Science activities with pets

Have you ever wondered what your cat was saying when it makes various sounds? Let's take a look at cats communicating and then do some simple activities to learn more.

If you don't have cats (or even if you do), listen to the cats in the video below and decide what you think they are saying.

The first gray cat is making a cat-to-human vocalization, that is he or she is trying to communicate to a human. He is definitely asking to go out. There may be a door there to the right side.

The second cat is looking out the window at birds. Cats often make that sound when hunting, usually when the prey is out of reach. Some people have suggested that the cats are trying to call the birds in, which would be a cat-to-bird vocalization. Birds are curious when it comes to unusual sounds, as most birders know. Birders often make soft “pishing” noises to entice a bird to come closer. As for the cat's "cheh cheh" sounds, I have wondered whether the sound is to alert other cats in the area to potential prey. Cats are solitary hunters, but you never know.

The cats in the second video are more difficult to interpret. They are communicating to one another, so it is a cat-to-cat vocalization. But what are they saying? Maybe one wants to stay up and play, while the other wants to take a nap?

By the way, a scientist recently recorded cat sounds under various conditions and then asked volunteers to interpret the sounds. (There wasn’t a video to add visual cues). It turns out people who owned cats correctly figured out what the sounds meant about 40% of the time, and people who didn’t own cats didn’t have much luck. It isn't as easy as you would think to figure out what cats are saying.

Individual cats vary considerably in the sounds they make, based both on their genetics (breed) and learning environment. One of our cats had a sound we called “yhine,” a whining meow made while he was yawning. Cats can also make sounds we can’t hear, called ultrasonic sounds. When a cat opens its mouth, but doesn’t make a sound, it may be producing an ultrasonic call.

Activity 1. Talk like a cat (younger scientists)

Ask your children what sounds they think a cat makes. Have them discuss and try to imitate cat sounds like meows, murps, purrs and yowls. Carry on conversations using only cat sounds.

Activity 2. Study cat communication behavior

Spend some time listening to your cat. You might want to record or videotape your cat(s) communicating throughout the day. Relate which sounds your cat makes with activities or locations, to see if there are any patterns. For example, does he always make one sound in the kitchen? Could he be asking for food? Does she make another sound when she sees a bird outside the window?

For older children interested in sound, take a look at this website of math and science activities with sound. Towards the bottom is a detailed look at the differences of infrasound and ultrasound.

Next week we will move on to some fun science activities with pet guinea pigs. And now my cat wants me to feed her...

If you’d like to learn more about cats, here are a few books with information (contains affiliate links to Amazon).

How to Talk to Your Cat by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Paul Meisel (2003)

How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman (2015)


Did anyone try the smells science experiment with your cat last week? Did your cat have any preferences? How did it react to the catnip?

My cat was not crazy about the white sheet of paper I was using as a mat. Eventually I had to dampen the tips of my fingers, dip them in the spice or herb, and then present the finger to the cat. She got excited about cinnamon, and pretty much ignored the rest. I didn’t have any catnip to offer her, but in the past she has rolled in it, eaten some, and then she gets kind of wacky. She’s definitely in the 70% of cats that react.

I wanted to write up a science experiment about cat sound communication, but I found a couple of other websites to share, so I think I’ll hold that until next weekend.

The first website is from Germany. Instead of a person taking pictures of a cat, this website shows pictures taken by Fritz the cat while he is wearing a webcam around his neck. Some of the pictures are what you would expect, the underside of a car and someone’s feet. I was totally blown away by how much the cat was apparently looking at the sky and the trees. I guess I never realized a creature so close to the ground would be interested in the sky. Take a look at Fritz’s “Cam-Galerie” and see what life looks like from a cat’s eye view.

The Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog has a brief, but interesting post on blinking in cats. You might want to take a look around this site, because there are regular Friday posts called “Friday Cat Fun.”

Finally, here is an easy experiment to find out whether your cat is right or left pawed at the Scholastic Science World website. To tell you the truth, I hadn't thought much about it. I'll have to go ask my cat. Let me know what you find out from your cat, too.

Today I’m going introduce a new set of science activities or experiments you can do with the assistance of your pet cat. Then I will go over the results from the cat “field observations” activity from last week.

Sniffs and Smells Activity
We all hear about the incredible sense of smell that dogs have, but what about cats? Scientists say that a cat’s sense of smell is not as sharp as a dog’s, but it is still better than a human’s. What do cats smell? Let’s make a list.

Cats use their sense of smell to

  • find food.
  • detect other cats (see results section below).
  • locate catnip.
  • detect enemies.

Can you think of any other ways that cats might use their sense of smell? Let me know if you can think of any.

Have you ever noticed that your cat seems to always show up when you or your parents are cooking certain foods? Have you ever noticed the opposite, that your cat avoids the kitchen when certain foods are cooking? One of my cats always shows up when I open a can of tuna fish. In fact her ability to tell when I’m even thinking of having tuna is “uncanny.” (Insert groan here.)

Simple Smells Experiment

  • large piece of paper or cardboard
  • notebook paper and pencil
  • some sort of timing device (optional)
  • a few mild and pleasant-smelling kitchen spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon; a few herbs such as mint, thyme and basil; and catnip. Make sure you have an adult’s permission to use the spices and herbs. Avoid pungent or strong spices which may repel or harm the cat.
  • an alert and interested cat or cats (you might want to chose a time when your cat is typically active, such as morning or around the evening meal.

