Scientists who played with 42 pet cats for weeks on end concluded that, like humans, felines are either left or right ‘handed’. And just as men are more likely than women to be left handed, so female felines tend to favor their right paw when tackling complex tasks while toms side with the left.
Although previous studies have attributed ‘handedness’ to other animals, with chimps and horses knowing their left from their right, the discovery of a paw preference in male and female cats has surprised experts.
But Deborah Wells, a researcher on the latest study, said: ‘Our results suggest that there are two distinct populations of paw preference in the cat that cluster very strongly around the animal’s sex.’
Psychologists set the cats three tasks. The first involved retrieving a piece of tuna from a jar too small for their heads. In the others, the pets pawed at a toy mouse suspended in the air, or dragged along the ground from a string. In the toy mouse tests, both sexes seemed to use either paw interchangeably. But in the trickier jar test, there was a clear line between the sexes, the journal Animal Behaviour reports. All 21 males favored their left paw for the task, while 20 out of the 21 females favored their right.
In humans, exposure to higher levels of the male sex hormone testosterone in the womb has been linked to left-handedness. And in the animal world, dogs that haven’t been neutered show the same paw preference as the cats, with female dogs favoring their right front paw and males choosing their left. When the animals are sterilized, the difference disappears.
Dr Wells said it was unclear why cats’ paw choice should be linked to their sex, adding: ‘Male and female cats differ in their behavioral patterns, for example hunting styles and parental care, and it is possible that these place different demands on motor functioning.’
If the different sexes approach tasks with different mindsets, that may explain why they use different paws when spurred into action.