No one with a cat would ever doubt that their cat remembers who feeds them, when they get fed and where the food is served. They know exactly who to wake when the clock strikes one minute past breakfast time and will escort said half-awake human to the pantry where the kibble is kept. As it turns out, this behavior makes them pretty smart, according to scientists.
When a cat knows where her food bowl is and returns to it at dinner time scientists call that "conditioned learning." By being fed multiple times from the same bowl in the same location, the cat learns to associate both the bowl and the location with food. Pretty basic, right? A recent study found that cats go one step farther. Scientists placed food in two different boxes in a room but only gave the cat time to eat from one box. When the scientists returned the cat to the room a few minutes later, the cat went to the box that previously contained food but which he or she hadn't already eaten. This is interesting because it means that cats learn information from their environment in ways that scientists hadn't predicted. The cats in the study didn't respond to the place they had previously eaten food, as expected in conditioned learning. Instead, the cats showed they remember specifics about events they have only encountered once.
What does that mean for your feline friend? It means that our cats need mental exercise. They are intelligent animals and they need to be challenged so that they don't get bored. We all know it's important that our cats get physical exercise and there are aisles and aisles of toys at the pet supply store to help us give our cats a work-out. Cats also need to work-out their brain. Behaviorists have recommended this to dog owners for years, but this new research confirms the importance of brain training for cats, too.
How to Engage Your Cat's Mind
How should you train your cat’s brain? Its actually quite easy to do. Cats are naturally predators, which means their wild cousins have to work hard for their food. Instead of putting all your cat's kibble in his bowl, buy or make a puzzle toy. A puzzle toy can be anything that your cat has to spend time learning to solve. There is a huge variety of these types of devices available at the store but you can also make your own. One of my favorites is also the simplest: a few pieces of kibble inside of crumpled tissue paper (warning: there will be shredded paper once your cat gets to the kibble). You can also plug pieces of PVC piping at one end and add kibble to the other end, encouraging your cat to roll the pipe around to get the kibble out.
If your cat is food motivated, you can also train her like you would a dog to sit, touch, stay and do other tasks. What you teach her is less important than the fact that you are teaching her. Engaging her brain will make her a more content kitty and a better companion.
Some important tips: Start easy and over time increase the difficulty. It is important that your cat not get too frustrated. Always measure out your cat's normal meal size and make sure that she has eaten the appropriate amount of food by the end of the day. If you have more than one cat, and especially if one has a special diet, consult your veterinarian for the best way to incorporate mental exercise into your cats' lives.
Learn more about what kind of food-dispensing toy to get your cat.
Dr. Elfenbein is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist located in Atlanta. Her mission is to provide pet parents with the information they need to have happy, and healthy, and fulfilled relationships with their dogs and cats.