Domesticated Cats and Domesticated Dogs: The Capacity to Remember


Rebecca Krajnak






I tested whether domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) will remember where food is located and find a food dish in a shorter amount of time than domesticated cats (Felis sylvestris cattus).  The findings were significant that domesticated dogs were able to find the food dish in a shorter amount of time than domesticated cats.


Keywords: location, domesticated, Canis familiaris, Felis sylvestris cattus







A previous study demonstrated that domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) are able to master tasks quite easily when instructed by humans. In the experiment, a dog’s favorite toy was presented to the dog and then placed behind a v-shaped fence. After several trials, the dog was able to successfully find its favorite toy behind the fence by finding a detour to the toy. However, when a human demonstrated the detour to the reinforcement, the dog was able to find its toy much more quickly. Dogs are able to rely on information given by humans when confronted with a new task. After observing the human detour around the v-shaped fence, the dog was able to adopt that same behavior and find the toy faster (Pongracz et al. 2001). Ancestors of the domestic dog were social animals and lived in packs and within each pack there was a distinct leader. When dogs became domesticated, this allegiance was transferred from the pack leader to its human master (Pongracz et al. 2001. This suggests that the trust and communication between dog and owner plays a crucial role in a dog’s ability to perform tasks that are demonstrated by its human counterparts.


House cats (Felis sylvestris cattus) possess the features of their feral ancestors, not only physical characteristics, but their instinctual traits as well. This suggests that although domesticated, house cats have the inherent capability to hunt and track anything from a toy to an unwanted mouse. Unlike their canine counterparts, domesticated cats have not yielded to subjugation and have complete self-reliance, making them largely independent animals (Allen et al. 1994). Allegiance has not been transferred from pack leader in felines to their human masters once they have become domesticated as it is seen in domesticated dogs. House cats demonstrate their predation tactics when extremely hungry even in a domestic environment (Hall et al. 1997). 

This experiment was designed to determine whether domesticated dogs or domesticated cats would find a hidden dish of food faster than the other. I proposed that when shown a dish of food that was subsequently hidden, a domesticated dog will find the food in a shorter amount of time than a domesticated cat.





Beginning February 16th, 2002, eight domesticated dogs and eight domesticated cats of varying breeds (see Table 1) were isolated from the kennels of the Port Veterinary Clinic in Port Washington, Wisconsin, under the supervision of Dr. AnnaMarie Dittmar, D.V.S. All sixteen animals were chosen from the kennels containing dogs and cats waiting to be adopted out by the public. All animals were thoroughly examined by the veterinarian prior to the experiment to ensure their health. The animals that were most responsive to human contact were selected to perform in the experiment. This meaning that no aggressive behavior was shown when the animal was approached by either myself or the veterinarian. On February 24th, four of the eight dogs selected, participated in the study on that day. Four of the eight cats selected also participated.


The study was conducted in a room measuring 9 meters by 6 meters. The room was empty and had a bare concrete floor. A dish containing 50 grams of Iams Lamb and Rice Formula canned food was placed on the floor 8.5 meters away from the first dog. Only the dog, the experimenter, and a veterinary assistant were in the room. The dish of food was shown to the dog for thirty seconds while the animal was restrained by the assistant who held its collar. The dish of food was covered with a 15 cm opaque dish that was 1 cm thick. This was to prevent the animal from locating the dish of food with an olfactory cue and minimized confounding based on these cues. Thirty seconds elapsed before the dog was released and timed to locate the dish of food. I stood away from the food dishes in order not to affect the dog’s behavior or ability to find the dish of food. To measure if the dog has found the dish, the animal had to spend at least five seconds at a dish of food or give an audible response such as a whimper or bark, or move the dish with its snout or paw. Domesticated cats were also observed in the same manner with a dish of Whiskas Savory Classics in Salmon flavor. The dish was shown to the cat for thirty seconds and then covered up with an opaque dish similar to the one used to cover up the dog food. The dish measured 1 cm and was 1 cm thick. The cat was also restrained by the veterinary assistant and released after thirty seconds. The cat has found the dish once some sort of indication such as a meow or pawing of the dish has occurred or has spent at least five seconds at the dish.


The remaining four dogs and cats were observed on March 2nd. The same criteria were used on the remaining animals. Again, a veterinary assistant was available to assist with the experiment. The same types of dog and cat food used in the previous trials were used again. The dishes were cleaned thoroughly to ensure that no food smell lingered on the opaque dishes. On March 6th, all sixteen animals were observed using the same criteria and the experiment was conducted again. The dogs and cats were observed in the same order as the first trial. The observations were once again recorded. It should be noted that one of the dogs from the first four dogs that were observed died unexpectedly which was not related to the experiment being conducted. Another dog replaced the vacancy left by the deceased animal. Data were analyzed using a t-test in Excel© for Windows 2000©.







There was a significant difference in the amount of time it took the domesticated dogs to find the food versus the domesticated cats in trial 1 (Fig.1, P=0.033). The time it took the dogs to find the food (Mean=39.5 sec St. Dev=31.51 sec,) was less than that of the cats (Mean=95.25 sec St. Dev=56.76 sec,).





Fig.1. The time the domesticated dogs found the hidden food versus the domesticated cats.


There was a significant difference in the amount of time it took the domesticated dogs to find the food versus the domesticated cats in trial 2 (Fig.1, P=0.0073). The time it took the dogs to find the food (Mean=28 sec St. Dev=18.13 sec,) was less than that of the cats (Mean=88.75 sec St. Dev=46.66 sec,).



Golden Retriever       4 yrs. old

Rag Doll                   4 yrs. old

West Highland Terrier     6 yrs. old

Calico                       3 yrs. old

Shih Tzu    2 yrs. old

Grey Tabby              3 yrs. old

German Shepard           3 yrs. old

Himalayan                6 yrs. old

Golden Retriever/Standard Poodle Mix               2yrs old

Orange Tabby           3 yrs. old

Border Collie/Unknown Mix    6 yrs. old

Calico                       2 yrs. old

Yorkshire Terrier           5 yrs. old

Calico                        1 yr. old

Shih Tzu                         5 yrs. old

Grey Tabby               3 yrs. old

Table 1.  The breeds of dogs and cats used in the experiment. Ages were determined by the veterinarian upon observation and dental records.







Domesticated dogs were observed finding the hidden food in a shorter amount of time than the domesticated cats in both trials. These findings are consistent with the original hypothesis that domesticated dogs would find the hidden dish of food in a shorter amount of time than the domesticated cats. No information was given to the animals that would influence their ability to find the hidden food dish. Neither the dogs nor the cats relied on information given by the demonstrator. Dogs have the capability to associate tasks with reinforcements (Pongracz et al. 2001). While cats have the capabilities of associating tasks with reinforcements, these associations are often motivated by their hunger rather than their desire to appease their human counterparts (Hall et al. 1997).


Although the findings are significant, more animals could have been observed in finding the hidden food. It is uncertain whether human presence affected the animal’s behavior in finding the hidden food. Also, it is not known if any of the animals had any obedience training that could have affected the outcome of the results.

Literature Cited


Allen, John, John Bradshaw, and Stuart Church.  1994.  Anti-apostatic food selection by the domestic cat. Animal Behaviour, 48: 747-749.


Hall, Sarah and John Bradshaw. 1997.  Influence on hunger on object play by adult domestic cats. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 58: 143-150.


Pongracz, Peter et al. 2001. Social learning in dogs: the effect of a human demonstrator on the performance of dogs in a detour task. Animal Behaviour, 62: 1109-1117.