Adventures in feline ethology, part three

A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.

And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.

To understand this story, you need to know a bit about the interior layout of our house. My wife and I share a master bedroom which is dominated by a queen-sized waterbed. The adjacent room is my wife’s office and personal space, not visible from the master bedroom. My office, where I’m typing now, is partially visible across the hall through the bedroom door.

Sugar has a well-established end-of-day ritual. When humans get in the big bed, she jumps onto it, then makes a couple of circuits around the perimeter as though checking for potential intruders. The impression of martial watchfulness is a bit countered by the fact that she’s normally purring like a truck engine throughout.

Then she picks a human more or less at random and snuggles with said human for a while (if purring had not previously commenced, it is certain to at this point). She then switches to the other human. She seems to have a rule that the the humans must get approximately equal attention, and is quite conscientious about it (if “conscientious” can be meaningfully applied to a cat). More snuggling ensues. When she has thoroughly fuzz-bombed both of us, she picks a spot to sleep in next to either human, and does so.

A few months ago something deranged this cozy routine. After the playtime with humans, at the point where she’d previously gone to sleep, she started jumping off the bed and wandering out the bedroom door. We would then hear what sounded like distressed yowling for a while – not at the level of “I’m injured”, but “Something is bothering me!”. She’d generally let us call her back in after a few minutes, and then go to sleep quite normally.

We couldn’t seem to catch her when she was vocalizing, though, and it became something of a mystery why it was happening. We carefully investigated the state of the food dish, water bowl, and litterbox just after several of these incidents, but they seemed irrelevant. She definitely wasn’t in my office when this was happening; we’d see her in there. But the acoustics of the house made it impossible to localize her exactly.

We became concerned enough to talk to our vet, and discussed medical hypotheses including hyperthyroidism and feline senile dementia. Neither quite fit, as she seemed in rude good health for a cat her age (enough so that our vet seldom fails to remark how lucky we are).

Last night my wife finally caught what Sugar was doing when she was vocalizing: looking at herself in the full-length mirror in my wife’s room. (Now, reading this, my wife says it’s actually the second time – the first time, she missed the significance of where the cat was.)

What makes this interesting is that Sugar had previously completely ignored mirrors. For the first fifteen years of her life, she not only failed to recognize herself in a mirror (which is normal for cats) she never even seemed to realize there was another cat, or anything interesting at all, in mirrors. I still don’t think she’s recognizing herself, but it seems impossible now that she’s not at least noticing there’s another cat there. At her age this is rather as though a human octagenarian had sprouted a previously unexpected talent.

But on one level this is not entirely surprising. Parrots in the wild don’t talk, and the probability that a pet parrot will start doing so is well correlated with age. Other domesticated near-sophonts (chimps; corvids; my swordmaster’s Malamute dogs, who have recognizable call-by-name vocalizations for their humans) can develop communication behaviors far more elaborate than their wild kin.

We produce uplift in our pets. We actually operant-condition them towards full sentience! (I am not the first to notice this. The primatologist Frans de Waal has written about this idea.)

I can’t help but suspect that Sugar has retained into old age the kind of neurological plasticity required to spring a new capability on us like this precisely because of her long interaction with us. Our human behavior towards her is to reflexively ascribe humanlike mental states to her; that is, we can not do this when we’re thinking about it, but we will tend to anthropomorphize when we’re not.

The flip side of this is that, in effect, Sugar has had fifteen years of incentive to model humanlike mental states. And, by damn, she’s trying hard. I wonder if she’ll pass the mirror test of self-awareness before she dies?

If that happens, I’ll be surprised…but not nearly as surprised as I would have been six months ago.

53 thoughts on “Adventures in feline ethology, part three

  1. Perhaps we have the same effect on people too. Would a ‘wild’ human be sentient?

  2. As pete wrote, I wonder if a similar “cognitive uplift” effect exists for humans. Not just learning different behaviors from other in-group humans, but learning novel behaviors from other animals in one’s environment. Seems hard to test, but perhaps someone has studied this.

