Cats play fetch — but only when they feel like it 

A survey of cat owners revealed details about feline fetching

A close-up image of a brown and tan striped tabby kitten lying on white fabric while holding a rainbow cat toy in its mouth.

Yes, cats can play fetch. But don’t just throw kitty a ball and expect them to return the toy. Cats are typically the ones who decide when to do that and when to stop, a new survey finds.

Mariia Zotova/Moment/Getty Images

In news that probably won’t surprise cat owners, some cats play fetch. But they do it on their own terms.

Playing fetch with a cat is a bit different than playing fetch with a dog. Fetching felines tend to dictate when this play begins — and ends. That’s the finding of a survey of more than 900 cat owners.

The vast majority of the participants’ cats seemed to pick up the behavior on their own. These cats had no direct training from their humans, researchers reported December 14 in Scientific Reports.

“Ultimately, I think the cats are in control,” says Jemma Forman. She’s an animal-behavior scientist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Her team’s study adds a new facet to scientists’ understanding of cat behavior, which has been less studied than that of dogs.

Previous studies had reported that cats can fetch. However, there had been little research into why or how the animals do it, or whether this required training. The inspiration for the new study came from Bear, a sleek Sphynx kitty. “He surprised me one day by bringing a toy to me,” says Elizabeth Renner. She is a psychologist at Northumbria University in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

To see how common this was, Renner teamed up with Forman and University of Sussex psychologist David Leavens. They created an online survey and then recruited respondents via social media. They targeted people who have (or had) cats that played fetch.

Shall we play a game?

The researchers were interested in the animals’ agency, meaning whose idea it had been to play fetch in the first place.

More often than not, they learned, it had been the cat. The survey tallied data from 1,154 cats. Their owners reported that more than 94 percent hadn’t been trained to fetch. The survey also revealed other kitty tidbits, like favorite things to fetch. These included toys, crumpled paper and hair ties, among other things. And of the purebred cats studied, Siamese kitties fetched most frequently.

It’s possible that owners were training their cats without realizing it, says Dennis Turner. He is a cat-behavior expert who founded the Institute of Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology. It’s near Zurich, Switzerland. Even just tossing a toy left at your feet rewards your cat with time and attention. That reinforces the fetching behavior, says Turner, who was not involved in the work. “Cats learn very quickly — if they want to.”

Bear, a Sphynx kitty, purrs while retrieving a crinkly foil ball tossed by his owner, study coauthor Elizabeth Renner. “He really loves fetch,” she says.

Cats may also be training their humans, he says. One cat owner in the study figured out that her pet would fetch only pom-poms of a certain size. “I bought a larger pom-pom, and she rejected it,” the owner said. In human-cat relationships, Turner says, “there’s a lot of learning going on back and forth.”

These findings offer plenty for researchers to sink their claws into. One question is what share of cats play fetch, Renner says. Another is whether fetching is a type of social interaction between people and cats. The researchers are now recruiting cat owners for a new study that may help answer that last question. 

Not every cat will fetch like a dog. But Forman emphasizes that it’s still important for owners to pay attention to their animals’ needs. “Cats are individuals, and they have very distinct personalities.” Cats may want to eat, play or do something else entirely — like walk on your keyboard. Or sleep on your face.

Luis Melecio-Zambrano contributed to reporting.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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