I sprinkle a few out of the bag onto the floor(from a standing position usually). One day while doing this I noticed that when they hit the floor and scattered in different directions “Mewser” would keep looking until he found them all and when he found the last one he would immediately come to me and sit down and look at the bag. It struck me as odd that he knew when to stop looking and come for more so I decided to test my theory. I would drop several treats one at time keeping track of the number. When I stopped dropping them and they were scattered in all different directions Mewser would go and get them all one by one and bang on every time he got the last one he would come back and look at me for more. I did this in a space where there are obstacles blocking the treats, for example some would bounce behind a chair, under the coffee table, under the couch etc… Therefore the only way possible that he would know how to do this is that he would count the sounds of them dropping on the floor so he knew exactly how many to look for and when to stop looking. To switch things up I would sometimes pick a treat up or hide it with my foot and the times I did this he would search and search for that last treat that he knew was out there somewhere. And like clockwork on the times he got them all, on the last one there was no hesitation and he would immediately come back for more. It seems he count up to around 12 to 13. If I poured more treats than that, he would not wait to observe how many I dropped and would just start eating the ones he could find. If I keep it under 13 he waits and doesn’t go after them until I am finished dropping them. I don’t know if I explained this right lol.
December 2, 2013 at 8:36 am
Thanks for you comment! This does seem like a pretty compelling result. Thanks for sharing.
December 17, 2013 at 11:48 am
I know I’m late to this article but here are my two cents.
Cats can count from 1, 2, 3 or more. (3 or more is the highest number they can count, I think)
My wife and I have fostered numerous litters over several years going back to before we were married. ( Fostered more than a hundred kittens and momma cats)
So I can only say in regards to queens (momma cats) and only if the kittens are less than 4 weeks old after that they don’t care that much, but in week 1 is the best way to tell.
My wife and I would wait for her to be focusing on a kitten and remove other kittens that are not in her immediate view without waking them one at a time until she notices (pausing between each kitten to make sure). We have done this with a litter of 6 and removed 3 kittens and she didn’t have a clue but once it gets down to two she notices something is up and goes searching.
On aside they aren’t the most generous mothers we had a double litter (two litters with one queen, the other queen the previous owner did not give up to the shelter) with a total of 9 kittens. She would just plop down and let them feed for a period of time and since there are only 8 nipples if one didn’t get in too bad for it. So we had to micromanage the feeding of one kitten who would just look up at us pathetically cause it wasn’t big enough to push out the other kittens to eat and would remove the largest cause that big boy wasn’t in any danger of starving.
December 17, 2013 at 12:18 pm
It’s never too late, thanks for your insight Chris!
December 18, 2013 at 2:08 am
In 2005 I published a trade hardcover,’Ten Counting Cat’. This title might not address the science of feline arithmetic, but it follows the life of a cat counting and solves the mystery of the cats nine lives
If you don’t have time to read there is a 2 minute film on Vimeo,’Ten Counting Cat’-the motion picture , for your enjoyment.
December 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm
Thanks Robert, can you send us the link?
December 29, 2013 at 8:22 pm
I personally think cars aren’t bright at all, by comparison to other house pets. IMO pet owners tend to want to see their pets as intelligent and engaged with them, and therefor tend to over assume when they see their cat not doing the exact wrong thing, which can still be attributed to dumb luck or remembering patterns (cats do have good memories as far as I know).
I also don’t consider their ‘regal’ detachment and ‘having staff’ as intelligence either- they’re solitary creatures that lack the social components of pack animals, dogs and birds show far more intelligence even if we regard their eager to please nature as inferiority.
April 26, 2014 at 9:34 pm
Interesting stories. I wonder if the cat that heard the treats drop was able to use smell to determine that none were left.
I also wonder if a cat can count better in time rather than in space. Seeing 3 dots at one time may not give the same result as seeing 3 dots appear one at a time.
Just my two cents.
May 9, 2014 at 9:34 am
My cat eats at pre-set times so that we can control his weight. We are using the same dry food we were suggested to use by our vet. We converted the amount of food given in gramms into spoons so that we can measure easier: he’s supposed to have 7 spoons per day. Since I’m home most the times, he tends to beg for food all the time regardless how much he had had for breakfast – it’s in their nature the vet sais. So we decided to change from 2 feedings (3 and 4 spoons) to 3 feedings (3-2-2). Believe it or not, I noticed that when I’m giving him his “lunch”, he won’t start eating before I scoop the second spoon in the bowl. This is how I began looking on the web about how cats relate to numbers. I think cat owners would be the best way of conducting studies as vs the lab environment especially if the subjects are cats.
January 3, 2015 at 2:19 pm
I agree. Since cats do not have great vision, it’s not exactly fair to use a visual test. But their hearing is pretty acute though, which could explain the counting of the food drops.
