Ebisu may be the world’s first literal copycat. Researchers have shown that the Japanese feline can imitate the actions of her owner under controlled scientific conditions. The ability has only been seen in a handful of creatures, and the find could suggest that imitation arose relatively early in mammal evolution.
“It’s really exciting,” says Kristyn Vitale, a cat cognition researcher and animal behaviorist at Unity College. “People think of cats as solitary and antisocial,” she says. “But this study reinforces the idea that they’re watching us and learning from us.”
The find came about via a lucky happenstance. Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University, had been studying dog cognition for nearly a decade using “Do as I do” training. In this method, a researcher first trains a dog or other animal to copy a behavior it already knows—such as rolling over—by saying “Do as I do,” demonstrating the behavior, and then saying “Do it!” The dog is then rewarded for its success. Over time, the animal learns that “Do it!” means “copy me.” The approach can be used to test whether animals can truly imitate—that is, copy actions they have never done before, such as ringing a bell.
Fugazza, who is also a dog trainer, was working with Fumi Higaki, a dog trainer in Ichinomiya, Japan, when Higaki told her she had trained one of her cats with “Do as I do.” The feline, an 11-year-old female named Ebisu (after the Japanese god of prosperity) lived in Higaki’s pet store and was highly food-motivated, making her easy to train. “She often snuck into my dog training classes because she knew the people there had good treats,” Higaki says.
Fugazza had wanted to study imitation in other species, and here, shockingly, was a cat that apparently already had the required training. But Ebisu was spooked by strangers. So Higaki conducted the experiments in the evenings at her pet shop, while Fugazza supervised from the far end of the room.
Higaki showed that Ebisu could copy familiar actions, like opening a plastic drawer and biting a rubber string. Then she asked the cat to imitate two new behaviors. While standing before Ebisu, who sat on a countertop next to a cardboard box, Higaki raised her right hand and touched the box. At other times, she bent down and rubbed her face against the box.
In 16 subsequent trials, Ebisu accurately copied her owner more than 81% of the time, the team reports this month in Animal Cognition. (See video, above.) The fact that the cat used her paw and face to touch the box when her owner used her hand and face, respectively, indicates she was able to “map” her owner’s body parts onto her own anatomy, the team says.
Fugazza says only dolphins, parrots, apes, and killer whales have so far been shown to imitate people. Cats having the same ability, she says, suggests it may be widespread in the animal kingdom, evolving early in animal evolution. And even though the study was conducted on a single cat, Fugazza thinks it’s likely that most cats can imitate people. “I don’t think Ebisu was a genius.”
But Claudio Tennie, an ethologist at the University of Tübingen who has studied cognition in dogs and primates, is not impressed. He says it’s impossible to tell from the study whether cats have an innate ability to imitate humans, or whether the intensive “Do as I do” training gave them the skill. “We can train bears to ride motorcycles,” he says. “That doesn’t mean bears ride motorcycles.”
Tennie also notes that both imitations—touching a box with a paw and rubbing a face against a box—are actions a cat might do anyway. And Ebisu may have simply rubbed her face against the box to mask her owner’s scent, he says. “I’m not convinced we’re seeing true imitation.”
Vitale is more optimistic. A few years ago, one of her cats, Bo, started pressing a call bell after he saw Vitale do it. “Hopefully other people will replicate this work so we know how widespread this is in cats,” she says.
Unfortunately, that won’t be possible with Ebisu. She developed kidney disease last year and died in June.
Still, co-author Adam Miklosi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd, says more studies on man’s most finicky friend are coming. The research with Ebisu, he says, reveals new ways to train and do cognition experiments with cats, which have been notoriously hard to study. The paper reinforces, for example, that cats—unlike dogs—are likely to show their true abilities only if their owner is present. “We could learn a lot from Ebisu.”