Myths About Cats: Can They Count?

Have you ever heard of Clever Hans? He’s the grand-uncle of Mr. Ed, who came from a line of cognitively-advanced horses. Old Hans couldn’t talk like Mr. Ed, but he could count, and he became famous for doing so.

Of course, there is no talking horse and, as it turned out, though Hans was definitely a clever horse, he could not really count. He would amaze people by stamping his hoof to count out different numbers. You could name a number, and he would stamp that many times. But, he wasn’t really counting. He was responding to nonverbal cues, especially those of his trainer and owner. He was reacted to almost unseen changes in the trainer’s behavior which told him it was time to stop “counting.”

You know and I know that we can’t say “six” and expect our cat to meow six times. At least, we cannot expect this without a lot of training, in which, yes, we would probably rely on cues. and, it may even seem a silly question but think about kittens. A cat can have up to eight, or even more kittens in a litter. Is she able to keep up with how many babies she has? How does she know when one is missing? Surely, she must have some way of “counting” her kittens.

But, in order to know if cats can count, we have to first define what we mean by counting. One, counting has nothing to do with knowing your numbers. People could count before we invented names for numbers, or any sort of complex counting, or arithmetic, systems. If you showed me three objects and I said, duh, dah, and dee, while pointing to each one, I’ve demonstrated, to some extent, that I understand that there are three separate objects. That is at least the beginning of counting and an understanding of the concept of counting. According to studies, infants as young as six-months have the ability to distinguish up to three objects. Most adult cats are smarter than a six-month-old human baby. In fact, they probably closer, in some ways, to a 3-year old human baby. But, this doesn’t mean they can count.

Can a Mother Cat Count Her Kittens?

Another part of counting is a sense of larger and smaller numbers of items. So, we could surmise, at least, that a momma cat knows when her kitten litter is larger, and when it is smaller. She may then have a sense of numerosity. She may not be able to count, one, two, three, four, five kittens but she probably does know, on some level, the difference between three kittens and six kittens. But, we’d have to ask what her threshold was. If mom has eight kittens and she’s missing one, can she then tell the difference? If not, how large a difference must their be before she can see it?

Furthermore, how would we even know that a cat’s ability to distinguish between larger and smaller groups of objects have anything to do with the actual number? Imagine a group of kittens crowding around a mother cat. If this group of kittens shrinks in size as a few of the kittens wander off, does she respond to this in a numerical sense, or simply in a spatial sense. In other words, more kittens take more room, they occupy more space, than fewer kittens. It could even be that momma cat has evolved some other way of keeping up with her litter which is beyond our current understanding.

If she can see small differences in numbers between one group of objects and another, can she learn to count? We do know that many primate species besides ourselves can learn to count. And, some avian species can, as well. The band Counting Crows may have had no idea how accurate their chosen name was because crows, perhaps the most intelligent bird in existence, can certainly count, or at least, they can discriminate quantities up to around six.

As it stands, there is very little research into the counting ability of cats, and what research is carried out is plagued by the one thing we all know about cats: It is hard to get them to do anything they aren’t interested in doing, such as carrying out counting experiments. David Grimm, the author of Citizen Canine, wrote of some research by Christian Agrillo, involving cats fish.

The researcher was much more successful in getting fish to cooperate! And, it turns out that fish did a little better than the few cats that, haltingly, paid attention long enough to participate in the experiment. In an experiment Agrilo said was meant to measure numerical competence, the cats were reacted to black dots on the wall behind bowls of food. Here, the problem I mentioned above turned out to call the results into question. Although the cats did seem to be able to tell the difference between two dots and three dots, more testing revealed that they were not reacting to the number of dots, but simply to “how much black” they saw. When the two dots were enlarged so that they took up as much space as three dots, the cats failed to be able to tell the difference, although the fish did not have this problem!

So, we still do not know if cats can count, but before you go worrying that your cat is dumber than a fish (he’s not), or a crow (he probably is, sorry), it is important to remember something that the author Grim, and which I myself have pointed out in this blog: We should not measure the intelligence of animals based on a concrete scale. If cats never learned to count, or have not developed any large degree of numerical competency, it is probably because such a skill is not important to be a cat.

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