My first knowledge of a feline retriever was in a James Herriot book. While the family dogs considered retrieving beneath their dignity, Buster the cat enjoyed retrieving a ball. Although the author eventually revealed the stories in the form presented were fictional, they were based on case notes and observation. Herriot wrote:
“Mrs Ainsworth smiled and lifted a hard rubber ball from the sideboard and went out to the garden, followed by Buster. She threw the ball across the lawn and the cat bounded after it over the frosted grass, the muscles rippling under the black sheen of his coat. He seized the ball in his teeth, brought it back to his mistress dropped it at her feet and waited expectantly. She threw it and he brought it back again.”
My second encounter was the tale of a cat who loved to chase a practice golf-ball down a flight of stairs. The ball was retrieved each time and taken to the owner at the top of the stairs so it could be thrown again.
My third encounter with a feline retriever was with my own cat, Scrapper, a former stray. His favourite toy was a fishing rod toy with a mouse on the end of the line. He became so addicted to chasing this that he retrieved the toy and brought it to me when I ended a game to soon, or when he wanted to start a game. Even when the toy was stored on a bookshelf, Scrapper got up there and retrieved it.
Scrapper's younger housemate, Affy, occasionally retrieved bread that had been thrown out for the birds and fallen leaves which were brought in from the garden.
This conveniently splits feline retrievers into two groups: cats that immediately retrieve a thrown toy (retrievers) and cats that retrieve objects from other locations to present to their owner (magpies).
The behaviour of feline magpies is relatively easy to work out (albeit hard to prevent and impossible to cure). Mother cats take prey back to their kittens. Cats seem to view us as both provider and substitute kittens. While we may provide food in the bowl, they bring home prey in the hope of teaching us to hunt. Cats that retrieve washing from the washing line and toys from the neighbour's house are following a hunting instinct, but have fixated on certain types of inanimate object rather than real prey.
The objects brought back by these "cat burglars" is interesting, and some have accumulated large hoards. Small items of laundry and soft toys are common trophies. Some of the soft toys are as large as the cat. Indoor trophies include pens, pencils, coins and keys. Rubber gloves are fairly common trophies, perhaps having a smell that attracts the cat. Food items stolen from neighbourhood kitchens are understandable trophies.
Although the behaviour itself is a misdirected hunting behaviour, feline magpies often take it a step further. The trophies may be hidden in the same location. One Munchkin was known for stashing stolen pens and keys under the sofa. Possibly the location of the stash is seen as a den and a hunting cat, especially a mother cat, would naturally take its prey to a safe den if it wasn't safe to eat it in the open. Because the trophies are inedible, the stash accumulates each time the cat "hunts". Karen Corning's account of her cat Lexie is detailed below as a feline retriever, but Lexie has a stash of her favourite toys - water bottle caps - tht she will bring out when she wants to play. Lexie also steals and hides earrings, rings and other jewellery.
Melanie Steinel had a feline magpie who sadly died of liver failure in 2009. She was a 5 year old Bombay and over the years she built up quite a collection. She especially loved bottle caps and if Melanie dared put one down she never saw it again, unless the cat pulled it out to play! Pens also had to be kept out of sight, and once she decided to hide Melanie's my glasses.
Some owners of feline magpies have advertised their cat's collection in the hope the rightful owners will reclaim underwear, tea towels and toys. Some cats are so selective in what they collect that it's hard not to anthropomorphise them as the feline equivalent of stamp collectors.
A special case of feline magpies is the female cat that retrieves small or baby animals (and sometimes kitten-size toys) and attempts to nurse them. As long as the abducted animals don't show prey behaviour, the female treats them as though they are kittens. This is a misdirected or frustrated maternal instinct. It has also been seen in a lioness that abducted baby oryx and tried to mother them. My elderly Kitty II abducted smelly carpet slippers and mothered them, even snuggling them up to her belly like nursing kittens.