Before your cat arrives, draw circles on the large paper for each spice or herb that you have gathered and label it. This helps you remember what you put down. Keep the circles fairly small and separated from one another.

Here's a photo to help you. (Note that I used a marker to make sure you could see the lines, but it would be better to use a pencil because markers might have an odor that would interfere with the test.)

smell test

Make a chart on the notebook paper with a column for the name of each spice or herb. Leave room to record your cat’s reaction to each. If your cat is interested in cooperating, you might even be able to time how long he or she spends smelling each test area. If you have more than one cat to test, prepare separate sheets for each one.

Lay the paper on the floor (a bare wood or tile is easier to clean if the cat spills the spices off the paper). If you have a regular place where you put down the cat food, you might want to try nearby. Place a small amount of spice or herb in two of the circles you labeled. Save the catnip for last, because it may cause a strong reaction that will interfere with the other tests.

Now, entice your cat to come check out the large paper. If your cat isn’t used to you giving it new toys and games, it may be unsure of what to expect. Be patient. Get on the floor and sit next to the sheet. It may come to see you and then investigate the sheet. Write down what happens. If the cat seems interested, then add two more items to smell and see which it prefers. Finally add the last item and the catnip. Again, record the results.

Catnip is a plant that may trigger a strong reaction in some cats. About 70% of cats will roll in the catnip when they smell it, try to eat pieces and just act in an excited way. They may become more active and want to play. They may run about “for no apparent reason.” Or they may lie down and lick themselves. Did your cat react? How did it react? Did it react to any of the other smells? If you tested two cats or more cats, how did they differ?

Results from “Field Observations” Activity last week

Did you get some good photos of your cat last week? Did you see it hold its tail in different ways? Did you see it make different facial expressions? What about behaviors? Did it do any things like the cat in the pictures last week?

Here are the results from our questions last week.

sleepy cat

Photo 1.
This cat is obviously sleeping. If you watched your cat throughout the day, you probably noticed it slept a lot. A normal cat sleeps from 14 to 17 hours a day. That’s one big cat nap!

Why does a cat sleep so much? Cats are normally most active at dawn and dusk, leaving the times in between to catch up on sleep. Other animals, however, are also most active at dawn and dusk, and they don’t sleep as much. Some people have suggested that domesticated cats are “sit and wait” predators, so they sit or lie down for long periods and with a few quick bursts of intense activity throughout the day. Also, during many of those hours of sleep the cat is only lightly asleep and can be awake and alert in an instant. Just try using the can opener or opening the door of the fridge, and you will see.

sniffing cat

Photo 2.
In this photo the cat is sniffing a post with its nose. Cats can both give and receive information to other cats by smells. If another cat has left a scent on this post, the cat may raise its head, open its mouth and make a kind of a grimacing look. You might interpret that as it having a bad reaction to the smell, but actually the cat is exposing a structure in its mouth called the vomeronasal organ. The behavior of exposing the organ is called flehman (horses do this, too). The organ helps the cat process the smells.

How do other cats lay the odors on the post? They can do it two ways. Cats have scent glands on their faces that they rub on objects. When your cat rubs on you, he is applying scents to mark you as his property. Male cats also raise their tails, back up to objects and spray urine to mark their territories.

rolling cat

Photo 3.

In this photo the cat is rolling on the bricks. This cat always loved to roll on the bricks. The bricks were rough. Also, the sand that the bricks were set into tended to come up to the surface, so the bricks had a coating of coarse sand. The cat rolled to scratch his back, although he might have left some scents that way as well. He also liked to roll in sand and then carry it into the house and sleep on the bed (see photo 1).

cat eating grass

Photo 4.
Mow, mow, mow the grass. My son and I once did a mock-umentary video of our “lions” grazing on the “Serengeti.” Why do cats eat grass? It is not for food, because cats lack the enzymes and gut fauna to digest cellulose. They actually eat the grass as roughage, or as a mechanical aid to stimulate regurgitation. Cats ingest their own fur when they groom themselves with their tongues. This fur mats together in the digestive system and produces “furballs.” Apparently it is easier for the cat's system if the cat regurgitates the furball than if it tries to pass them through. The grass helps with this clean out process.

In fact, if your cat does not have access to fresh grass, it may chew on houseplants. Beware of this, because some houseplants are poisonous. Grow or buy some cat grass and your cat will appreciate it.

Ready to learn more? We’ll have some more science activities with cats next weekend.
Until then, you might want to check these kits:

Fun With Your Cat Science Kit published by Scholastic.

We tested this kit, and it really was fun, both for us and for our cat. It comes with a useful (but not large) manual to explain the experiments you can do, with relevant and factual information about cats. The kit comes with materials to test questions such as
“Can your cat taste sweets?
“Can you train your cat to jump through a hoop? (Our cat walked through easily).
“Do cats see colors?”
It also has the equipment you will need to make your cat a catnip mouse and grow grass for your cat.

Fun With Your Cat Science Kit FWYC

We didn’t test this kit, but it looks fairly similar.