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Cats play fetch, too — as long as they're in control, a study finds

Birman kitten playing with mouse
Nico De Pasquale Photography
/
Getty Images
Birman kitten playing with mouse

If you think of a game of fetch, you might picture a dog running back and forth, eagerly retrieving a ball. But a new, first-of-its-kind study in the journal Scientific Reportsshows that they're not the only pets that like the game: Cats play fetch, too, just on their own unique terms.

Academics at the University of Sussex and Northumbria University in Great Britain surveyed almost 1,000 owners of 1,154 cats to find out if – and why – they fetch, which was defined as an animal retrieving an object that's thrown.

According to their findings, nearly 95% of the cat owners reported that their cats fetched items instinctively, in the absence of overt training. One survey respondent said their cat returned the toy completely unprovoked.

Fetching was mainly first noticed when cats were under 1 year old.

What's more, "cats who fetch largely determine when they engage in fetching sessions and actively influence the play behavior of their owners," according to the study. In other words, unsurprisingly to cat owners, they liked to be in control.

"So it can say a bit about cats being in control of their interactions and being in control of their environments, [or] being in control of us, you might even go so far to say," says Jemma Forman, a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and co-author of the study.

But the motivation for cats to fetch objects seems to be different from that for dogs. Cats are more inclined to play on their own with objects that resemble prey. For dogs, play is more social, involving either another dog or human.

In general, play has major advantages for both the pet and the owner, as it not only helps to prevent aggression towards the owner, but also models the act of preying on real animals, an important kind of play behavior.

"So even if your cat doesn't play fetch, obviously it's a really good idea to try and engage them in any sort of play. Play does have a lot of benefits," says Forman. It's about owner receptiveness to your fur baby, she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 18, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story said the article published in the journal Nature. In fact, the article appeared in Scientific Reports.
Diba Mohtasham