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Cats That Fetch Are an Evolutionary Mystery

Cats That Fetch Are an Evolutionary Mystery

The way my spouse likes to tell it, our cat Calvin was just about a year old when he revealed his love for fetch. One evening, my spouse offhandedly flung a yarn puff across the apartment and was gobsmacked when Calvin bounded after the toy and picked it up in his mouth—then trotted over to deposit it at my husband’s feet. In the months that followed, Calvin became obsessed with our new game. He began to demand the activity nightly after dinner, meowing and prodding at our calves; he started to jam his paws into our pockets, rooting around for objects we might toss. We marveled at our weird little man, so strangely doglike in his pursuit.

In truth, though, fetching doesn’t make Calvin that much of an exception. Cats that fetch are a minority but not an extreme minority, Mikel Delgado, a cat-behavior consultant at Feline Minds, told me. Although the data are sparse, in one limited study from 1986 that surveyed pet owners, nearly 16 percent of cats reportedly fetched. Delgado, who herself has three fetching cats—Ruby, Coriander, and Professor Scribbles—is now poring over a newer and much larger data set, not yet published, that suggests that the retrieving percentage might be higher. (The methodology of the 1980s study may have also been wanting: “Fetch” was listed as one of several “tricks” that owners reported in their cats, alongside “interesting behavior” and “understand everything.”)

The common-ishness of fetching among cats doesn’t make it any less weird. Repeatedly retrieving a single object, especially for another species, isn’t a regular occurrence in the wild. Domestic dogs (retrievers, especially) fetch because we bred them to do so; people expect the behavior in puppies, tossing balls with abandon and showering their pets with rewards. With cats, though, “that’s not a trait we’ve actively selected for,” says Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Which makes fetching a bit of a paradox—a behavior with deep wild roots that has been coaxed out by a playful relationship with us.

Although it’s found in an apparent minority of cats, fetching really does seem to come naturally to some felines. A preprint study from earlier this year, which hasn’t yet been published in a scientific journal, surveyed the owners of 1,154 fetching cats and found that nearly 95 percent of the animals performed the behavior untrained.

Evolutionarily speaking, that sort of checks out. Fetching is just a sequence of four behaviors: looking, chasing, grab-biting, and returning. Versions of the first three are already built into predators’ classic hunting repertoire, says Kathryn Lord, an evolutionary biologist at the Broad Institute, who’s had her own fetching cat. Returning is perhaps the wild card. Christopher Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, told me that, as solitary creatures, cats have little natural incentive to share what they catch. He hasn’t spotted much retrieval behavior in the feline species he’s studied in nature—or in the half dozen house cats he’s had throughout his life.

But cats already have some of the behavioral ingredients for carrying fetched cargo. As Sarah Ellis, the head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care, points out, feline mothers bring live prey back to their kittens to teach them how to hunt, and cats of both sexes have been known to move their food to safer spots before chowing down. (Ellis has had multiple fetching cats.) Maybe, Dickman told me, as cats were repeatedly invited into human homes and praised for eliminating pests, some of their retrieval-esque behaviors were rewarded—and possibly amplified. House cats with access to the outdoors are sadly infamous for hauling home wild birds, rodents, amphibians, and reptiles. And for indoor-only cats, chasing a furry object, gnawing on it, and bringing it to a secure spot may playfully scratch a predatory itch that might otherwise go unsated.

The cat brand of fetching isn’t exactly Labrador-esque. The preprint found that most of the 900-plus surveyed owners fetched with their cats 10 times or fewer a month—and that felines, not people, were the typical initiators and terminators of these rare bouts. That rings true to my experience. When Calvin wants to fetch, he demands it, with zero regard for what we’re doing (eating, lifting weights, cooking with literal fire). And when he’s done, he’ll simply drop his puff and saunter away, sometimes even halting mid-chase. With Delgado’s cats, too, “it seems very much on their terms,” she said.

That squares with some of the ways in which cats are thought to behaviorally depart from dogs. Both love a good chase, but the average canine probably gets much more of a thrill out of obeying and pleasing us. We’ve bred dogs over millennia to respond to our praise, to the point where they can read our facial expressions and body language; cats, meanwhile, are more inclined to view their owners as “just the batteries” that make toys move, Ellis told me. If fetching is an inherently social process—a pair of creatures reading each other’s cues—cats might have less built-in aptitude.

The fetching gap might also be driven in part by human expectation. “Most people just assume that cats aren’t going to fetch, and it’s just a dog thing to do,” Zazie Todd, an animal-behavior expert, told me. More cats might fetch if we paid attention, or simply encouraged them to, especially in their youth. Many people, using clickers and treats, have successfully trained cats to fetch. Plus, as Delgado pointed out, it can take some patience to figure out what types of toys felines are most eager to retrieve. Calvin, for instance, goes bonkers only for toys that are fuzzy and mouselike; Lord’s fetching cat was obsessed with costume-jewelry beads. Many dogs are also quite picky about what they’ll deign to bring back, Sung told me; their universe of chew toys and tossables just happens to be larger and more heavily advertised.

Why some cats are more amenable than others to fetching remains just as much of a mystery as why they retrieve at all. Several experts told me that they’ve most reliably seen the behavior in kittenhood, a time when animals may be experimenting with what it means to “hunt”; in many cases, fetching then seems to ebb with age, says Jemma Forman, a psychologist at the University of Sussex and one of the authors of the recent preprint. There might be a genetic component too, as is the case with dogs: The scant studies on the subject suggest that certain interactive and assertive cat breeds, including Siamese and Abyssinians, are more inclined to retrieve. Delgado’s three cats, who are sisters, are all fetchers, though to varying degrees. Then again, for all of Calvin’s fetching, his brother, Hobbes, can’t seem to figure it out. Once he’s pounced on a toy, he’d rather abscond beneath a blanket with it than offer the object to us.

The weirdness of cat-fetching can make it all the more special to the people lucky enough to experience it for themselves. After decades of working with cats, Delgado only now has her first fetchers; “I was always a little jealous” of people with retrieving felines, she told me, and she was absolutely delighted when her girls fetched for the first time. I understand the appeal. Calvin needs me for a lot of things—food, water, tooth-brushings, veterinary care. But when he explicitly invites me to play with him, I’m transported to a part of his universe that feels especially intimate. He is choosing to have fun but also expressing that he’d prefer to do it with me. When Calvin drops his toys at my feet, he is quite literally bringing me a gift.

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