Every day, we go through our life driven by our dominant hand. We write, we eat, we hold our phones— all while favoring one hand over the other. Being right-handed or left-handed feels like a distinctly human quality, but we aren't the only mammals that gesture, work and express ourselves with one of our appendages. Our pets can be very expressive with their paws, too.
Cats, specifically, use their paws to play, interact with us and as a form of communication. But do they prefer using one of their paws over the other, the way I can write pretty cursive with one hand and only near-illegible scribbles with the other?
As it turns out, scientists have also been fascinated by this question as well, and they've found some answers.
A recent study suggests that cats do have a paw preference.
According to a recent study from the Animal Behavioral Centre in the School of Psychology at Queen's University Belfast, cats do show what they call a "paw preference." Some cats show a preference for one side over the other, just like humans prefer using one hand over the other. Scientists chose to study 4 commonly owned cat breeds—Maine Coon, Bengal, Ragdoll and Persian—to see if those breeds showed a preference for one paw over the other. They also wondered whether a cat's breed influences their paw preference.
The cats were tested using the Catit Senses Food Maze, which features a number of holes that cats have to reach into to get at treats and food. As described in the study, "The paw the cat used to attempt food retrieval, regardless of whether or not a treat was obtained, was recorded. Each cat was tested until 50 responses were made." The cats were tested in their homes and they had no human interaction during the study to ensure that they weren't unduly influenced.
As it turns out, cats are more likely to left-pawed than right-pawed.
The cats in the study came back as 44.6% left-pawed, 35.7% as right-pawed and 19.6% as ambilateral (aka, they use both paws equally). As a comparison, only about 10% of humans are left-handed, and a study suggests that humans trend more to one side because we're social beings and we tend to imitate one another. Cats, however, are much more independent in their paw preferences. They are almost evenly split with only a slight tendency to left over right.
The study also looked at whether a kitty's breed influenced their paw preference. Bengel cats in the study were 80% left-pawed. Maine Coons and Ragdolls were most likely to be ambilateral. And Persian cats were almost evenly split between being right-pawed, left-pawed and ambilateral. So while one breed showed a very clear paw preference, overall it appears in the study that breed isn't a very clear predictor of what paw cats prefer.
Why does it matter whether cats prefer one paw over the other?
Cat behaviorist Mikel Maria Delgado explained the significance of the study's findings. "So what does it all mean, and should we even care about what paw your cat prefers to use? Generally it appears that all vertebrate (and maybe some invertebrates) show a trait known as lateralization. This means that the separate hemispheres of the brain may be specialized for particular tasks, and the two halves of the brain are not exactly the same in their function or the information they process."
Previous research has linked the right side of the brain with aggressive behavior, so the study suggests that the fact that Bengal cats may tend to be more aggressive and have a preference for their left paw suggests that a left-pawed cat would be more likely to be aggressive. However, Delgado takes issue with that conclusion as a bit of a stretch.
But we always enjoy any information that helps us understand our kitties better. Watch your own cat and see how it plays, how it reaches for you—and you might just notice your kitty using one paw over the other.