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Can a Domestic Cat Be Trained As Well As a Dog?
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MAY 31, 2010
April Holladay, HappyNews Columnist

Q: Can a domestic cat be trained as well as a dog? Because, I've tried to train mine without much success...
- Vicky, Maracaibo, Venezuela
A: It depends... Certainly we can train some cats as easily as dogs to do certain things, for example, fetch. Some cat breeds (Bengals, Siamese and Burmese) naturally carry objects (like kittens) in their mouths, so they're easy to train. But I know of no breed of cat that leads the blind. Or herds sheep. We have trained and bred dogs for useful work and as companions, so both dogs and humans have adapted to each other. Cats — not so much.
See a related WonderQuest column: Are Dogs or Cats Easier to Train?
Domestication of dogs
Recent Swedish and Chinese studies suggest humans domesticated dogs about 16,000 years ago in southeastern Asia south of Yangtze River. By "domesticated," I mean the DNA of dogs has changed to adapt to human purposes.
Geneticists Peter Savolainen and Zhang Yaping with others of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden and the Yunnan University in Kunming, China analyzed genes in the food-to-energy conversion part of animal cells (the mitochondria) of dogs to determine their origin. The researchers studied the genes of about 1,500 dogs from across the Old World.
They found that dogs descended from 51 female wolf founders — and discovered clues about ancient human activity.
"The place and time [of canine domestication]," writes Zhang et al in the September 2009 Molecular Biology and Evolution Journal, "coincide approximately with the origin of rice agriculture, suggesting that the dogs may have originated among sedentary hunter-gatherers or early farmers."
Otis, the boxer, for instance, comes from a line of hunting dogs used for centuries in Germany in the pursuit of bear, boar and deer. A boxer's job is to seize the prey in its massive jaws and hold it until the hunters arrive to kill the animal.
Over the years, humans selected the best dogs for hunting and those dogs prospered under human care. Thus, a breed with genes programmed for hunting developed.
Domestication of cats
In 2007, researchers examined the mitochondrial genes of about 980 domestic cats and five subspecies of wildcats from three continents to determine when and where humans domesticated cats.
The studies showed human association with cats began much more recently than dogs, probably about "9000 years ago as the earliest farmers of the Fertile Crescent [approximately where modern-day Iraq is] domesticated grains and cereals as well as livestock animals," writes molecular biologist Carlos A. Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute in Science magazine.
Cats helped early farmers by killing rodent pests infesting stored grains. You might think people domesticated cats because cats kept the rodent population down.
It's more likely, however, "we didn't bring cats into our homes, they brought themselves in," Driscoll says. Cats like to chase mice (or, perhaps like Duma, flying green rings); it's instinctive behavior. We never trained cats to hunt rodents. But we did provide a profitable place to hunt: many mice and few predators. So cats domesticated themselves merely by evolving a tolerance for people. "And — voila! — they had adapted to their new niche."
Human communication
Thus, humans have had twice as long to train and communicate with dogs (16,000 years) as cats (9,000 years), so dogs train easier. Moreover, cats started associating with humans doing what they wanted to do — hunt and kill rodents. Whereas, dogs emerged from wolf family packs that hunted together. Dogs have been strongly selected for "an innate ability to learn complicated tasks", such as shepherding, retrieving and guarding, which often require communication with humans, Driscoll says. In contrast, domestic cats do not "intuit the intentions of others" (either human or feline) to the extent that dogs do and that hinders a cat's ability to follow directions.
But cats can communicate with humans just as effectively as dogs, in some situations. If a human points to food, cats can find the food as easily as dogs, for example. In 2005, animal behaviorist Ádám Miklósi and colleagues at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary studied 24 cats and 21 dogs to see how well the two species could use human cues to find food.
Each cat trotted into a bare room containing two pots — one to the left of the animal and one to the right. The human tester kneeled on the floor in front of the cat and pointed to the pot with the food in it. The cat immediately walked to the correct pot and started eating. The same thing happened with each dog. No problem.
Miklósi found no significant difference between how the cat and dog groups responded as the humans pointed to the pot containing food.
So next the experimenters hid the food under a stool and tied the food to the stool so the animal could not pull the food out to eat it. The animal's owner stood nearby but did not help. The experimenters did not help either. Instead they watched what the cat or dog did in the presence of his or her owner. They found no significant difference in the time a cat or a dog spent sitting or standing next to hidden food or gazing at it without trying to get the food.
But they did notice that cats spent significantly longer times poking at the food, trying to solve the problem, and dogs started looking at their owners for help sooner than cats did and gazed at their owners for longer durations. Also, dogs looked at the inaccessible food and then at the owner and back at the food more frequently than cats did. It was as if the dog was saying, "The food's there, pal, but I can't get it; help me." Whereas, the cat, used to hunting by itself in the wild, tried to solve the problem not expecting help from the human.
This is not to say cats don't bond with humans. They do. Bengal cats (like Duma), for example, often "follow their human companions around from room to room," says certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger/ of the Cat Coach, LLC.
Miklósi thinks the dog eye-contact is a reason people find dogs easier to train than cats. On the other hand, cats rarely look at people for help in solving a problem.
"Although both species show evidence of flexible learning, in general dogs seem to be much easier to train," Miklósi says.
Because training animals involves many communicative signals (gazing, verbalization, etc.) and relies on a similar type of "feedback", dogs have a "natural advantage" by using frequent eye contacts, Miklósi says.
Otis, the boxer, finally went after the stick in deep water after a backward gaze to his owner. He knew then, he was on the right track.
Information from Carlos A. Driscoll
• Cats are the only domesticated animal that are social when they changed genetically to tolerate people (i.e., became domesticated) but lived as solitary creatures before they were domesticated and were wild animals.
