When you are a pet owner, you often find yourself staring at your cat and thinking the strangest questions. Here at My Pet Needs That, we love to take those questions and actually find an answer to them. Two such questions are ‘Can cats be right or left handed?’ and ‘How can you tell if your cat is a righty or a lefty?’. Here we take this seemingly random question and discover that scientists not only have an answer, but they have a pretty good reason for their research.
Lefties and Righties
We have known that human beings show hand preference for centuries. Generally, approximately 90% of people are right-handed, which means they show a preference for using their right hands when they write, brush their teeth, or do other basic tasks. For much of this history, this has meant that the world was built towards right-handed users, and at some points, this even created dangers for left-handers. For example, the dangerous machinery would be designed to accommodate right-hand usage, or lefties would be accused of witchcraft!
The study of animal hand, or paw, dominance is a much more recent endeavour which only dates back to the 1970s. This is when researchers started recording whether animals could be lefties and righties too. They recorded whales, chimpanzees, worms and, even, tarantulas, which are apparently right-handed. This might seem like a silly or pointless endeavour, but hand, or paw, preference could help us make a vital breakthrough about how we evolved or how our bodies work.
More Female Cats Are Right Handed
A really crucial recent study that shows that cats can have a dominant paw. This means that they frequently favour either their right front paw or the left front paw. While humans are 90% right-handed, cats do not have a species-wide dominant paw. Male cats and female cats, however, do have respective dominant paws. Female cats are, generally, right-pawed and male cats are, generally, left-pawed.
Stemming from Northern Ireland, the research involved 44 local pet cats. There were 24 males and 20 females and they were observed by researchers for three months. The researchers then recorded three things to determine:
- The first paw to step into their litter box
- The first paw to take a step down a flight of stairs
- The side that the cats chose to lie down on
- The paw that the cats retrieved food with from a narrow hole in a plastic feeder in 50 attempts
They recorded each time each of the two front paws were used for the above activities. Their results showed that:
- Almost three-quarters of the cats had a statistically significant preference for one paw
- But, unlike humans, there is not one paw that is statistically dominant across the whole species
- Female cats used their right paw more frequently
- Male cats used their left paw more frequently
This corroborates with other studies that have been done to test cat’s dominant hands. A study in Turkey, for example, found that approximately 50% of cats are right-pawed, 40% are left-pawed, and 10% are ambidextrous. The most significant finding of the Northern Irish study, therefore, is that each gender generally has different dominant paw.
Interestingly, this is also true in humans. Men are more likely to be left-handed than women, and women are more likely to be right-handed. There are all sorts of possible implications from this and current theory based on a similar study with dogs suggested that sex hormones may have had a part to play. In this study, however, all the cats involved with neutered. Nonetheless, hormones may still be involved, and such a link would have implications for a wide variety of mammals – an interesting step forward in understanding sex, hormones and physiology.
As Deborah Wells, co-author of the study, has said, ‘Further work is needed to investigate this, but the strong sex effects reported here, and elsewhere, both on experimental challenges and expressions of spontaneous behaviour, 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.’
Another potential use of this study is broadening our understanding of the life-changing psychological conditions like schizophrenia. Previous research has found a correlation between left-handedness and these conditions, and there is, therefore, potentially a link to be found between sex hormones in mammals, left-handedness and some mental health conditions. Just further proof that our furry friends have a lot to offer us beyond simple companionship.
Testing Your Cats
So now you probably want to know if your cats are righties or lefties, and finding out is probably as simple as you think it is if you have a bit of patience. Essentially, try following the same observations that Wells and her team use in the study.
- Find a reliable notebook that you won’t accidentally take to work or leave on the bus. The best way to record your findings is probably to do a separate table for each of the activities with two columns, one for right and one for left, and to start a tally.
- Watch your cat as often as you can, and tally:
- Which foot they use to step into their litter box
- Which paw they use to walk up or down a flight of steps
- Which side they prefer lying down on
- The longer you do this, the better your results will be. Wells and her team worked for three months. Remember: your cat might turn out not to have a specific preference. According to the study, approximately 25% don’t.