Deborah Brett 's sister's cat Miss Kitty "adopted" and mothered a rabbit-fur toy rat which she nursed. This was while Miss Kitty was recovering from a leg injury. The other cat, Chocolate, kidnapped the toy, much to Miss Kitty's distress so the toy was tied to Miss Kitty's basket by a length of string. Miss Kitty soon learned how to "retrieve" or at least reel in her toy! Deborah's current cat, Spook, steals cotton buds and make-up brushes and has stashes of them hidden under the furniture. Spook also likes to post her toy balls, and various beads, marbles, and balls of tin-foil, in behind the bookshelf. She has to pick them up in her teeth and nudge them in above the skirting-board, but then can't get the toys out again. She only does this with round toys. The only thing she will 'fetch' to her owner is her comb, because she adors having her face and chin combed. She will locate her comb and drop it on Deborah's lap when she wants a fuss.
Kate Manson's two year old tabby neutered male, called Calvin, was first a retriever and then became a magpie. Kate lives in a part of south London with many cats, but few places to hunt and catch prey. They adopted Calvin from a man who was leaving the country and who mentioned that Calvin liked to play, but didn't mention that Calvin liked to run around with his toys and take them to his owners for play. After the birth of Kate's child, two new behaviours have started. Calvin will fetch his toys and place them on the baby's play mat, changing mat or basket (places the baby gets attention). This happens when Kate is playing with the baby and also in the evenings when baby is in bed. Calvin has worked out he should put his toys in definite places that results in attention. Additionally, he has started to present Kate with objects including a large tuft of grass and a plastic bag containing a bottle of bicycle oil. She gives him fuss as a reward for his presents. Calvin has a great sense of curiosity, is very vocal and comes when called, liking to follow Kate about with or without the baby. He is especially attentive if the baby is not there, but has accepted the baby's presence well.
Kate Hardie's 13 year old tabby and white shorthair, Enid is also a magpie. She was adopted from a rescue centre aged 10 and was originally very overweight. Enid fetches socks to where Kate is sitting and cries loudly for attention. She then tries to rip the socks to shreds (not very successfully as she only has a few teeth)> After having a front leg amputated, Enid still fetches socks and cries, but no longer shreds them. Kate feels Enid is reminding them she is around. Mainly, it seems as though she's reminding us she's still around!
Feline retrievers show a different modification of the hunting behaviour. A toy is thrown and they chase it (hunting behaviour). Having caught it they return it to the thrower for the game to be repeated. Chasing and catching the toy satisfies the hunting instinct and there is a feel-good payoff. They have associated this pay-off with the person who threw the toy. To get further pay-offs, they take the toy back so it can be thrown again. The owner's attention when the toy is returned is an additional pay-off.
Some cats, such as my Scrapper, only retrieve the toy when they want to start a game. The toy was brought to the owner (myself) in the expectation of a game, making Scrapper a retriever rather than a magpie. Other cats retrieve the same thrown object over and over until one or other participant loses interest; games lasting one hour were reported in a survey (the owner gave up before the cat).
A small-scale survey for a British magazine looked at how the behaviour began. In some cases a kitten had learnt from an older role model. In other cases, only one cat in a multi-cat household played “fetch”. One cat had apparently learnt the behaviour by copying a canine foster mother. A few owners had trained their cats, mainly Siamese, to play fetch. In some cases, the fetching behaviour ended when the cat made the transition to live prey or when the favourite was lost.
An Oriental Tabby male demanded throw-and-retrieve games from the moment his owner arrived home. Games lasted around an hour and would have lasted longer had the owner not become tired. This cat was anxious to begin the game and appeared obsessive about it. Another obsessive retriever was a mixed breed female that would apparently play fetch with her toy mouse for hours on end.
A Persian male initiated the retrieval game at an early age when he presented his owner with a screwed up piece of paper and gave clear indications that he wanted her to throw the paper. This became a favourite game and the cat fetched his piece of paper whenever he wanted to play fetch.
Sugar, a domestic longhair is remarkable for being a retriever despite having been born blind. She is able to locate toys based on sound, including crumpled papers which detects when she hears it un-crumple. She also dunks her toys in her water dish.