  3. I wonder why animals don’t normally respond to their reflection as another animal, even if they don’t recognize it as themselves. It seems to me that the reflection at least looks exactly like what it’s mirroring, because of the laws of optics. The pattern of photons hitting the animal’s retinas should be exactly the same whether it’s from the mirror or an actual animal. It can’t be the lack of scent, because they recognize animals through a window.

  4. I’ve wondered if this were the case ever since I saw footage of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with the African grey parrot Alex. She was apparently able to challenge the bird into a whole new realm of cognitive capability, and I wondered if we, by placing them into a cognitively challenging environment and exposing them to unusually complex stimuli (speech, ambient noise such as television, regular tool use in their presence) might do the same for our cats and dogs to a lesser extent?

    The possibility is tantalizing. I know our cats had varying success in attempting to manipulate doors, seemingly in mimicry of human behavior. There was no “training” involved, no explicit reinforcement. They’ve also developed relatively sophisticated desires regarding yogurt (a favorite treat), and strategies for achieving them.

    Then of course, there is the fact that cats simply don’t talk to us the way they do other cats. In the wild adult cat-to-cat communication is mainly about stance and body posture, and of course smell. Cats meow because they learn that’s what we respond to. And given that an adult cat’s meow is in the same frequency range as a baby’s cry… is this a case of us operant-conditioning them or them operant-conditioning us?

  5. regarding self-uplift, as feral humans are generally impossible to teach speech to, it’s unfortunately rather hard to tell if they’re really fully sapient. the sample population is also low enough that i’m not at all sure the mirror test had been invented last time there was a real one available.

    regarding neuroplasticity, note that one of the (main?) features of domestication is enforced neoteny–true wild-type cats (which are still around in north africa and asia minor) make great pets as kittens, but lose interest and wander off after a couple months.

  6. What if she is just losing her acute senses? I’ve observed that cats depend on their sense of smell more than humans. If her sense of smell is diminishing, she would have one less way of determining if the image in the mirror is a real cat or not.

  7. >What if she is just losing her acute senses?

    It’s possible. Her visual acuity is still excellent, but there’s some behavioral evidence she’s gone partly deaf.

  8. Does the full-length mirror run all the way to the floor? or does it stop short about 6 inches or so? Is there any reason to believe that she’s seen herself previously and is only now acknowledging it? as opposed to possibly not having noticed the cat in the mirror before?

    How sure are you that her vision hasn’t degraded? If she’s seen the cat-in-the-mirror before, but now she’s noticed it looks different, that could be an explanation.

    I think the sense of smell is unlikely. The cat-in-the-mirror wouldn’t have a scent- regardless of how well her nose worked. Along those lines, I wonder how much they rely on their olfactory sense. The may realize something isn’t quite right about that cat because they can’t smell it. Although, I suppose they could also just see it as a cat on the other side of a piece of glass.

  9. Two Factoids….

    My parents had a dog that kept trying to pick up balls with his front paw (always the right one). He would press it down on the ball, just as we did, then lift his paw and look at it and then at the ball. After a while, he would look at us, sigh, and go lie down, dejected.

    I had a cat that I got when it was less than 8 weeks old (a stray). For several months, I carried it around the apartment (his idea, not mine). When he was full grown, I left him at the vets for a week while I was on a trip. When I got back, they told me he could open the cages. They were specially designed so that only a monkey might be able to open them – and it was supposed to take to hands to do it from the inside.

    When the receptionist left at night, he was already out of his cage, but she naturally thought the vet let him out. The vet, when he came in early, thought she had let him out.

    Once they realize that neither one was, they put him in the cage and watched from around the corner. Nothing happened. The vet went and closed the door to the outside (it jingled, then clicked). Moments later both paws came out of the cage, a claw went into the latch hole and the other paw lifted.

    No thumbs, not even ‘cat thumbs’, just very smart.

  10. My cat, a rescue adoptee of about 3.5 years of age, and clearly about 1/4 to 1/2 Maine Coon. (He’s 30″ from base of tail to nose, and 17 pounds of somewhat chubby, but not ‘obese’ cat).

    He’s learned to pick up pens with his right paw by stretching his claws out and catching it between his toes.

