Boy cat, or girl cat? Hint: watch the paws

Seventy percent of cats show a paw preference when taking that first step down a flight of stairs. And if they use their right paw, odds are she’s a female.

That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers from Queens University Belfast in a new study on limb preference in cats.

Co-author Deborah Wells, PhD, and her colleagues spent three months observing 44 domestic cats—20 females and 14 males—in their home environments in Northern Ireland. The researchers were looking for three distinct behaviors: which paw the cats used to take their first step down a flight of stairs, which one they used to take their initial step into their litter box, and which side they lay down on.

The researchers then placed food in a plastic container and tracked which paw the cats used to reach inside a narrow hole to retrieve the food.

The researchers discovered that 70% of cats showed a preference when going down stairs, 66% showed a preference when stepping into their litter box, and 73% showed a preference when trying to get at the food.

Researchers also discovered that paw preference showed a definite divide along gender lines, with males strongly favoring their front left paws and females strongly favoring their front right paws.

Neither sex showed a preference for which side they slept on.

The researchers noted that it was a little surprising that the study showed a gender bias at all, considering that all 44 cats tested were neutered.

So, does knowing a cat’s paw preference have a practical application for veterinarians and their staff beyond being a good predictor of gender, given that they most likely already know the sex of their feline patients?

Kind of, Wells said in an email. “In theory (but this is not yet supported by any scientific research), left-pawed cats, which are leaning more heavily on their right hemisphere (responsible for the processing of negative emotions) might be more vulnerable to stress than right-pawed cats,” she wrote, “and, from a veterinary perspective, might therefore be more fearful/aggressive/easily spooked.”

So, knowing that left-pawed cats might be more prone to stress than right-pawed cats could come in handy, but it’s not the whole story.

Wells continues: “Other factors will come heavily into play in the context of the vet’s surgery that may also impact the animal’s emotions and behavior, e.g., breed, temperament, past experience . . . so, it’s not probably as straightforward as telling vets to treat left-pawed cats more carefully than right-pawed ones.”

These findings reinforce the findings of a recent study Wells and her colleagues did on limb preference in dogs.

In that study, researchers said that paw testing could be useful in environments like animal shelters, where staff are likely to be dealing with animals they’ve never seen before. A quick way to assess paw preference could allow staff dealing with unfamiliar animals to quickly identify cats or dogs with an increased susceptibility to stress. Staff could then take appropriate actions to treat those animals in ways likely to decrease their stress.

Particularly if they’re already so stressed that trying to determine sex by more conventional means would only be more stressful.

Wells acknowledges that “[It]’s quite a messy area and definitely requires more study!”

Photo credit: © iStock/ababsolutum

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