According to Karen Corning, New York, USA: "My lovely Tortie girl, Lexie is quite a talker, and quite dramatic - and she loves to fetch. Her favorite thing which she finds absolutely irresistible are plastic caps from water bottles. She is obsessed with them - if you have a bottle of water she will trail expectantly behind you until you put the cap down - and then she'll nab it with a flick of her paw. The clink of one on the coffee table or the hardwood floor will have her come running from the furthest recesses of the house to play. Just the other morning, at about 5AM, I was awakend by her very loud purr, the sensation of something small being dropped on my arm, and the dawning realization that I had a cat doing figure eights about my prone self. Lexie had brought me a water bottle cap, from god knows where, her "stash" probably, and she wanted me to throw it for her. This I did about 6 or 8 times before she settled on the bed for a washup and I could go back to sleep. She is also a crow (magpie), in that I can't leave my earrings or rings or any jewelry where she can get them - and she thinks Q-Tips are evil and must be destroyed.
Like Lexie, Jean Marziale’s Traditional Siamese, Pandora initially preferred to retrieve water-bottle caps to initiate a game with her owner. Pandora picked caps up in her mouth and takes them to Jean to toss across the floor. Pandora chased and batted the cap for a while, then took it back to Jean to throw again. The game ended when Jean grew tired of throwing the cap or when the cap was lost under furniture. After a year and a move of house, Pandora transferred her attentions to a piece of silvery elastic cord which Jean has now replaced several times. Pandora is very persistent when it comes to finding her string, even if it has been hidden away. When Jean tells her to go get her string to play, Pandora will often go off and return with her string on cue (provided she is also in the mood to play fetch of course!).
Some cats eventually lose interest in retrieving, perhaps outgrowing the behaviour or finding other outlets for their chasing/hunting instincts. An Abyssinian played fetch with a dressing gown cord nicknamed his “snake” for a considerable length of time, but when this was lost he lost interest in the game. Similar substitutes objects did not interest him. Another cat played fetch with a foam-covered hair curler (sometimes in “piggy in the middle” style games) until he made the transition to hunting and retrieving live prey and lost interest in the game. Victoria Beckett's indoor-only non-pedigree tabby cat Shere Khan is another that is very specific in what he retrieves. At 10 months he will fetch small, soft rubber balls (always round, Victoria bought some that were rugby ball shaped, and he was not interested!) to be thrown, over and over again for hours, or at least until Victoria grows tired of throwing them for him. He has never retrieved anything else, but does carry things around the house. He has always been a retriever, perhaps due to re-directed hunting instincts inherited from his semi-feral mother, but is very specific about what he will play fetch with.
In New Zealand, Ruth Kim's 2 Devon Rex kittens (brother and sister) were both retrievers at 6 months old and not fussy what they retrieve, as long as it is good for a game! They take various items to their owners to throw for a game. They also like to carry toys around in their mouths and will carry and play with them for hours (this includes one running around the house holding a ribbon in the mouth with the aim of making the other chase the ribbon). Retrieved toys include plastic bottle tops, bits of plastic coat hanger, pegs, brightly coloured business cards and sweet wrappers retrieved from the rubbish. There seems to be a slight preference for plastic.
Lauren and Mike Brooks foster shelter kittens. One kitten, Mini (black-and-white random-bred) would endlessly retrieve plastic ring toys which she would fetch until they were lost under furniture. She also went through a bed-fetching phase and would move and tear her blankets. Her sister Jane was a less discriminating retriever (though she had a slight preference for a half rubber ball with felt glued to it), suggesting either an inherited trait or copycat behaviour. Both continue to retrieve toys in their new home. From an unrelated litter, with no overlap to Mini and Jane's group, was Ashley, a dilute torbie, who fetched a tiny cloth toy resembling a snake with elastic sewed in it and feathers in the end. Both Mini and Ashley cried out to have their toys thrown if they went ignored for too long.