    Last Wednesday I stopped him from experimenting with opening a pocket knife.

    He’d figured out that he needed to press down on the body to keep it still and was hooking his canines through the notch in the blade. He could feel it move, and he was trying hard to find a motion with his head that would allow the blade to swing through 180 degrees and open.

    I’ve since put the knife in a zipped bag by my desk rather than ON my desk. I’ve also ‘toddler-proofed’ things around the apartment…

  11. >I am not the first to notice this. The primatologist Franz de Waal has written about this idea.
    reference, please!

  12. A few years ago there was a story of a mentally deficient man on death row in Texas. Every year they would give him an IQ test to see if he was intelligent enough to execute and for a few years he failed. One year he finally passed. Researchers believe that his IQ increase was due to the time that he spent interacting with his lawyers and participating in his own defence as they were trying to get him off of death row.

    Not exactly the same thing, but I see the parrallels here.

    s

  13. When I was a kid we had a pair of parakeets. Every so often we would open the cage and let them fly around the room for a while. One of them would fly past the wall mirror and see his reflection. He would fly up to the mirror, hover (hummingbird style) for a couple of seconds while he looked at himself, and then fly away.

  14. >[The primatologist Franz de Waal has written about this idea.] reference, please!

    Er, The Ape and the Sushi Master, I think. And I misspelled his first name: it’s “Frans”.

  15. My cat, a rescue adoptee of about 3.5 years of age, and clearly about 1/4 to 1/2 Maine Coon. (He’s 30″ from base of tail to nose, and 17 pounds of somewhat chubby, but not ‘obese’ cat).

    He’s learned to pick up pens with his right paw by stretching his claws out and catching it between his toes.

    sounds like we have similar cats. out of curiosity, does yours have the common maine coon trait of polydactly, or is he just using a stock set of digits to manipulate objects?

  16. My cat has started rattling the doorknobs of doors when she wants them opened, rather than just pawing at the doors themselves. I’ve also read that cats have been observed to open doors.

  17. While they aren’t actually sentient per se, the years I’ve spent with chickens do seem to indicate that they have individual personalities and a social structure of sorts.

    >A few years ago there was a story of a mentally deficient man on death row in Texas. Every year they would give him an IQ test to see if he was
    >intelligent enough to execute and for a few years he faled. One year he finally passed. Researchers believe that his IQ increase was due to the time
    >that he spent interacting with his lawyers and participating in his own defence as they were trying to get him off of death row.
    That’s pretty depressing, actually. Although come to think of it, wouldn’t he have needed to be that intelligent at the time of his crime?

  18. > Perhaps we have the same effect on people too.

    That’s been suggested as an explaination for first-born children having higher IQ scores than later-born children: First-borns have more interaction with adult humans, while later-borns have more interaction with other children.

  19. >I see your mirror, and raise you..

    The part where the cat emulates a modernist composer was pretty funny.

  20. He has the standard number of digits. Four toes and a dewclaw.

    Seeing that video, I’m now tempted to get an iPad as a cat toy…

  21. @Deep Lurker:
    This would also suggest home-schooled kids would have higher IQ than non-home-schooled kids.

  22. Hmmm…. so if we could get Barack Obama to interact at length with esr, maybe given enough time he’d become a libertarian? :)

    I believe it. The guy is a political tabula rasa. He ran on the anti-war, bring-the-troops-home platform of his base, then experienced a sudden reversal nearly as soon as he took office. Some of Bush’s old boys probably had a strong influence on his foreign policy outlook.

  23. I see your mirror, and raise you..

    I love how the cat tries searching underneath the iPad to find the magic string. Cats have alarmingly sophisticated spatial reasoning capability. I’m reminded of an old America’s Funniest Home Video clip in which a cat is watching an IndyCar race on television. Watching the racecars zoom by, he tries to catch them as they drive off the left side of the screen batting his paws futilely at the space immediately to the left of the TV.

  24. >Hmmm…. so if we could get Barack Obama to interact at length with esr, maybe given enough time he’d become a libertarian? :)

    Nah, esr’s too stubborn. I bet he’d remain an anarchist.

