Sight may be more important to cats than smell when it comes to finding the location of food, research from the University of Lincoln has revealed.

Findings suggest when cats have a choice, they prefer visual signals over olfactory ones.

Researchers claim the work might have important clinical implications for cat welfare, as it supports the idea the individual needs of felines should be met, rather than the population as a whole.

Evy Mayes, who works at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and carried out the research as part of her master’s degree in feline behaviour and welfare, said: “Up until now we really thought the sense of smell would dominate how cats view the world, but we are now reconsidering this and also the implications of how we manage them.

“At Battersea Dogs and Cats Home we make sure our cats are housed in the best possible environment – one that respects the cat and provides each individual with whatever it needs to help it adapt to a rehoming environment.”

Researchers placed a group of six cats in a maze that contained “decision” points. The felines had to choose which route they took based on their preference for using smell or images. They were presented with two squares of paper, each containing a different visual and odour cue.

One combination of stimuli indicated they would receive a food reward, whereas the other led to no reward. Once the cats had learned the rules and received food rewards for correctly identifying either the visual or olfactory stimulus, researchers separated the cues to decide whether the cats were using their eyes or nose to solve the puzzle.

Four out of the six cats chose the visual cue over the odour cue to receive their food, with only one cat opting to use its nose and the sixth showing no preference.

Daniel Mills, who supervised the study, said: “We live in a complex world and use all of our senses to make sense of it. This is the first time we have asked cats how they operate rather than assumed this from what we know about their senses.

“Another important finding from this work is the individual variability – different cats had quite fixed preferences and this may have important implications for their welfare. If there is a cat that has a strong preference for using its nose then simple changes in the smell of the environment might have a big impact on it, whereas for others, it may be insignificant.

“This work provides a unique insight into the important principles of attending to the needs of the individual rather than the population in general for good welfare.”

Due to the modest sample size, researchers state further investigation is needed to conclude whether cats in general prefer to use their nose more than their eyes when searching for food.

The study, Individual differences in visual and olfactory cue preference and use by cats (Felis catus), by Evelyn-Rose Mayes et al, is published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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