Gabriella Smith

Cognitive Science Research Intern
Hi! I am an animal cognitive researcher with a BA from Boston University in behavioral biology and a MA from Hunter College (CUNY) in animal behavior and conservation. You can find me and pictures of my cat Pancetta on Twitter @Explanimals.

Secrets in the midst: the Internet and companion animal science

I’m sure many How.TheyCanTalk members found this forum through the inquisitive and expressive button-booping sheepadoodle Bunny on TikTok. But there is another TikTok trope that has also captured the hearts of pet owners, especially those with cats. The format consists of a whispery voiceover saying, β€œdo you ever look at someone and wonder, what is going on inside their head?”, followed by a Eurythmics techno beat backing the whacky behaviors of the video’s subject which, more often than not, I have found to be a cat. Whether it be smacking water glasses off surfaces, digging to the center of the Earth through their litterbox, or launching into spontaneous zoomies, cats have forever captured the hearts and minds of owners and scientists alike, their antics reported long before the advent of TikTok. My name is Gabriella Smith, I am a cognitive science researcher with CleverPet, and I invite you to join me as I discuss the Internet’s relationship with pets, how it informs us about their behavior and cognition via research into one such behavior in particular, and the significance of the human-pet relationship in the context of science.

The first feline on the interwebs arrived in the form of a sweet 2005 YouTube video of Pajamas the cat dancing with a worm toy, and in 2007, the infamous website β€œI Can Has Cheezburger” graced our retinas, and still spurs over 100 million views per month. Ten years later, we still couldn’t get enough: in 2017, Twitter exploded with pictures of cats sitting in shape outlines drawn or taped on the floor accompanied by the viral hashtag #CatSquare. Like other cat curiosities, sitting in either 2D or 3D boxes -- a behavior affectionately and appropriately termed β€œIf I Fits I Sits” -- is well-known to cat owners and admirers, but why it occurs still remains a mystery. Research suggests that sitting in 3D boxes decreases stress in cats (Hawkins, 2005; Kry & Casey, 2007; Vinke et al., 2014), and if deprived of shelter resources, cats will hide behind or underneath box-like objects like litter pans (Gourkow & Fraser, 2006). There remains informal theories as to why cats may like boxes, from comforting lateral side pressure (Villiger, 2017), to remaining covert to ambush unsuspecting prey (Wu, 2021). Regardless of the evolutionary cause, like many I have wondered what it is about 2D or 3D spaces that attract cats to fit and sit: Is it the sides? Shape? Novelty? To answer these questions, I knew that if I had learned anything about the Internet and cats, I had to take my quest to Twitter.

In the summer of 2020, my team and I at the Hunter College (CUNY) Thinking Dog Center sent out a call to recruit cat-owning citizen scientists to participate in our study titled: β€œIf I Fits I Sits: A Citizen Science Investigation into Illusory Susceptibility in Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus).” As this time period was still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, owners were thrilled for an activity to do with their feline overlords while stuck at home. The study investigated whether cats would employ their β€œIf I Fits I Sits” superpowers to reveal what in particular attracts them to sit in tight spaces. The study utilized three stimuli: a square; the Kanizsa illusion (four Pac-Mans with mouths facing inwards creating an optical illusion square, see below); and the Kanizsa control (the same four Pac-Mans but mouths facing outwards).
ο»ΏThe Kanizsa square illusion.

We hypothesized that since research suggests that cats see a square in the Kanizsa illusion like we do (Bravo et al., 1988), cats should sit or stand in the Kanizsa just as much as the square and not in the control. After signing up, everyday for six days owners received a new pair of stimuli to print out, prepare, and place on the floor, and upon letting their cats investigate, videorecord their cats for 5 minutes. At the end of the experiment, thirty cats finished the six trials, and of these, nine selected at least one stimulus by sitting within the contours (illusory or otherwise) with all limbs for at least three seconds (see below). As we hypothesized, the results showed that the cats selected the Kanizsa illusion just as often as the square and more often than the control, revealing that it is likely the presence of contours (real or otherwise) that attracts them to sit in spaces like squares (or boxes, or laundry baskets, or...egg cartons?). Importantly, this study also demonstrates the potential of more ecologically valid study of the famously finicky cats.

What other secrets reside in the minds of our pets that are just waiting to be revealed? What other topics can we explore in the context of their natural tendencies and environment? What we at CleverPet are excited by in the community/citizen science design of companion animal studies is the similar benefits offered by studies performed in the field. Begun by greats such as Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey, what benefits field study shares with at-home companion animal studies are the naturalistic environmental and social conditions required to foster authentic expression and behavior. Just like cats need a box, companion animals need companionship. What better way to study the behavior and cognition of the animals in our midst than in the context of the home with their humans -- and what better place to witness the human-animal relationship than on the Internet!Β 

Bravo, M., Blake, R., & Morrison, S. (1988). Cats see subjective contours. Vision Research, 28(8), 861-865.Β 
Gourkow, N., Fraser, D. (2006). The effect of housing and handling practices on the welfare, behaviour and selection of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) by adopters in an animal shelter. Animal Welfare, 15, 371–377.
Hawkins, K. R. (2005). Stress, enrichment and the welfare of domestic cats in rescue shelters (Doctoral dissertation, University of Bristol).
Cat Meme of the Decade. I Can Has Cheezburger? Retrieved June 3, 2021, fromΒ 
Kry, K., & Casey, R. (2007). The effect of hiding enrichment on stress levels and behaviour of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) in a shelter setting and the implications for adoption potential. Animal Welfare, 16(3), 375-383.
Matheson, D. [@prograpslady]. (2017, April 10). Nobody has had a more productive day than my mother [Tweet]. Twitter.Β 
SkirmantΔ—. (2017). If It Fits, I Sits: These 21 Cats Prove That No Space Is Too Tight. Bored Panda.Β 
Smith, G. [@Explanimals]. (2021, May 4). So pleased to announce that my paper, "If I Fits I Sits: A Citizen Science Investigation into Illusory Contour Susceptibility in Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) has just been published in AABS! #IfIFitsISits #CatSquare #CitizenScience #CommunityScience [Tweet]. Twitter.Β 
Smith, G. E., Chouinard, P. A., & Byosiere, S. E. (2021). If I fits I sits: A citizen science investigation into illusory contour susceptibility in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105338.Β 
Steve. (2005, May 22). Pajamas and Nick Drake [Video]. YouTube.Β 
TehWaffal. (2021, Jan 10). What's going on inside this cat's head? [Video]. YouTube.Β 
Villiger, M. (2017, April 17). Why can’t cats resist thinking inside the box? The Conversation.Β 
Vinke, C. M., Godijn, L. M., & Van der Leij, W. J. R. (2014). Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats?. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 160, 86-93.Β 
What About Bunny. [@whataboutbunny]. [TikTok].Β 
Wu, K. J. (2021, May 12). Pay No Attention to That Cat Inside a Box. The Atlantic.Β 

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