Like Dogs, Some Cats Will Play Fetch—but Mostly on Their Own Terms

Many felines appear to pick up the playful behavior spontaneously, without any explicit training, a survey of cat owners finds

A brown, tan and white cat laying on its back playfully
Cats can fetch—but they prefer to be in control of the playtime. Pixabay

Dogs aren’t the only pets that like to play fetch—some cats do too, according to new research.

Many kitties appear to have learned the behavior on their own, without any intentional training from their owners. And, most of the time, the felines both initiated and ended the playtime sessions, which suggests that while cats may run after and retrieve items, they’ll do it on their own terms, finds a new paper published last week in Scientific Reports.

The findings likely won’t come as a surprise to cat owners. However, the paper is one of the first to document and explore this playful behavior among cats, which are not as well-studied as dogs, reports Science News’ Meghan Rosen.

“As far as I know, it’s among the first published studies that have tried to quantify and qualitatively describe this type of fetch interaction between people and cats,” says James Serpell, an animal welfare expert at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the new research, to Scientific American’s Lauren Leffer.

A cat fetching a tinfoil ball.

To learn more about cats’ fetching habits, scientists created an online survey, then sent it to people who have or had cats with a history of playing fetch. In the end, they got responses back from 924 cat owners representing 1,154 cats. The survey respondents lived on every continent except Antarctica.

When the researchers crunched the numbers, several key themes emerged. Most fetching cats—94 percent—hadn’t been trained on the behavior and appeared to pick it up spontaneously. The majority of the cats started fetching before their first birthday, at an average age of 7 months, and the most popular fetching items included toys, cosmetics and spherical objects, with miscellaneous items and arts and crafts supplies following behind. Siamese topped the list of purebred cats that fetched most frequently.

The felines were often responsible for starting fetching sessions: 48 percent of owners reported their cats tended to initiate, while 22 percent of owners reported that they themselves initiated.

“Cats prefer to be in control of their fetching sessions,” says study co-author Jemma Forman, an animal cognition researcher at the University of Sussex in England, to the Washington Post’s Leo Sands. “When they are in control, they enjoy themselves more—so they play more enthusiastically.”

Since the researchers focused on cats with a history of fetching, they don’t know what percentage of all cats like to play the game. They also aren’t sure why some cats play fetch—is this a social behavior that the pets enjoy as a form of bonding with their owners, or is something else going on? They hope to answer these and other questions in future studies.

Owners may be able to train their cats to play fetch by rewarding the behavior, but the researchers caution that not all kitties will want to participate. Like humans, individual cats have distinct personalities—including varying likes and dislikes—so owners should pay close attention to their pets’ behavior.

“I’d encourage owners to be receptive to the needs of their cat by responding to their preferences for play,” Forman tells the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin. “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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