They may have a reputation for being independent and aloof, but scientists have found that playing fetch is a surprisingly common behaviour in cats.
A survey of owners found the vast majority reported their cat fetched objects, normally without having been trained. However, cats tended to set the rules of engagement, often only fetching specific objects for specific people.
“In general cats are notoriously difficult to train,” said Emma Forman, a doctoral researcher in the school of psychology at the University of Sussex and the first author of the paper. “Cats dictate their own fetching sessions, but it’s a misconception that cats are not very sociable with their owners.”
The study, published in Scientific Reports, surveyed 924 owners of 1,154 cats that play fetch to better understand the behaviour. For most cats (94%), fetching appeared to be an instinctive behaviour, rather than being taught by the owner or learned from another animal. Most of the cats were said to have started fetching as kittens or young cats.
Toys were listed as the most popular item to fetch, followed by spherical items such as baubles or crumpled pieces of paper, and then cosmetics. Some cats would only fetch one specific type of item, had a preferred person to play with, or only be up for a game of fetch at particular times of day.
“The size of the pompom is important,” one owner told the researchers. “I bought a larger pompom and she rejected it. I’ve also tried small items approximately the same size as the pompom and she rejects those as well.”
Other owners described being woken up in the night by the cat dropping toys on their pillow, ready to play. In the survey, owners were asked to define what their cat’s version of fetch involved. Some cats retrieved objects and delivered them back to their owner, while others only brought the object part of the way back or gradually dropped it further and further away.
Forman said: “The cat stereotype of not really wanting to do what we want to do and doing what they want to do at all times holds true.”
Owners said cats initiated and ended games of fetch more often than their owners and tended to play fetch more frequently and for longer periods of time when they, rather than their owners, initiated games.
“This perceived sense of control from the cat’s perspective may be beneficial for the cat’s welfare and the cat-owner relationship,” Forman added. “I’d encourage owners to be receptive to the needs of their cat by responding to their preferences for play – not all cats will want to play fetch, but if they do, it’s likely that they will have their own particular way of doing so.”
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