Study Suggests That For Cats, Seeing Is Believing

In a test to find out if cats locate food based on smell or sight, the results were surprising.

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Cats might look for food more than sniffing it out.  Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Cats might look for food more than sniffing it out. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

My cat, Butterscotch, has an internal meal clock, or so it seems. Every day, at noon and around 6 p.m., he starts meowing loudly until someone pulls the cat food out of the bin next to his scratching post. He’s never really sniffed around the bin of food — granted, there’s a lid on top. He always makes more of a point of looking at the food and meowing versus trying to sniff and get to the food. He doesn’t get excited until he sees the small pieces of food falling into his bowl, and within no time at all, he’s devouring it.

Cats have many different ways of letting their owners know if they’re hungry. Some cats meow until food is set down in front of them, while others will just paw at their owner until they get up and pour them food. Most of the time, even if food is out in the dish, if the cat isn’t looking directly at it, they don’t know that their needs of hunger have been satisfied.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, have conducted tests on what sense cats really use to find food, examining the difference between sight and smell. The study looked at how a cat determined food was out for them, testing both senses. The experiment yielded some interesting results, finding that cats may prefer to use their eyes to find their food.

Testing Cats’ Senses
Evy Mayes carried out the research at the University of Lincoln, and she and her team’s findings were published by the international journal “Applied Animal Sciences.” Mayes completed this research while she was studying for her Master’s in feline behavior and welfare. According to a University of Lincoln press release, six cats were placed in a maze, and they determined which direction to take by choosing a piece of paper that showed either a visual of food or smelled like food. One combination of directions would result in a prize of food, while the other led to no reward at all.

Once the cats had grasped the general idea of the maze, the researchers changed the cues just to see what direction the cats preferred to go in. Four out of the six cats followed the visual cues; one cat preferred to use his nose; and one didn’t give a preference to one sense over the other.

Mayes now works at the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. She told the University of Lincoln that it’s a huge priority there for their cats to be “housed in the best possible environment.” She says learning that cats might value their sense of sight more than their sense of smell could definitely change common ways of managing cats.

“I was also particularly surprised by the speed at which the cats learned to solve the task, which is very encouraging for future cat behavior studies,” Mayes says.

What This Could Mean
Professor Daniel Mills, who is based at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, supervised this study.

“This is the first time we have asked cats how they operate rather than assumed this from what we know about their senses,” he told the University of Lincoln.

Mills also touched on the fact that one cat used their sense of smell over their sense of sight.

“If there is a cat which has a strong preference for using its nose, then simple changes in the smell of the environment might have a big impact on it,” he says, adding that it’s important to attend to the needs of the individual feline rather than the needs that seem to apply to the majority.

Because it was only a small sample size, it is not enough proof that cats prefer using their sense of sight over their sense of smell when trying to find food. However, this information can be used to personalize all standards of living for cats. It’s just a matter of future experiments and learning more about cats and their senses.

I’m not sure Butterscotch will ever be running for food based strictly on smell. From my experiences as a pet owner, cats have nowhere near the scent capabilities that dogs have. But as long as Butterscotch sees the food going into his bowl, he’s happy.

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