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Cats Can Be Right or Left-Pawed

A new study has found that ‘lateral bias’ in cats may be linked to gender

Which paw did your cat use to bat your camera away? (SetsukoN via iStock)
smithsonian.com

When your cat is demanding cuddles or tormenting you by knocking stuff off of counters, have you ever paid attention to which paw it uses? As Nicola Davis of the Guardian reports, a new study has found that cats, like humans, display a lateral bias: they tend to prefer one hand (or paw, in this case) over the other.

Researchers at the Animal Behavior Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast analyzed data collected by the owners of 44 cats of mixed breeds—20 females and 24 males. The owners were asked to track a whether their feline friends used their right or left paw when taking the first step down the stairs and when stepping into a litter box. They were also asked to observe which side their cats tended to lie on. The humans recorded these three behaviors until each had been performed 50 times.

The research team also conducted a “forced” experiment (or in other words, one that did not rely on the cats’ spontaneous behavior) by placing yummy treats inside a three-tiered container and observing which paw the cats used to try and retrieve the snacks.

As the researchers write in the journal Animal Behaviour, the data showed that unlike humans, who are overwhelmingly right-handed, cats did not have an overall preference for a certain paw. But individual cats did display “handedness.” Around 73 percent showed a lateral bias when reaching for food, 70 percent displayed paw preference when taking the first step down the stairs, and 66 percent favored one paw over the other when stepping into a litter box. Just 25 percent of cats, however, preferred one side while lounging.

These results were not entirely surprising; previous research has shown that cats display lateral bias. But as the authors of the new study note, theirs is the first experiment to focus on “spontaneous expressions of animal behavior” as the furry pets went about their day at home.

And researchers were very much surprised to find that cats’ handedness seem to be linked to their gender: female felines were more likely to favor their right paw, while males tended to favor their left one. Studies of dogs have suggested that hormonal factors might influence lateral biases, but all of the cats involved in the recent research were neutered.

“Further work is needed to investigate this,” study co-author Deborah Wells tells Barbara J. King of NPR, “but the strong sex effects reported here, and elsewhere, both on experimental challenges and expressions of spontaneous behavior, and using both castrated and de-sexed populations, point more and more strongly to underlying differences in the neural architecture of male and female animals."

Why does it matter whether your cat is left or right handed? As Wells explains in her interview with NPR, left-limbed animals, which rely more heavily on the right hemisphere of their brains, tend to display stronger fear responses and aggression than right-limbed animals, which are usually left-hemisphere dominant. Ambilateral animals, which do not have a preference for one side or the other, have also been shown to be susceptible to stress.

“[B]y knowing whether an animal shows left/right limb preference ... we can understand a bit more about which side of its brain it is relying on, and hence its vulnerability to stress," Wells tells King.

Perhaps these cats are lefties?

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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