A new study published in the journal Animal Cognition put a domestic cat to the test to see if it could recognize and mimic human behavior performed by its owner. Amazingly, as some fantastic footage demonstrates, it could. Eleven-year-old Ebisu, much-loved pet to Fumi Higaki, became the focus of the study when Higaki met with study author and professional dog trainer Claudia Fugazza who had been studying cognition in canines. A passing comment regarding Ebisu’s copycat behavior and motivation for food painted her as the perfect subject and the pair soon got to work training her using techniques that have long been effective in training dogs.
The Do as I Do paradigm sees a trainer make a verbal command before carrying out a behavior, and then indicating that the animal should do the same. If the trainee completes the behavior, they receive positive reinforcement in the form of a treat, which for snack-centric Ebisu was the greatest motivation of all. It took just four months of training before Ebisu was proficient at mimicking her owner’s behaviors, and, in December 2019, Fugazza conducted experiments monitoring Ebisu’s copycatting of Higaki, the entertaining results of which were caught on camera.
Together the trio carried out 18 trials, which saw Ebisu effectively imitate Higaki’s behavior 81 percent of the time. Ebisu’s performances included touching objects, opening drawers, laying down, and putting her paws in the air (like she just didn’t care). For her impressive feat, the cat joins apes, dolphins, killer whales, and dogs in a small tier of animals proven to be capable of cross-species mimicry with human behavior. However, a sample size of just one clever kitty means it’s too early to say if cats in general can exhibit the same degree of copycat behavior as seen with Ebisu.
Unfortunately, soon after her ground-breaking achievement, Ebisu succumbed to kidney failure and so this foray into animal behavior research was her first and last. Cats have a reputation for being a bit non-compliant when it comes to scientific experiments, but Fugazza remains confident that more cats can be trained in the same way as Ebisu.
“Our experiment provides the first evidence that the Do as I Do paradigm can be applied to cats, suggesting that the ability to recognize behavioural similarity may fall within the range of the socio-cognitive skills of this species,” wrote Fugazza. “The ability of reproducing the actions of a heterospecific human model in well-socialized cats may pave the way for future studies addressing cats’ imitative skills.”