Source: Psychology Today (Extract)
Posted: May 10, 2023

We get information about our environment through a variety of sense modalities: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Humans excel at vision, so much so that our other sense modalities are comparably significantly less reliable. Other animals are better with other senses: Dogs are great with smells, for example, and elephants and horses are excellent at auditory perception (hearing).

How about cats? It has long been assumed that they, like horses and elephants, have much better hearing than any other sense modalities. The main reason for this is that their closest relatives—tigers, lions, and other big cats—are vastly superior at hearing than at any other sense modality. But a recent study casts doubt on these assumptions.

The researchers tested four conditions: only hearing, only seeing, both, and neither. The question was which of these conditions was most likely to draw a cat’s attention to the experimenter. While it should be acknowledged that the sample size of the experiment was somewhat small (18) and that the cats that served as subjects have “worked” in a cat cafe for years, and so presumably had had more exposure to humans than other cats, the results were pretty clear and extremely surprising: Vision alone, and vision plus hearing, were by far the most efficient ways of grabbing the cats’ attention.

These results are surprising because they contrast with what we know about tigers and lions, for whom hearing very clearly beats seeing. How did this get reversed in house cats? An obvious explanation, and one consistent with the details of this experiment, is that the mental life of house cats have been adjusted to the human social environment. The visual cues that the experimenters used were mainly visual social cues, like eye contact and slow blinking. So what the results really show is that cats are good at visual cues as long as they are also social cues.

One persistent, but very understandable, myth about cats versus dogs is that cats are less-social creatures. Dogs love their owners, and get really excited about anything the owner does, we believe, but cats? Not so much; they just seem very good at looking aloof and tolerating their owners’ adoration. But a flurry of recent experimental results show how mistaken this contrast is: Cats may like to hide it, but they really do care a lot about their owners. It’s just that dogs show this in a more obvious manner. The finding that visual social cues are more efficient for drawing a cat’s attention than sounds is another piece of the puzzle in understanding the animal’s intricately complex social life.