We think we know our cats well. But how many of us noticed which paw our cats prefer to use when they step down the stairs, into the litter box or when they reach for food? Is it right or left?
According to research published in Animal Behaviour journal, cats show a tendency to use their left or right "paw”, just like humans do (1).
While 90 percent of the human population prefer using the right hand for tasks, the number of right pawed and left pawed cats is almost equal.
The study led by psychologist Dr. Deborah L. Wells from Queen's University in Belfast and her team recruited 24 male and 20 female cats of different ages.
Cats were tested in their own homes in order to minimize the stress. Scientists did not observe the cats - this was done by their owners. Researchers instructed cat owners to record spontaneous behaviors of their cats as they went about their routine lives.
Owners answered the questions whether the cat favored one side of the body when they slept, which paw a cat used when it stepped into its litter tray - each day until 50 responses were reached per question.
In addition to this, cats participated in “food-reaching” test. Owners put the Irresistible treats inside of the toy with holes known as “feeding tower”. If a cat wanted to get the treat out of the toy, it had to move the treat from the top to the bottom of the toy by pawing at it through the side openings.
Based on the results of the study, the majority of cats preferred to use one paw over another when reaching food, stepping down and stepping over. However, cats did not show the preference to any side of their body while resting or sleeping.
Paws and sex differences
Researchers found that male cats favored their left paw, while female cats preferred their right. They felt tempted to explain this difference: it may have something to do with how male and female brains are wired.
It is worth to note that the recent study is neither original nor new, because Dr. Wells has been publishing similar research for years, all of which discovered the mysterious “sex differences” in cats (2,3,4). However, other independent researchers, who did similar experiments, did not find any statistically significant sex differences in paw preference of cats (5,6,7,8).
It is possible that detected differences could be due to chance, and that cat owners misreported the behavior of their cats.
Paw preference seems to be influenced by a variety of factors other than genetics, including the health status of the cat: If a cat normally favors its left paw it may be more inclined to use its right paw after it becomes ill (9).
So can we say that the female cats are right pawed? Since previous studies yielded the conflicting results, paw preference in cats may not depend on sex.
Left or right pawed: why does it matter?
Why do scientists care about the paw preference beyond mere curiosity? Knowing the dominant paw of the cat may predict how a cat responds to stressful situations (10).
Researchers think that cats without a preference for one side or the other, and left pawed ones are more sensitive to the damaging effects of stress than right pawed cats. For example, these cats may suffer from severe anxiety during veterinary visits, therefore owners could be advised about the ways to keep their cats calm.
Of course, all of these are just speculations. We do not know what effects of right or left pawedness have on the functioning of a cat’s brain and body. Perhaps, knowing what paw female or male cats prefer to use matters less than we think.
Author: P. Aksoy (Feline scientist and founder of Anadolu Kedisi)
1. McDowell, L. J., Wells, D. L., & Hepper, P. G. (2018). Lateralization of spontaneous behaviours in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris. Animal Behaviour, 135, 37-43.
2. Callaway, E. (2009, July 24). Is your cat left or right pawed? New Scientist.
3. Wells, D. L., & Millsopp, S. (2009). Lateralized behaviour in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus. Animal Behaviour, 78(2), 537-541.
4. Wells, D. L., & Millsopp, S. (2012). The ontogenesis of lateralized behavior in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 126(1), 23.
5. Cole, J. (1955). Paw preference in cats related to hand preference in animals and men. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 48(2), 137.
6. Fabre-Thorpe, M., Fagot, J., Lorincz, E., Levesque, F., & Vauclair, J. (1993). Laterality in cats: paw preference and performance in a visuomotor activity. Cortex, 29(1), 15-24.
7. Pike, A. V. L., & Maitland, D. P. (1997). Paw preferences in cats (Felis silvestris catus) living in a household environment. Behavioural Processes, 39(3), 241-247.
8. Konerding, W. S., Hedrich, H. J., Bleich, E., & Zimmermann, E. (2012). Paw preference is not affected by postural demand in a nonprimate mammal (Felis silvestris catus). Journal of comparative psychology, 126(1), 15.
9. Zucca, P., Baciadonna, L., Masci, S., & Mariscoli, M. (2011). Illness as a source of variation of laterality in lions (Panthera leo). Laterality, 16(3), 356-366.
10. McDowell, L. J., Wells, D. L., Hepper, P. G., & Dempster, M. (2016). Lateral bias and temperament in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 130(4), 313.