• Domesticated cats are not as social as lions. Furthermore only females are social at all, and that in a lion's-pride hunting sense. Male domesticated cats are essentially lone agents.
• Domestic cats fit in a niche somewhere between badgers (which live together but interact randomly) and lions or wolves (which hunt cooperatively).
• Tomb paintings, dating to 3,600 years ago in Egypt show clearly -domesticated house cats.
• At least 97 percent of the nearly one billion living domestic cats are random bred (they pick their own mates). Can these animals even qualify as being domesticated (dependence on humans for food, shelter and control of breeding)?
• Although the place and time of wolf domestication may have been in Southeast Asia about 16,000 years ago, recent studies indicate another place and time for small-dog evolution.
• A genetic analysis (Gray et al) traces the appearance of small body size to mutations in Middle Eastern wolves that took place about 12,000 years ago.
• Small stature reduced energy demand, which may have triggered the evolution towards shrinking size in wolves.
• The smaller proto-dog wolves survived perhaps by eating garbage discarded by humans in the Fertile Crescent and needed human protection from their wild, bigger wolf cousins.
• Humans benefited by acquiring barker guard dogs and little terriers, quick to find and able to dig out small creatures.
More Exploring:
What is meant by the technical terms: domesticated, tame, and feral
Further Reading:
Bengal cat playing catch, video by DHaneyArt, YouTube, 12 September 2006.
Boxer dog fetch, video by the Lost Duck, YouTube, 13 October 2007.
Teaching a cat to play fetch, BBC, 16 October 2001
mtDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of Yangtze River, Less Than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves by Zhang Yaping and others, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 1 September 2009.
The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication by Carlos A. Driscoll et al, Science, June 2007.
Taming of the Cat, by Carlos A. Driscoll, Juliet Clutton-Brock, Andrew C. Kitchener and Stephen J. O'Brien, Scientific American, June 2009
Top dogs: wolf domestication and wealth0 by Carlos A. Driscoll and David W Macdonald, Journal of Biology, 24 February 2010
The IGF1 small dog haplotype is derived from Middle Eastern gray wolves by Melissa M. Gray, Nathan B. Sutter, Elaine A. Ostrander and Robert K. Wayne, BMC Biology, 24 February 2010.
A Comparative Study of the Use of Visual Communicative Signals in Interactions Between Dogs (Canis familiaris) and Humans and Cats (Felis catus) and Humans by A. Miklósi et al, Journal of Comparative Psychology, May 2005.
Bengal Cats: A study in behavior by Marilyn Krieger, The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Journal, Spring 2007.
Dogs vs. cats: The great pet showdown by Kate Douglas, New Scientist, 9 December 2009.
(Answered 8 March 2010)
Readers' Answers
• Yes, cats can be trained as well as dogs. Most people don't put forth the effort. I taught my kitten to fetch in 25 minutes. He also understands certain words and phrases (other cat's names, where's the ball, no, no-bite, no-scratch). He is also house broken and outside-territory trained. Joyce, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA
• Almost all types of cats, including domestic cats and their ancestors, are not pack animals so have not the incentive to do what other individuals want them to. It makes no difference to a wild cat's survival whether or not it co-operates, whereas a wild dog will die without help from its pack mates. So, while cats are as intelligent as dogs and just as capable of learning anything a dog can learn, they are much harder to train as they have little incentive to learn it. Training a cat takes much more patience, skill and inventiveness. Floray G., Taunton, England
• Ripley, our gray tabby, developed many dog-like traits. He met us at the door when we returned home and appeared happy to see us. He always came when called and loved to play fetch. I assume this happened because my husband wanted a dog - but our granddaughter brought home a kitten. My husband treated the kitten as he would a dog and Ripley responded appropriately - my husband was happy. Jean, Mesa, Arizona, USA
• Dogs, like other large members of the family Canidae (wolf, hunting dog, etc.) evolved to form strong, individual social bonds within the group, and they follow directions from a higher status member of the group. Such a bond can be transferred to a human, hence the apparent willingness of dogs to be trained. Cats, like most members of the family Felidae (lions are an exception) are solitary animals, so don't have this inbuilt adaptation that humans can exploit. Note that all animals that humans train to do complex tasks (horses, elephants, dolphins) have this type of social structure ---- not just living in groups but forming strong, individual bonds with other members.
Christine Janis, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
• My answer is inspired by the TV program "Dog Whisperer." Various breeds of dogs have an instinct to "work at" some kind of "job," such as herding, digging, tracking. It seems like training dogs represents giving them a job to do, which is something they want. I think the only "job" for cats is hunting for food, and they are less interested in having any other job. I wonder if dogs have been domesticated over a longer time than cats.
VanDog, Detroit, Michigan, USA
• Cats can be trained to do many things as well as dogs, and sometimes they learn faster--as long as what you are teaching is what the cat wants to know! For example I have trained both cats and dogs to use a bell to go outside. My last cat got it after only 3 demonstrations and 5 minutes. Most dogs have needed a day or 2. My friend told me her indoor cat learned it just from watching her try to teach the dog!
20th century fox, Calgary, Canada
• I have noticed mine respond very well to commands. Either they have trained me or I trained them. But we kinda understand each other.
Celso, La Blanca, Texas, USA
Here's the next question:
Since humans domesticated dogs, causing actual genetic changes in the canines, has there been a reciprocal genetic change in humans making us more compatible with dogs? In other words, have dogs domesticated humans as humans domesticated them?
- Lanney, Sandia Park, New Mexico
April Holladay lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her column, WonderQuest, appears every second Monday of the month on WonderQuest.com. To read April's past columns, please visit her website www.wonderquest.com . If you have a question for April, visit this information page. www.wonderquest.com/AskQuestion