Tom Kirby's cat, Mina, is a mixed breed black shorthair who loves to play fetch every single day. In 2010, Mina was 3 years old, but her fetching began from when she was adopted at 9 months. Her favorite fetch toys are twisty plastic things Tom calls springies. Mina prefers hard plastic items over everything else and will turn cartwheels for a milk top ring! She presents one of her toys when she wants to play and pretty much won't leave Tom alone until it has been thrown for her. She will fetch it until Tom decides to finish the game - in one case the game went on for over 3 hours while Tom was watching a movie! He has to put Mina's toys away at night or she'll bring them to the bed and ask to play. Mina prefers that the toy be thrown down a hallway with hard flooring so it will skitter away from her as she tries to catch it. If it doesn't land where she wants it, she will talk to it and eventually move it (sometimes by picking it up, other times by pushing it) and chase it in the area she prefers before bringing it back. Every now and then she won't want to play but those days are few and far between and make Tom worry that she's not feeling well.
Jill Brady adopted Furball as a 8 week old kitten. He is a tabby mixed breed, 2 years old in 2010. 3 or 4 months after getting Furball, he taught Jill that he played fetch. He loves playing with paper candy wrappers on the ground, and one night when Jill was studying, he kept bringing them up onto her lap and playing with them right there while she tried to work. Jill threw far away to distract him, but a few minutes later, he was back on her legs with the wrapper. It was evident he wasn't playing with the wrapper on her lap, but was batting it to draw Jill's attention to the toy so she would throw it for him again! His preferred toys are the plastic tabs that hold milk lids onto the cartons when unopened - they still make a suitable noise when they hit the ground, bat about easily, and are heavy enough that they can be thrown well. Furball starts the game by fetching a plastic toy to Jill and will fetch it about 10 times before becoming bored - not as obsessive as some other feline retrievers! Of the three houshold cats, Furball is the only retriever.
David Round and Anthony Hughes have a 5 months old retrieving cat (2010). Her brother is a laid back non-retrieving male and neither parent retrieves. She plays with a plastic bottle top and takes it upstairs to the office, dropping it at her owners' feet and squeaking for attention. She is not happy until the bottle top has been thrown over bannister and down the stairs for her to chase and then retrieve to be thrown again until the humans tire of the game.
Pam Sherman has a young (2 years old in Jan 2010), Russian Blue mix male that loves to retreive all sorts of stuff. His favorite toy is a fabric coated hair tie (not the "scrunchy" version but a band about 3" across). which he retrieves and drops in Pam's lap for her to "shoot" (ping) it like a rubber band across the room, then he will race to get it and bring it back. This play lasts for hours and the toy has to be hidden at night or he will retrieve it for play all hours of the day or night. Melanie Steinel has 7-8 months female cat (Feb 2010) who absolutely loves retrieving. Her favorite toy (until she lost it) was a small cloth ball with a tag that the cat used to fling it by when playing by herself. The replacement is a similar ball, with feathers sticking out of it. She only initiates a game when Melanie is the computer in the living room, and she does so by dropping her ball next to Melanie on the couch and sitting down, looking at her. The cat is a tortie with possible Burmese ancestry.
Adele Lehner's 4 year old domestic shorthair, Molasses, loves retrieving. She only retrieves her favorite toy, a fuzzy ball with three leather tails attached. This came with an interactive toy that swung the ball around. She has zero interest in the ball when it is attached to the toy, but will take it to Adele and chirp until it is thrown for her - usually when Adele is sitting on the couch or laying in bed! She chases it down the hall and brings it directly back up onto the couch or the bed and again chirps until it is thrown. This will usually go on for 20 or thirty minutes until one or other gets tired. She has done this so much that the toy is now falling apart after only 3 weeks!
