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Is there such a thing as a left-handed cat?

Dear Cecil:

Our cat seems to be left-handed. Is that possible? Are animals right- or left-handed, as humans are? If so, how come, and what can be inferred from that about the meaning of life?

Pierre and Daniella, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Life is pretty much meaningless. However, if you play your cards right, it can still be a million laughs. Proof: the carefree existence led by your humble columnist, who gets paid big money to answer questions like this.

Not that I’m the only one. I have before me a research paper entitled “Paw Preference in Cats Related to Hand Preference in Animals and Man” by J. Cole, University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford, England. Professor Cole sounds like a person (we’ll assume a male person) after my own heart. If he represents the cream of the British intelligentsia, no wonder they lost the Empire.

To test feline handedness, or pawedness as you prefer, Professor Cole had 60 randomly-selected cats reach into a glass tube for some rabbit meat. Of the 60, 35 showed a noticeable preference for one paw over the other (i.e., same paw used in at least 75 out of 100 tries). Of the 35, two-thirds were left-pawed. Cecil finds this interesting because he himself is a lefty, a much-oppressed minority. I haven’t previously had much use for cats, but when I see one now I’ll think: “Hey, bro!”

Paw/claw/whatever preference is actually pretty common in the animal world, having turned up in most species tested, including parrots (mostly lefties) as well as rats, monkeys, and chimpanzees (50-50 right versus left). Why should there be a preference? One plausible guess is that it helps the animals learn faster. Professor Cole noticed that cats with a dominant paw figured out how to get the rabbit meat out of the tube faster than the ambidextrous cats. Presumably if you practice constantly with one paw, you become more skillful than if you squander your playing time on two.

Cecil Adams

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