Some cats spontaneously start playing fetch and we have no idea why

(Image credit: Nils Jacobi/Getty Images)

Growing up, James Serpell had a cat named Mungo with a penchant for pencils. "If a pencil or pen was on the floor, the cat would bring them to us," he says. Then Mungo would sit and wait, hoping for a toss. "If you picked up the pencil and threw it across the room, he would run and bring it back. He would go on like that for quite a long time," says Serpell, a professor emeritus of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania. He is far from the only cat owner to have encountered a fetching feline. A new study published on Thursday in Scientific Reports suggests that many cats run and retrieve in bouts of fetch.

The research, an analysis of online survey responses from nearly 1,000 pet owners, sheds light on the often murky, understudied world of cat play and behavior. "As far as I know, it's among the first published studies that have tried to quantify and qualitatively describe this type of fetch interaction between people and cats," says Serpell, who wasn't involved in the new study. And it has revealed some interesting possible patterns: when it comes to fetch with humans, cats might be the ones calling the shots.

The study authors distributed their survey through social media and directed it specifically to owners of fetching cats. In the 924 complete and usable answers the team got, more than 94 percent of respondents reported that their cats' retrieving behavior emerged spontaneously — without any deliberate training — usually when the pet was a kitten less than a year old. In some instances, owners described a scenario in which they dropped or accidentally launched an object, and their cat spontaneously fetched it. In other accounts, domestic felines simply brought their owners a cat toy or other random item, which the human then tossed aside — and a throw-and-retrieve cycle began. "We had an overwhelming number of people say their cat was not trained to do this behavior," says Jemma Forman, lead study researcher and a Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex in England. "We even had some people say that their cats had trained them to play fetch."

As a caveat, Serpell says humans are likely giving cats unconscious reinforcement by engaging with them in throwing an object in the first place, providing interaction and social reward. Contrary to popular sentiment, domestic cats are, in fact, very much attuned to their humans.

The survey also found that cats initiate and end fetching sessions more often than their owners do. It additionally revealed that the animals often only retrieve in certain places or with certain people and that they strongly prefer playing with some objects over others. Like Mungo, the cats in the survey weren't just interested in retrieving their toys — they also went for everyday objects such as crumpled paper, elastic hair ties, bottle caps, and more. Most of the cats seemed to get bored with the game quickly, usually fetching fewer than 10 times in a session. Some owners described their pets as losing interest in fetch altogether as the animals aged. In other words, fetching cats play on their own terms.

Anecdotal reports and past studies suggest cat enthusiasts have long observed fetch-like behavior. A small study of cat behavior by animal behaviorists Victoria L. Voith and Peter L. Borchelt that appeared in their 1996 book Readings in Companion Animal Behavior reported that about 16 percent of surveyed cat owners included "fetching" among the tricks their pets could perform. Internet forums and cat fancier sites are littered with individual accounts of cats that fetch — especially Siamese and Bengal breeds. What the new survey data provide are clarity and details about how our feline companions come to retrieve. What science doesn’t yet offer is an explanation for why they do so.

Retrieving behavior in dogs is generally assumed to be the result of selective breeding and social tendencies rooted in their wolf origins. Humans have taken advantage of dogs' propensity to bring prey back to the pack and have heightened it in hunting dogs — which might, for example, be bred to retrieve ducks shot down in a marsh. Yet domestic cats "are not heavily selected for anything except physical features," says Mikel Delgado, co-founder of the cat behavior consulting business Feline Minds, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, with a focus on animal behavior, and wasn't involved in the new study.

Cats are anecdotally known to bring their owners found objects or animals they've killed or collected outdoors, and it's possible fetching is an extension of this behavior. But how that instinct itself arises is unclear, Delgado and Serpell say. Mother cats will bring their kittens prey items, but both male and female cats seem to play fetch. Unlike dogs, house cats are not descended from pack animals, so these cats aren't generally considered innately social. But breed tendencies do seem to suggest there might be a genetic component to fetching felines. The new study is a "nice dipping of the toe into this topic" but leaves a lot unresolved, Delgado says.

She's trying to address some of the still-open questions in her own follow-up work. And Serpell has been passively collecting data on cat behavior for years through an online survey called the Feline Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire, which has yielded thousands of responses and includes a question about fetching. He has passed along his raw data to Delgado, who is working to establish just how common fetching is among all pet cats. By Serpell's early rough estimates, more than a quarter of cats might be retrievers.

The origins and exact nature of fetching cats might still be fuzzy, but with further research, our feline friends don’t have to stay a meow-stery forever.

This article was first published at Scientific American. © All rights reserved. Follow on TikTok and Instagram, X and Facebook.

Lauren Leffer
Live Science contributor

Lauren Leffer is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Brooklyn, New York who will soon be a breaking news reporter at Gizmodo. She writes on topics such as wildlife, the climate crisis, biotech and health equity. Her work has been published in National Geographic, Popular Science, Audubon Magazine, Sierra magazine and elsewhere. Lauren graduated from University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in biology and New York University with a master's in science journalism. Previously, she's worked as a research biologist, entomologist, park naturalist and curriculum writer.