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Fetching felines: new research finds cats like to play fetch too

15th December 2023

  • Fetching is a surprisingly common behaviour in cats, often emerging in absence of training
  • Cats like to be in control of a game of fetch and respond best when they lead the play
  • Playing fetch may be beneficial for cat welfare and the cat-owner relationship

Animal behaviour psychologists from the University of Sussex and Northumbria University have found that it’s not just dogs that like a game of fetch – some cats do too. And that a fetching toy or a bauble might be the purrfect gift for feline friends this Christmas.

For the study, published today (Thursday 14 December 2023) in Scientific Reports, the Sussex and Northumbria researchers surveyed 924 owners of 1,154 cats that play fetch to better understand this little-studied feline play behaviour. 

The researchers found that for the vast majority (94.4%) fetching appeared to be an instinctive behaviour in their cats, emerging in the absence of explicit training. They also found that most of the cats started fetching as kittens or young cats, with 96.7% reported to first fetch under the age of 7 years old, and 60.7% under 1 year old.

Cats in charge

The researchers looked at the particular ways that cats play fetch and found that they were more likely to play for longer and more frequently if they initiated the game. Conversely, if their owners stopped the game of fetch, the cats were more likely to pursue repeat games.

They also found that the cats actively influenced the play behaviour of their owner; whilst some cats engaged in a traditional fetch and return form, others would bring the object back only halfway, and some would gradually drop the object further and further away from their owner. Additional cat preferences for fetching were only playing in certain rooms of the house, such as the bedroom, and only fetching for particular people.

Purrticular pets

Toys were listed as the most popular item to fetch (38.4%), followed by spherical items (25.3%), such as baubles or crumpled pieces of paper, and then cosmetics (9.5%). Some cats would only fetch one specific type of item, such as a cotton bud. But the findings also reveal a diversity of additional objects played with, often common household items, highlighting that it’s important to understand and respond to individual cat preferences.

 

Lead author on the study, Jemma Forman, a doctoral researcher in the University of Sussex School of Psychology, says of the findings: "We've started to uncover a really interesting fetching behaviour that is not commonly associated with cats. Our findings show that cats dictate this behaviour to directly influence how their human owners respond. Cats who initiated their fetching sessions played more enthusiastically with more retrievals and more fetching sessions per month.

“This perceived sense of control from the cat’s perspective may be beneficial for the cat’s welfare and the cat-owner relationship. I’d encourage owners to be receptive to the needs of their cat by responding to their preferences for play – 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!”

Co-author on the research, Dr Elizabeth Renner, a lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University says: “To our knowledge this is the first study to focus exclusively on fetching behaviour in cats. We had an overwhelmingly strong response to our call-out for owners of cats that fetch, with more than 1,250* people filling in the survey in just a few days. It turns out that people are fascinated by this behaviour!  

“We think it’s important because it demonstrates how much this behaviour is led by cats themselves, since very few of the owners surveyed explicitly trained their cats to fetch.”

 

The cat sample for this research was made up of 994 mixed-breed and 160 purebred cats. The purebred most reported to play fetch was Siamese (22.5%). This study focused on cat owners who had already identified as previously or currently having cats that played fetch. The psychologists next want to broaden out the research to understand the prevalence of this play behaviour in the wider domestic cat population by including non-fetching cats and to recruit a more representative sample of purebred cats.

The full paper titled ‘Fetching Felines: A Survey of Cat Owners on the Diversity of Cat (Felis catus) Fetching Behaviour’ is published in the journal of Scientific Reports and can be viewed here.

 

*Out of the 1,258 participants who filled out of the survey, 924 were valid responses.  

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