January 29, 2015 at 10:43 pm
My cat can count. She has shrimp every evening for dinner. She does not start eating until there at least three on her plate.
April 23, 2015 at 6:04 am
My cat did something interesting today, which made me wonder if he count to 3 but not four. He was patting me on the leg for my attention. I was busy so when he patted me I just patted him back. He patted me, I patted him, He patted me, I patted him. He patted me twice, I patted him twice, He patted me three times, I patted him three times. He looked a bit confused like he didn’t know what to do next so just waved his paw in the air before he decided to put give up and put both paws on me.
October 9, 2015 at 7:09 pm
This is really interesting. The post and the comments. I came across this because I was looking for specific research on if cats can count. 1 of our cats seems to, which is really interesting to me. I’ve had cats all my life, and while I guess I’ve run “experiments” before, they were things I thought was laughable. Like the fact that light colored cats tend to gravitate to darker colored things to lay on, and dark cats do the opposite.
Anyway, we have a 7-month-old that we’ve had since birth (we fostered his mom and siblings). He spends most of his time in my daughter’s room or the living room, so I started giving him treats every time he comes to visit me. He’s been sick, so he lost weight, and I decided to give him more treats since he needs the fat (especially since we live in Upper Michigan, and winter is definitely coming. So we’re talking 15 treats on average at a time (a ridiculous number I wouldn’t give another cat). But he keeps track of the treats he drops while eating. He’s up in my lap when I give them to him. He knows exactly how many he drops. If he only finds four and he dropped five, he will fuss at me until I produce the missing one. If he drops 2 and finds none, I can’t just give him one. He wants both, and will not leave until at least the number dropped are produced. If I hadn’t been feeding him a ridiculous number of treats, I never would have discovered this. I’m going to try to increase the number dropped by putting more on the edge of my hand. I’ll see how far he can count, but he has confirmed he can count to at least 6 so far.
Let’s just hope I can finish this “research” before he gains his weight back. I’m also interested to see if our elderly cat (18 years) could count. She could also use a little more weight. To test our other two adults (10 years and 7 years), we’d have to find low cal treats they like. But this is highly fascinating to me.
October 10, 2015 at 2:57 pm
Thanks Jaimes! Good luck with your “research”
October 21, 2015 at 7:39 pm
I’m not sure if this counts, but I used to throw kibble treats every day around the room for my cat. I would throw one, and immediately my cat would run after it and eat it. I would wait till he was done and throw another. Sometimes I would be in a hurry and throw out five or so in succession, and he would run after the first one and be kind of lost about the other four. He would sniff all over the room and eventually find them. After about a year or so of doing this, one day he just decided he was going to wait by my side and watch where I threw all five before he got up and went to eat them. I could literally see his little brain keeping tabs on where each kibble landed and going to each spot as he remembered them. Amazing animals!
October 21, 2015 at 7:43 pm
Nice! Thanks for your comment, Sarabee.
May 12, 2023 at 11:25 am
I guess there still isn’t much research on cats counting, because it’s 2023 now and this article is still the top hit! Kieran’s comment about trying to teach them words is interesting – I think humans are so verbal that it’s hard to imagine communicating any other way. My experience with my cat is that I taught her a bunch of tricks (at least 12 – stand up, sit, lie down, roll all the way over, play dead, turn around, back up, high five [left paw], high ten, tell me a secret, shake [right paw], jump over arm, jump through arms). At the beginning, I would teach her a word accompanied by a hand signal (like “up” while raising my hand). Then I tried to get her to respond to the word only. It was hopeless. She was baffled and frustrated. So then I tried just doing the hand signals in total silence, and she did all the tricks perfectly (though *I* still find it very hard not to say the name of the trick!) Mostly I think this is funny when people claim they are training their cat to do tricks “in other languages” – like saying “sientate!” instead of “sit!” – because I don’t think their cat cares what they are saying at all, it’s just responding to visual cues. However, cats are different – maybe other cats than mine care more.
As far as counting, I tried for a LONG time to get my cat to do all her tricks in a row, and then reward her all at the end. I tried to be very consistent about how many treats she got – say, 6 for 12 tricks – whether she got them after doing a few tricks out all at the end. I never succeeded. She will do 2-3, maybe 4 tricks, and then go on strike until she is rewarded. I don’t know if this means she can’t count, or if it means she doesn’t trust me to deliver the full ration later, or if she just prefers 4 smalls meals to one big one, or if she wants the positive feedback. My personal feeling is that she just doesn’t want to be taken advantage of – she knows her value and will not settle for less. She should have been a negotiator for a union.
If anyone would like to see her doing her tricks, here’s a link!