How can one use object permanence to test a cat’s intelligence?

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Object permanence is one way psychologists rate intelligence. Basically, it’s the understanding that if you can’t see, hear, or touch something, it still exists. There’s no consensus of when this capacity emerges in human children, and a lot of debate about whether or not cats have this capacity.

Cats do have terrific memories, both short and long-term, and they are experimental learners. They will watch another cat, and in a domestic setting, observe their humans. Through trial and error, they engage in problem solving. Cats do almost nothing that doesn’t return a “reward” in their personal system of logic, so Fluffy may invest a considerable amount of time learning something that makes no sense to you at all.

It would seem that cats do have object permanence, but not in a way that is directly comparable to the ability in humans. If you’ve ever tried to hide a fresh bag of food from a cat, even by sealing it in a plastic container in a cabinet, only to walk in to find the door open, you’ll know that Fluffy is aware of the existence of objects he can’t see.

Most animal behaviorists liken the cat’s ability in this regard to that of a two-year old child. All cats, as individuals, have differing levels of intelligence. To test for a capacity for object permanence, simply put away a favorite object or hide the kibble while kitty is watching. In most cases, the cat will become obsessed with retrieving his possession, which indicates he does not think it’s disappeared forever.

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