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Expert's research shows cats don't understand string theory

16 June 2009

A Psychology Lecturer from Canterbury Christ Church University has found that cats do not understand cause and effect connections between objects.

Dr Britta Osthaus studied the intelligence of domestic cats.
Dr Britta Osthaus studied the intelligence of domestic cats.

Dr Britta Osthaus, Lecturer in the University’s Department of Applied Social Sciences, tested the intelligence of domestic cats to understand their thought processes and how they perceive the world.

Dr Osthaus attached fish and biscuit treats to one end of a string and tested 15 domestic cats to find if they could understand that pulling on one end of the string would pull the treat closer. She found that there was no evidence that cats understand the function of strings or their physical causality.

The cats were tested on their ability to retrieve an unreachable food treat from under a plastic screen in three different scenarios: a single baited string, two parallel stings where only one was baited and two crossed strings where only one was baited.

All cats succeeded at pulling a single string to obtain a treat but, unlike dogs, none consistently chose the correct string when two strings were parallel. When tested with two crossed strings one cat chose the wrong string consistently and all others performed at chance level.

Dr Osthaus said: “This finding is somehow surprising as cats regularly use their paws and claws to pull things towards them during play and hunting. They performed even worse than dogs, which can at least solve the parallel string task.”

She added: “This research is important in showing the limits of feline intelligence. If we know their limits we won't expect too much of them, which is in turn important for their welfare. It is also important as it shows that the cognitive abilities of cats are different to those of dogs, although both species are hunters and both species are domesticated.”

If you are a member of the media and would like a photograph of or interview with Dr Britta Osthaus, please contact Canterbury Christ Church University’s Media Relations Officer, David Cutts, on 01227 782391 or email

Notes to Editor

Dr Osthaus

Dr Osthaus undertook a Psychology degree at the Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum, Germany.  Following on from this, Dr Osthaus completed a PhD in dog cognition in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter.  Dr Osthaus also worked at the University of Exeter as a teaching fellow for 10 years before taking up her appointment at Canterbury Christ Church University as Lecturer in Psychology.

Her specialist research areas include: how dogs perceive the world, plus general cognition in cats, horses, mules and donkeys, and research on animal-human interaction. She is also interested in the benefits of animals for the elderly.

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University has, since its foundation by the Church of England as a teacher training college in 1962, developed a wide range of taught programmes, research and educational services.  It continues to be the largest centre of higher education in Kent for the major public services.

The University now has over 15,500 students based in five Faculties: Arts and Humanities, Business and Management, Education, Health and Social Care, Social and Applied Sciences.  Our 1,500 staff contribute to the University’s work at our five campuses: Canterbury, Broadstairs, Folkestone (in partnership with the Creative Foundation and the University of Greenwich), Medway (in partnership with the Universities of Greenwich and Kent with Mid-Kent College) and Tunbridge Wells.  In so doing we seek to sustain the University’s Mission:

‘Inspired by the University’s Church of England Foundation and the aspirations of its students and staff, our mission is to pursue excellence in academic and professional higher education thereby enriching both individuals and society.’

For media enquiries:

David Cutts
01227 782391