It is also important to remember cat psychology if you are going to observe your cat. Staring at, and making eye contact with a cat can be interpreted as a move of aggression, so be careful not to spend three months making your cat very tense. Many cats will be too used to you to feel attacked, but it is worth keeping in mind. If you make eye contact with your cat and they don’t break the eye contact, they may be feeling threatened, so you need to break eye contact. If they do casually break eye contact, they are probably fine and relaxed.
Another Fun Test
There are problems, however, with using Wells’ technique. You could easily lose your notebook, and therefore your results. You may not be in a position to watch your cat often enough to make your test reliable, and maybe the hours you are home, you are not in the mood to watch everything your cat is doing. This would mean your results are sporadic and, therefore, less reliable.
If this is the case, you can create your own, artificial test. This risks producing invalid results as your cat might not be acting in a natural way during an artificial test. However, it is more time effective, and, let’s be honest, most owners are just doing this for a bit of fun anyway!
This test requires you to have treats and a glass or cup. The glass must be low and wide enough that they can reach the bottom of it with their paw, but not so low that they can reach in with their head and grab anything with their mouth. You should also make sure your cat is hungry enough to be tempted by the kitty treat or they might just ignore the test altogether.
- The first step is to put a treat in the bottom of the glass. Then, you have the hard task of making sure your cat is interested enough in the test. Call them and try showing them the treat before putting it in the glass. If they are hungry enough, they will go for it. You can’t make a cat play with you, so if they aren’t in the mood, then there is nothing you can do.
- Step two involves sitting back and watching them, sometimes hilarious, results. Some cats take longer than others to figure out what is going on. Your cat might try to shove their face in the glass or they might just push the glass around looking confused. Eventually, they should try to use their paw, and the paw they use to reach in and grab the treat – or, more often, the paw they use to reach in and knock over the glass to gain access to the treat – is usually their dominant paw.
It is genuinely important that your cat is fairly hungry for this test as research shows that cats use their dominant hand when they mean business – such as getting very necessary food – but might use their less dominant hand when they are just playing. If you truly want to figure out which hand is the most dominant, you may want to consider using Wells’ technique alongside trying this technique on a number of different days.
You can also come up with your own fun games to try and figure out which paw is their dominant paw. Maybe you can hold their favourite cat toy on the other side of a narrow gap in the door, forcing them to reach for it. Just remember:
- Your cat’s safety is the most important thing. Is the door likely to suddenly shut on their paw? Is the glass going to break and create a hazard? Keep an eye out for anything that could go wrong so you can prevent it.
- Your cat is likely to use their non-dominant paw frequently as well, particularly when they are playing. If you truly want to figure it out, then you should repeat your experiment often.
- Don’t allow your cat to feel threatened when you observe them. Make it either very natural or very fun. It might be best to try both techniques – keep an eye on their daily activity, and play some games with them.
Why Should I do This?
As you can imagine, finding out whether your cat is right or left handed is just another fun and the silly game you can play with them. Playing with your cats is very important because they thrive on mental stimulation almost as much as physical exercise. This is why they often play with their food or may catch and kill something and then not eat it.
There is a more serious benefit of learning if your cat is a lefty or not which stems from research done on other mammals about being a lefty and stress. Previous research in dogs has shown that left-pawed dogs and ambidextrous dogs are often more stressed and pessimistic than right-pawed dogs. As there is also a link between left-handedness and schizophrenia in humans, knowing what paw your pet prefers could help you understand your cat better, allowing you to give them a better quality of life.
One explanation for this correlation is that left-limbed cats, and other animals, are thought to be using their brain’s right hemisphere. As the right hemisphere is more closely linked with aggression, fear responses and stress, it is thought that using this side of the brain as the dominant processor of information can heighten these traits.
Finding ways to quickly understand if your cat is likely to be anxious, and then making the effort to avoid stressful situations, is going to make a world of difference for your furry friend. This could also help shelters to get to know a cat much faster so as to give it the best care they can, and could help you pass on information if you need a weekend cat sitter.
- Is Your Cat Left-Handed? Here’s How to Tell, Nation Geographic
- Lateralization of spontaneous behaviours in the domestic cat, ScienceDirect
- Paw choice? Cats show right and left-hand preferences, The Guardian