Elisabeth Clark's male shorthair fetches paper, bangles and toys. Elisabeth has adopted 2 younger cats and it will be interesting to see if they copy this behaviour from the older cat. Shelly Altenburg and her husband own an 8-month-old Siamese female named Chii who loves to play fetch. Next to pettings and sleeping on laps, this is her favorite occupation. Chii has 5 or 6 toys throughout the apartment, which she will fetch to one of her owners and meow until it is thrown for her to retrieve. She has retrieved ever since she was a kitten, her favorite 'toy' being a bright orange scrunchie that she found one day and claimed as her own.
While most cats seemed to retrieve within the house, often with the game limited to one room, some cats played fetch even when the toy was thrown a considerable distance e.g. to the bottom of the garden.
Some cats will even retrieve a favourite play object on request. Padi Phillips' rather hyperactive cat, Widjit, not only responded to his mane, he responded to the word "mouse" (even if it was just mentioned in his earshot) and fetched his cat toy mouse in the hope of a game of fetch, which would have lasted all day had Widjit had his way! First thing in the morning was also a time when Widjit would drop his mouse at Padi's feet in expectation of a game, usually this was postponed until after his owner had made a cup of coffee. Even though Widjit was an indoor/outdoor cat with access to good hunting grounds, he persisited in his retrieving game until Padi had to rehome him due to work commitments preventing Widjit having the attention he needed.
Jennifer Murray has tortie cat who is a retriever and a magpie who stores toys and small stolen items such as paper money of bottle caps. This cat likes to put objects into other objects or specific locations for example toys are placed in shoes or added to the hoard in the linen closet. She also likes fishing toys out of bags (this is a natural behaviour) so Jennifer put toys into freezer bags to indulge this behaviour. She enjoyed chasing the whole bag of toys rather than each toy individually and this progressed through fetching plastic bags to be filled then to putting toys in the bag and fetching the filled bag - making her possibly the only "tool-using" cat to use a bag to carry several toys at once! When the food bowl is empty, she will retrieve an empty cat food bag from the recycling container and take it to Jennifer as a hint that food is required.
Another correspondent in Sept 2011 (who wished to remain anonymous) has a 10 month old non-pedigree retriever called Gil. Gil was the progeny of a friend's female cat and a neighbourhood stray and is an indoor-only apartment cat. He has a wide range of toys to play with when he's home alone as well as windows, vantage points and furniture arranged to make a jungle gym. He is an intelligent cat who quickly learnt to go to his owner at a whistled command. In February/March 2011, Gil was tended to by a friend while his owner was away for a few days. The friend asked when and how Gil had been trained to play fetch. This was news to his owner who had never even thought of teaching him to do something like that. Apparently her friend had just sat down on the couch, thrown a ping-pong ball for Gil to chase and Gil had retrieved it to be thrown again. He's done this with other houseguests since as well, and as far as Gil can understand, it's a behaviour of his own creation, not trained at all.
If Gil wants to start a game of fetch, he takes his toy of choice to his owner, and drops it on a piece of paper or something so it makes a noise to attract attention. He plays fetch with a wide range of objects: plastic bottle caps, toy mice, a life-size toy rat, ping pong balls, fuzzy bits of felt fabric and small Mighty Beanz plastic toys. If Gil can carry it in his mouth, then he'll use it for a game of fetch. When he sees his owner holding a throw-toy, Gil jumps up and races to the bedroom doorway so he can leap up and try to catch it in mid-air as it is thrown (a technique cats use for hunting birds). Sometimes he catches it, sometimes he needs to do a twisty back-flip to race after it. But he never goes to wait where the object would most likely fall - he always likes to make a leap at it first.
Ken Evans, of Adelaide, Australia, has a 2.5 year old Burmese called Minkie who enjoys retrieving. Minkie's brother Billie, however, is not interested. At the age of 6 months, Minkie began retrieving almost anything thrown for her indoors. After 8 to 10 retrievals, she loses interest and climbs onto her owners' laps where she drops the object. As well as retrieving thrown objects, she has magpie tendencies and has collected 2 soft toys from the neighbourhood - one being a stuffed lion about a third of her own size! She managed to walk along the fence carrying the stuffed lion and to get it through the cat flap. Minkie and Billie both wear collars (the safety release type) with bells on to hinder their hunting abilities, but Minkie has retrieved their lost collars about a dozen times from the neighbourhood on several occasions.
