Yes, some cats like to play fetch. It’s science!

AI SaaS

A cat owner throws a tinfoil ball a few feet in front of their expectant cat twice. The cat chases after the tinfoil ball and retrieves it back to the owner both times, carrying it in its mouth. Credit: Elizabeth Renner.

Cats have a well-deserved reputation for being independent-minded and aloof, preferring to interact with humans on their own quirky terms. So you’d never see a cat playing fetch like a dog, right? Wrong. That sort of play behavior is more common than you might think—one of our cats was an avid fetcher in her younger years, although she’s slowed down a bit with age. However, the evidence to date for specific fetching behaviors in cats is largely anecdotal.

That’s why a team of British scientists set out to study this unusual feline play behavior more extensively, reporting their findings in a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers concluded that most cats who like to play fetch learned how to do so without any explicit training and that cats are generally in control when playing fetch with their humans. Specifically, cats will play fetch longer and retrieve the thrown object more times when they initiate the game rather than their owners. In other words, cats are still gonna be cats.

Many different animal species exhibit play behavior, according to the authors, and it’s most common in mammals and birds. When cats play, their behavior tends to resemble hunting behavior commonly seen in European wildcats and lynxes: rapid approach and retreat, leaping, chasing, pouncing, and stalking. Initially, as kittens, they engage in more social forms of play with their littermates like wrestling, and they tend to engage in more solitary play as adults—the opposite of dogs, who usually start playing with objects alone before transitioning to social play.

Contrary to what one might expect from cats, fetching behavior has been observed across multiple breeds all over the world, usually emerging in kittenhood. One owner who participated in a 2022 study noted that their cat was so obsessed with fetch that it would sometimes drop its favorite toy on their face in the middle of the night. The authors of this latest study wanted to determine whether cats were capable of learning to fetch without explicit training and to what extent they exhibited agency in beginning and ending games of fetch.

The authors created an online questionnaire with 23 questions focused specifically on when cat owners first noticed fetching behavior in their pets (either a current or past kitty), what objects the cats preferred in such games, whether cats or humans initiated and ended the games, and how many times a cat would retrieve the object in a single session of fetch. They also collected demographic data (age, sex, neuter status, breed, and whether the cat lived in a multi-cat home or with other animals like dogs), as well as demographic data for the owners. There were also two open-ended questions so owners could offer extended responses.

Ariel has been playing fetch like a champ since kittenhood. She’s pretty leisurely about retrieval and return.

The resulting analysis included 1,154 cats, with responses provided by 924 owners. Those responses revealed that 94 percent of the cats who played fetch started doing so without any explicit training, with 61 percent first exhibiting the behavior as kittens. For instance, one cat started fetching after a rubber band slipped off a rolled-up newspaper and flew down the hallway, per the owner. The cat chased the rubber band and proudly brought it back, dropping the rubber band at its owner’s feet. And the cat retrieved the rubber band again when the owner shot it back down the hallway. Another owner described how their cat just brought a thrown cat toy back and dropped it at their feet without any prompting, patiently waiting for it to be thrown again.

It’s unlikely the cats learned to fetch from, say, a dog in the house since only 23 percent of the fetching cats lived in a household with a dog or another cat who liked to play fetch. Fifty-nine percent of fetching cats played as much as 10 times per month, and most games averaged up to five retrievals. (Our cat Ariel clearly excelled at fetching, since she would typically retrieve her favorite sparkle ball or bouncy soccer ball as much as ten times per session.)

Among purebred cats, Siamese breeds were most likely to enjoy playing fetch (36 of 160 in the sample), followed by Bengal cats (16) and Ragdoll cats (12). But most of the fetching cats (994) were mixed breeds. Among other findings, the most favored objects for fetching were cat toys (40 percent), but cats being cats, hair ties, bottle caps, and crumpled paper were also popular. Male and female cats were roughly equal in terms of learning to play fetch. And cats were more likely to initiate and end games of fetch more often than their humans, playing more frequently, with more retrievals per session, when starting the game was their idea.

In short, “The agency of fetching lies predominantly with the cat, who is largely in control of a fetching session with their owner and determines how exactly they wish to participate in the fetching session,” the authors concluded. “Owners who are receptive to their cat’s initiation attempts may have stronger bonds with their cats.”

Scientific Reports, 2023. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-47409-w  (About DOIs).

Listing image by Sean Carroll

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