One of the basic ways pets communicate with people is “gaze alternation,” which is when the cat looks at her person and then pointedly looks at what she wants but is unable to get on her own. In this interaction, the cat must approach the person, get the person’s attention by looking at them, then go to or look at the desired object.
A study published in Animal Cognition looked at how cats might handle their ability, or inability at times, to reach a treat and whether they use gaze alternation. In the study, 56 cats were taken one at a time with a familiar person into a room with a treat container. The cat got to see the treat being put in the container and then was carried about six feet away from it. One group of cats had an accessible container so they could get the treat themselves. The other group had a container with a top on it. Both groups interacted with attentive or nonattentive people.
Not surprisingly, the cats used more gaze alternation when they needed help getting the treat. However, the cats did interact socially even when they could get the treats themselves. “Cats may have been motivated to exhibit showing/attention-seeking behavior after they successfully retrieved the treat to get more,” says the study.
Cats appeared to be reading the attitude and attentiveness of the caregiver people as well. They approached the treat container more frequently, took their first gaze at the caregiver sooner, and gazed at her more often when she was attentive. Male cats were more likely to go through the whole behavior sequence to figure out how to get the treats. Younger cats tended to have more interactions with the people.
Overall, when the cat could not get the treat on his own, he increased the number of gaze alternations. Instead of interacting with the caregiver or going to the inaccessible treat container, the cats concentrated their efforts on getting the attention of the person and getting the person to help them to their goal. If the person was paying attention to them, the cats looked at them quickly and frequently, and went to the treat container. The cats appeared to understand that they had to interact with and get the attention of the human to get the treats. In addition, they read the people very well, recognizing who was ignoring them and who might be persuaded to help.
This study suggests that it would behoove you to pay attention to your cat and interact with her in a very conscious way, responding to her requests. The more effort you put into your relationship with your cat, the stronger your bond will be.n
Zhang, L., et al. Feline communication strategies when presented with an unsolvable task: the attentional state of the person matters. Anim Cogn 24, 1109–1119 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01503-6