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When do cats play fetch? When they feel like it 

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

Fetching felines tend to dictate when a fetching session begins and when it ends, a survey of over 900 cat owners suggests. The vast majority of the participants’ cats seemed to pick up the behavior on their own, with no explicit training from their humans, animal behavior scientist Jemma Forman and colleagues report December 14 in Scientific Reports.

“Ultimately, I think the cats are in control,” says Forman, of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. The study adds a new facet to scientists’ understanding of cat behavior, which has been less studied than that of dogs. 

Previous studies have reported that cats can fetch, but there’s not much research on why or how the animals do it, or whether the behavior requires training. The inspiration for the new study came in the form of a sleek Sphynx named Bear. “He surprised me one day by bringing a toy to me,” says Elizabeth Renner, a psychologist at Northumbria University in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. 

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

So she teamed up with Forman and University of Sussex psychologist David Leavens to create an online survey to learn more about fetching cats. The team recruited survey respondents via social media and targeted people who have (or had) cats that played fetch. 

The researchers were interested in the animals’ agency: Whose idea was it to play fetch in the first place? More often than not, the answer was the cat, the team found. Of the 1,154 cats tallied in the survey, 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 (toys, crumpled paper and hair ties, among other items) and the purebred that fetched most frequently (Siamese). 

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

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.” 

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

Not every cat will fetch like Fido, so Forman emphasizes that it’s 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. 

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