Like humans, cats show signs of handedness. A study published in Animal Behaviour backs up previous research that shows individual felines express a preference for either their right or left paw. Even more bizarrely, this inclination to use one paw over another is split neatly along gender lines, with male cats preferring their left and female cats preferring their right.
In a departure from previous studies looking into lateralized motor behaviors in animals, researchers from Queen's University Belfast, UK, analyzed spontaneous and forced behavior in cats. It's the first known case where scientists have explored spontaneous limb movement and shown that it conforms to forced limb movement.
It was a relatively small-scale study, involving 44 cats of which 24 were male and 20 were female. During the first part of the study, the cats were watched in a home setting for three months and information was collected as they went about their day-to-day business. Owners noted paw preferences when their pet walked downstairs or stepped over objects, as well as whether they slept on the right or left side of their body. In total, there were between 15 and 20 actions involving limb movements recorded for each cat every month.
This “spontaneous” activity was followed by a “forced” activity, where the cats had to reach out and grab food from inside a three-tiered tower. The felines were given fifty attempts to snag the treats and the researchers jotted down their dominant paw in each instance.
The majority of cats revealed a paw preference whether it was walking downstairs (70 percent), stepping over objects (66 percent), or grabbing food (73 percent). It was only when it came to picking a side to sleep on that very few revealed any significant preferences.
Interestingly, the most important predictor of paw dominance was sex. Whereas humans show a species-wide bias for right-handedness (90 percent of people are right-handed) and kangaroos for left-handedness (95 percent of roos are left-handed), all male cats studied were left-paw dominant and almost all female cats were right-paw dominant.
Why the sex difference? Hormones could be a factor but the pets were neutered so it’s not a particularly persuasive argument.
“The findings point more and more strongly to underlying differences in the neural architecture of male and female animals," Deborah Wells, study co-author, explained in a statement.
But on a more practical level, the results from this study could help pet owners keep a tab on the health of their animals.
"We have just discovered that left-limbed dogs, for example, are more pessimistic in their outlook than right-limbed dogs," Wells added.
"From a pet owner's perspective, it might be useful to know if an animal is left or right limb dominant, as it may help them gauge how vulnerable that individual is to stressful situations."