Heidi Healey's youngest cat, Thuddleton (Thud for short, age 4 in Jan 2012), is a Blue Point Siamese, and adores playing fetch. He will play for hours on end until the human playmate finally grows tired. He originally started with an old Beanie Baby collection when he was a kitten, but he has since moved on to any and all toys: balls, toy mice, catnip toys, bottle caps, twist ties, etc. He will still play with the Beanie Babies too, and also turns any small object into a fetching toy. His favorite toy for two years has been Heidi's wool socks. He will sniff them out from anywhere, even after they've been washed, and sometimes he will dig through clean laundry before To find and claim them. Once a sock is claimed, he constantly approaches Heidi to play fetch, and if this doesn't attract attention he starts tossing it in the air closer to her or even throw it to Heidi! One one occasion the sock hit her in the back while she using the computer. His interest in playing fetch might be because he is an indoor-only cat. His feline companion Yoshi, a seven year old black and white Domestic Shorthair, has no desire to play fetch at all.
Kita Muskett has 2 cats who both like to retrieve. The cats are neutered male Ocicat brothers born in March 2010. Blooregard began fetching when he was 3-4 months old - just one week after the cats arrived home with Kita. She threw a catnip mouse for him to chase and when he pounced on it, I held out my hand and asked him to 'bring it back'. She was most surprised when he did exactly that and she rewarded him with a lot of praise and fuss. Since then he has continued to improve his game of fetch, to the point where he will now drop the item he has retrieved into her hand and tap her hand with his paw if she doesn't throw it. When she is sitting down, he jumps up onto her lap with the item, and keeps pestering for it to be thrown. He prefers small items, currently Trixie Nub Balls, and will happily play for as long as she continues to throw the item. If she walks away, he follows and whines for more play! His owners have taken to hiding these balls otherwise he present them throughout the night and is very insistent about wanting a game. When they are hidden, he will spend his time looking for them, opening doors, draws and cupboards.
Blooregard's brother Freckle, started to retrieve a bit later, at around 6-7 months. He prefers larger toys that simulate prey, such as the smaller skinneez dog toys (although he will retrieve the large ones too). He will return the toy to his owners' general vicinity and sit next to it, waiting for it to be thrown again, but if he is ignored he will do no more than rub against them for attention rather than presenting the toy more insistently. The smallest item Freckle will retrieve is a pink bunny about the size of a small human fist. Both cats are quite intelligent and have taught themselves to open doors and draws. Kita has also trained them using treats and a dog clicker for specific behaviours such as sit, up, go to mat etc. Both are trained to use the human toilet (using the LitterKwitter system) and walk on a harness and leash in the garden.
BREED PREDISPOSITIONS AND OBJECT PREFERENCES
A survey of feline retrievers was conducted by Peter Neville and Claire Bessant in 1990. The results were published as “Fetch!” in Cat World, May 1991.
The sample size was small (50 cats from 46 owner responses). There was a 50:50 split between male and female i.e. no gender predisposition to retrieving toys. Neville and Bessant found the following breed predisposition:
The following breeds were mentioned in owner accounts, but not tabulated in the data: “a few” Persians and a Birman. Cases such as Mini and Jane reported to Messybeast suggest a familial tendency - either an inherited trait among siblings or copycat behaviour with kittens imitating each other or imitating other cats in the house.
The actual percentages of object retrieved were not given, but in order the object types were: cat toy (accounting for more than one quarter of objects retrieved), paper, laces/ribbons, fur/wool, foil, plastic (e.g. milk jug rings). The general criteria for a retrieved object was that it was chosen by the cat and convenient for the cat to carry in its mouth.
Do you have an account of a feline magpie or retriever. If so, please write giving details of the cat's age, breed and the object(s) it retrieves! The email address is available on the main index page.
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