  25. >Nah, esr’s too stubborn. I bet he’d remain an anarchist.

    Also, the performance record suggests that I’m more intelligent and articulate than Obama is. Or, at least, I’ve never needed a teleprompter to do a stem-winding speech.

    Teleprompters, I’ll have you know, are for the weak and uncertain. A real orator improvises on the spot. And gets it right.

  26. >Teleprompters, I’ll have you know, are for the weak and uncertain. A real orator improvises on the spot. And gets it right.

    Is “real” orator analogous to “real” programmer? Maybe you should be writing gpsd in INTERCAL.

  27. Because it’s the computer language Eric wrote. And unleashed on an unsuspecting world. And which has a devoted community dedicated to implementing and extending it.

    Thus, real programmers emulate Eric by coding in INTERCAL. And getting it um… Accidentally less wrong?

  28. Ken, but it’s not machine code and doesn’t even map onto machine code in a transparent manner. It is therefore, by definition, a quiche-eater language.

  29. My pet theory is that cats (& other animals) learn to /not/ respond to the cat in the mirror, because it fails to do anything interesting. Kittens, in my experience, will play with, jump at, hiss at, whatnot the kitten in the mirror for perhaps a few hours or a day or two, but soon lose interest.

    Anyway, I’d suspect your cat of having unlearned.

  30. A question related to the Barack issue:

    Can the liberals who infiltrated the Tea Party movement in an attempt to undermine it, and who so far have been failing in their efforts due to Poe’s Law, eventually succeed by inadvertently raising the intelligence of everyone involved?

  31. >Thus, real programmers emulate Eric by coding in INTERCAL. And getting it um… Accidentally less wrong?

    I need, at this point, to correct a misconception.

    I do not code in INTERCAL. I have never coded in INTERCAL. I am not sufficiently insane to code in INTERCAL.

    I have committed an entirely sufficient offense against sanity and good taste by writing the compiler. I leave actually using it to others more degenerate than myself.

  32. > Ken, but [INTERCAL is] not machine code and doesn’t even map onto machine code in a transparent manner. It is therefore, by definition, a quiche-eater language.

    Umm, maybe not hardware that you’re familiar with, but it’s “easy enough” to design and implement a machine that has INTERCAL as its native instruction set.

    See the Fairchild Symbol Computer for an example of implementing a high level language directly with hardware. They did it with less resources than are found in today’s keyboards. (Forth machines are also relevant here.)

  33. Ermm…..while funny, I meant that esr would turn Barack into a libertarian, not the other way around.

    I figured. I intended my scenario as something of a reversal of the first.

  34. My kitteh, who is 15, understands two English words, “tail” and “kitty-cat.” I think he knows that “tail” means “tail”. I think he thinks that “kitty-cat” means something like “Hey!”. The one English word I have heard him try to speak is “kitty-cat.” It came out lile k…k… He was really trying to get my attention away from this monitor. He never says meow, unless wounded. Usually he communicates with moans, groans, sighs, whines, and a paw on my arm. He’s pretty autistic, even as cats go.

  35. Can the liberals who infiltrated the Tea Party movement in an attempt to undermine it, and who so far have been failing in their efforts due to Poe’s Law, eventually succeed by inadvertently raising the intelligence of everyone involved?

    i’m eager to see whether poe’s law manifests itself in relation to this comment.

  36. You know, one of these days, I’m going to find a listing, or source code, or something, and get the original INTERCAL running under OS/360 on Hercules, just so it can be grokked in fullness…

  37. I have committed an entirely sufficient offense against sanity and good taste by writing the compiler. I leave actually using it to others more degenerate than myself.

    Enabler!

  38. @Jay:
    Did you say you wanted the source code for INTERCAL?

    At one point I considered writing an INTERCAL implementation in Python, then I found this interesting gem and decided that anyone writing an implementation of INTERCAL must be truly deranged so I simply executed the following INTERCAL code:

    1 PLEASE DO NOT WRITE AN INTERCAL INTERPRETER

    and that was that.

