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Sasha, the Cat Who Used Tools

Guest Article by J. Justin Lancaster, Ph.D.

By J. Justin Lancaster, Ph.D.

picture of Sasha, the tool-using cat

Sasha and Friend Mariah Lancaster

Justin Lancaster
Some years ago I had thought it would be interesting to submit an article to a biology journal describing my observations of tool use by a cat. But my field of science was chemistry and climate, so reporting this observation didn't seem terribly important at the time. Recently, however, I have noted with amusement the stories about tool use by other primates, such as using a stick for balance or to probe depth, or using a rock as a hammer. Given the timing, perhaps you and your readers will be interested in this story.

The cat I observed using a tool was a solid, light-gray, domestic long haired cat. We first met her as a stray kitten in San Diego in 1988; we took her in and named her Sasha. We noticed signs of unusual intelligence early on; Sasha was fascinated, for instance, by the water disappearing down a flushing toilet. Sasha moved with us to Lexington, MA, in 1991.

The tool that Sasha used was a cotton hair "scrunchy". This is the small, cotton-covered, elastic loop that we used to tie our daughter's ponytails. My daughters kept these hair scrunchies in a drawer next to the sink in an upstairs bathroom.

I had become curious when I found these small cotton objects in Sasha's water bowl, sometimes two of them. I'd take them out, and then some days later there it would be again. Sasha's water bowl was in the kitchen downstairs, right next to her food dish. I thought perhaps one of my daughters had dropped them there.

One day, somewhere around 1996, I was in the upstairs bathroom; let's just say I was reading. I observed Sasha come in the bathroom and jump up onto the counter next to the sink. She reached over the counter and pulled the drawer open from above, just a few inches. She reached into the drawer and pulled out a scrunchy, which was easy for her because her claws could readily catch the soft, fluffy cotton. She put it in her mouth and carried it off. Fascinated, I hastened after her, a bit surreptitiously, like a private detective.

I followed Sasha down to the kitchen and watched the most amazing thing: she walked very deliberately over to her water bowl and dropped the scrunchy into the water. She waited only a few seconds, and dabbed at it with her paw. Then she fished it out, into her mouth again for a second and immediately moved over and dropped it onto her dry cat food. Then she ate the food that had been moistened by the water.

What I observed was a cat going to get a water-carrying cotton sponge device, carrying the device to a water dish and using the device to move water onto cat food that was obviously too dry for her taste. Without a doubt, this qualifies as tool use.

Sasha died in August, 2005, and is buried in Lexington.

About the Author
J. Justin Lancaster,Ph.D. is a practicing attorney with more than a decade's experience as a research scientist, including making observations in the field. Many years ago, he observed and filmed behaviors of honeybees, and also studied behaviors of ants. He continues his research at home, with the study of a pretty amazing cat.

Guides Note: This story has fascinated me ever since I first read it. While we readily acknowledge the innate intelligence of cats, stories about their use of tools are rare. Sasha had a need, and through observation and reasoning, found a way to satisfy it through the use of tools. Readers are encouraged to submit their own stories about tool-using cats, or other examples of observation, reasoning, and follow-through by cats to fulfill needs. Please use the Article Submission form to submit your own stories.

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