I marvel at how my cats learn from each other. Cats observe and adopt certain behaviors of other cats, even though the behavior was of no interest previously. Norton is the smart one in our household, quick to learn behaviors that he observes in others. But I’ve noticed all of the cats engaging in copycat behavior. They thrive on being able to observe each other and to learn new things. For me, it’s just one more look into another facet of how complex and interesting our cats are.
Here’s some of what I’ve observed in our household:
I noticed this one first. My black cat Rama loves lettuce. In fact, he’s obsessed with it. He knows instantly when lettuce is being taken out of the refrigerator or it’s bought into the house via grocery bag. He knows the soft crinkle of the plastic produce bag, and somehow, he knows whether a grocery bag contains lettuce. Rama, like me, is least interested in iceberg lettuce but loves the darker varieties.
Little Norton, an orange tom, was never interested in lettuce until he saw Rama’s zest for eating lettuce. Suddenly, Norton had to have lettuce, too. The cats will eat it together, and they both prefer me to hold a small, dark piece while they rip at it daintily.
These behaviors involve timing that let the cats take best advantage of an opportunity. In our new place, the bedroom is on the second floor with stairs leading up to a loft. It’s a great staging area for a cat who wishes to get into the bedroom. We normally do not let all the cats into the bedroom. But Norton quickly learned to sense when we were getting ready for bed. He stands at the bottom of the stairs, squeaking and looking obviously at us (still on the first floor) and then looking up the stairs. The moment one of us takes the first step up the stairs, he is there with us, running up to the bedroom door.
This smart copycat has increased the other cats’ awareness. With Norton as leader, they caught on that bedtime was coming, learning that they better stage in the loft outside the bedroom door if they want entry into the coveted bedroom.
This one is very recent. Zorro, the (alleged) Ragdoll, loves to flop on his side and wave his paws. Recently, I’ve observed Norton doing the exact same thing. Perhaps Norton has figured out that Zorro’s flopping gets Zorro a lot of gushing and attention, and maybe Norton wants some more of that, too. Norton is one very smart cat.
Cat behaviorist Marilyn Krieger, author of Naughty No More! explains that this is called observational learning. It’s not limited to cats — it’s one of the many ways animals learn. Observational learning starts when “kittens watch and mimic their mom — this helps them learn important survival skills, such as hunting.” Observational learning speeds up learning — especially when coupled with trial and error. Behaviors are repeated when there are favorable consequences, such as treats, attention, and affection. This would certainly explain all the observational learning I’ve seen in my household.
Krieger points out that adult cats can also learn through observation. The consequences of a behavior predicts whether a behavior will be repeated.
Krieger regularly takes advantage of (and facilitates) observational learning in her multicat household. All of her cats are clicker trained.
“I usually train Sudan, one of my cats, in a new behavior first,” Krieger says. “After he learns it, we then practice it within view of my other two cats. After many repetitions of the behavior (such as doing high fives, or opening the door to the cat carrier), I start training my other cats the behavior. Typically, they learn the behavior quicker after watching Sudan repeat the behavior a number of times.”
As you can see in the photos above, Zorro does a good high five. Maybe I can train Norton and everyone else to follow suit.
How about you? Have you seen your cats taking advantage of observational behavior? Do some cats pick this up better than others?
More by Catherine Holm:
About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.