  39. one of my siberian huskies gets vocal (and, as far as i can parse her howling, annoyed) when the humans speak with each other.

    now, i have no real evidence for this, other than my dog’s body language, facial expressions, and general demeanor. and i am a typical dog owner, meaning there’s a huge confirmation bias in everything i say about the critters. but that being said, i’ll swear this animal (six years old, if it matters) is frustrated that she doesn’t understand spoken English.

    she’s got the usual canine grasp of language; a few dozen key words, each associated with some given item, activity, or need. those work the way spoken commands usually work with dogs. but she’ll start acting up when she hears us humans speaking the way humans normally speak, that is, not overly using those command key words, just having a discussion.

    i’m privately convinced this dog understands there is something more to spoken English that she doesn’t grok, but wants to, but gets frustrated at not managing to. and starts acting up vocally in response.

    (my other husky, meanwhile, is the dumbest canine to ever walk on four paws. but that’s another story.)

  40. My youngest cat (of 3) was acquired from the humane society, and there was an adaptation period after moving into our home. But eventually she settled in and became comfortable living and playing with everybody. Except for me, the man of the house. Whenever I entered the room she would run scared, and I was rarely able to get close to her.

    Since reading The Nose of Peace, I’ve been making an effort to fix the problem. I approach her and gently touch human finger to cat nose, pause for a moment while she sniffs, then I retreat the way I came. The first two times I did this, she was visibly terrified but held her ground and performed the ritual. Every time since she has gotten more and more comfortable, to the point where she ignores me being in the room as long as I’m out of arm’s reach. I expect soon she’ll allow me to pick her up without issue.

    So one more vote for the Nose of Peace being a real effect.

    It just occurred to me, maybe I should try this sometime with my actual nose!

  41. > My cat has started rattling the doorknobs of doors when she wants them opened, rather than just pawing at the doors themselves. I’ve also read that cats have been observed to open doors.

    My grandmother had a cat and dog that worked together to open doors. The cat jumped at the handle and held on to it while the dog clawed at the door until it was sufficiently far open. Then the cat let go and they went out together.
    I’ve never witnessed it myself, but they seem to have had a good idea of what they were doing.

  42. Nancy Lebovitz said: “Wild parrots don’t use human language, but I wonder how complex their vocalizations are with each other.”

    Has anyone studied if wild parrots mimic other animal sounds? I have read that mimicry by parents is a form of play.

    I observed an African grey parrot in an amimal shelter believily mimic the meow of a cat.

    Before I continue with the story, let me explain that this shelter had a couple of animals that permenately lived at the shelter. As was usual these animals were extreemly calm around humans, and just sort of “hung out” behind the counter with the human employees. There was the parrot on a perch and mixed brownish midsized dog in the next room.

    After I told the nice lady behind the counter I was considering adopting a cat, I heard a meow. The dog scampered out looking around for the cat. I glanced around for the cat too. I didn’t see any cat. Cats can be masters of invisbility. The dog wandered back to the other room.

    Before the woman returned to the counter, I was watching the parrot, who meowed. The dog again scampered out looking around, and this time looked up with a puzzeled expression at the parrot.

    Then. the parrot mimiced a human chuckle. I was thunderstruck.

    I said to her when the woman returned, “Your parrot meows.”

    She smiled sheepishely, “I don’t know how he learned that.”

    M. Woodling

  43. I’ve seen my cats, upon noticing the mirror image, will cautiously approach and sniff. As the mirror image or “other cat” has no scent, the image seems to have been dismised as unimportant. Or perhaps the cat having made “nice” with the “other cat” via the Nose of Peace, thereafter politely ignored the cat. I’ve notice this behavior in other folk’s cats too.

    I have only *heard* of one white Perisan who “enjoyed looking herself” in the mirror on the vanity–but this was family folklore, and the cat had passed way before I was born.

    (One of my cats made it to age 23.)

  44. Here’s a description of new research that seems relevant and you might find interesting:

    http://www.physorg.com/news199686063.html

    Blurb: Scientists studying imitative behavior have found that, just like people, dogs learn quickest by automatic imitation. … this is the first time automatic imitation has been demonstrated in a non-human species.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <pre lang="" line="" escaped="" highlight="">