Although dogs and many dog breeds have been selected for specific behaviors, the same cannot really be said of our feline friends. Through the process of domestication, we have indirectly supported cats who are friendly, more tolerant of other cats, and adaptable to many different lifestyles. But as a species, we haven’t asked them to change their behavior too much (they’re still primarily driven by the desire and need to hunt!).
Although it is believed that most dogs can learn to fetch if they don’t already have a strong drive to do so, fetching is much less commonly reported in cats.
A study published in 1986 found that almost 16 percent of respondents had a cat who fetched. Owners of Siamese cats were more likely to observe fetching behavior, suggesting a genetic component. Since then, there has been very little investigation into fetching behavior!
New research, “Fetching Felines: A Survey of Cat Owners on the Diversity of Cat (Felis catus) Fetching Behaviour“ (available as a pre-print, meaning it has not gone through formal peer review yet), explores fetching behavior in cats who fetch. There are lots of questions related to fetching, such as:
- Does it appear spontaneously?
- Does fetching require training?
- Can you train a cat to fetch?
- Are there effects of age or sex on fetching behavior?
Other examples of retrieval behavior are related to maternal care and hunting. Mom cats bring both live and dead prey to their kittens. This gives kittens opportunities to learn how to hunt as they prepare to become independent and self-sufficient. And many humans with cats who have outdoor access will attest to their cat bringing home “presents,” although the function of this behavior is more likely to be bringing home food to eat later or in a safer space rather than providing humans with a snack.
In the current survey-based study, owners of fetching cats were asked several questions about their cat’s fetching behavior, such as when their cat started fetching, and the types of objects that were fetched. Almost 1000 cat owners completed the survey about 1154 fetching cats.
What did the survey reveal about cat fetching?
The survey results indicated that more male cats fetched than female cats (or perhaps more owners of fetching male cats completed the survey). Most cats started fetching when they were less than a year old, and only 6% of the cats represented in the survey were trained to fetch. That means 1089 of the fetching cats were not trained to fetch and offered the behavior spontaneously! Cats were also more likely to initiate fetching behaviors than their owners. When cats initiated the fetch session, it was typically longer than if the owner initiated it.
Cats overwhelmingly preferred to fetch cat toys, with crumpled paper balls, hair ties and q-tips rounding out the list of most popular items to fetch. That said, cats also fetched items as diverse as cigarette packs, playing cards, and earplugs. (I should note that several of these items, especially hair ties, q-tips, and earplugs can be quite dangerous for cats to play with! If they are ingested, they can all cause dangerous intestinal blockages). Although most cats in the study lived with other cats, it was rare for other cats in the home to also fetch.
Many owners reported that their cat would drop the fetched item before fulling bringing it back to them. Owners were encouraged to share details of their cats fetching behavior, which included observations that cats would only fetch one specific toy, or only in a certain area of the home.
In general, this study revealed a lot of individual differences in fetching behavior as exhibited by cats. Cats seem to like to take the lead when it comes to fetching, and they can have specific preferences about what objects they like to fetch! Most cats who fetch do not need training to do so!
My own experience with fetching cats!
Personally, I never had cats who spontaneously fetched until recently – the three cats I have (sisters) all offered fetching behavior when they were kittens. Often, they would initiate fetching by dropping a toy (usually a rabbit fur rattle mouse) near me and wait for me to toss it. Less often, they would fetch in response to me tossing the toy. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised and excited to have fetchers! Some interesting features of their fetching behavior:
- One cat (Coriander) has always been the most likely to fetch, although all three of them have fetched
- The fetching behavior has greatly decreased as they have aged (they are now almost 4 years old)
- Only very specific toys seem to instigate the fetching behavior
- They still chase tossed toys, but rarely pick them up and bring them back
- Often they drop the toy on the way back from fetching
So why do cats fetch? We don’t know! It is likely this behavior is part of the predatory sequence of behaviors. There are two parts to this behavior – the pursuit of the object when it is tossed, and the retrieval. Some cats seem to do both (the true fetchers), most cats will pursue moving objects (likely predatory behavior), and some cats will carry objects to home or their owner (including cats who like to bring home things like clothing and toys). As previously mentioned, bringing objects home could be related to bringing killed prey home for a safer place to consume it. However, in the case of fetching behavior, the retrieval seems more likely to be a “request” for the human to engage in more toy tossing! So perhaps this is a truly social play behavior rather than strictly predatory.
There’s still much more to learn and understand about fetching behavior. Some attention to this topic is definitely overdue, so this paper is a welcome addition to the cat behavior literature! What we need to know next is why SOME cats fetch, and some don’t…
Forman, J., Renner, E., & Leavens, D. (2023). Fetching Felines: A Survey of Cat Owners on the Diversity of Cat (Felis catus) Fetching Behaviour.
Voith, V. L., & Borchelt, P. L. (1986). Social behavior of domestic cats. Compendium Small Animal, 8(9), 637-646.