Do cats adjust their behavior to what works to get what they want or do they nag humans until people begin to respond in more agreeable ways?

Some cat owners, and probably most dog owners, might argue that cats engage in the latter and when it seems like the former it is just a lucky meeting of personalities. A new study in Animal Cognition finds they 'read the room' better than expected.

Cats were presented with a solvable task (an easily accessible treat in a container with a loose lid) and an unsolvable task (a treat in a closed container) in the presence of either an attentive or inattentive caregiver.


In the solvable task condition, cats easily figured out how to access the treat and did not try to involve the person in the process but when cats could not access the treat by themselves, they used behavioral strategies to communicate their intention to the person, like repeatedly looking at the treat and then at the person, seeking attention and help in accessing the treat.

Not only did they 'ask' for help, but they also modified their behavior depending on the availability of the person. When the person was looking at them and paying attention, the cats were more engaged; they looked to them sooner and more often and approached the treat container more often. When caregivers weren't paying attention, the cats adjusted their strategy, presumably having noticed that the person was not engaged. These sophisticated cognitive abilities were believed to be used by dogs, not by cats.

"A key part of any relationship is communication, and this study shows that cats are perhaps better communicators than we've given them credit for," said senior author Dr. François Martin of Nestlé Purina Research. 

At least when they want something. Does this mean you are going to change a cat to be what you want rather than what they are? Not likely. They still have personalities of their own and have no issue letting humans know what it is.

Citation: Zhang, L., Needham, K.B., Juma, S. et al. Feline communication strategies when presented with an unsolvable task: the attentional state of the person matters. Anim Cogn 24, 1109–1119 (2021).