Why Do Cats Fetch?


Once upon a time I had a cat named Raccoon. Racoon was wonderful, but he wasn’t a lap cat and wasn’t all that touchy feely. That was okay; just like people, cats are individuals. I was just happy that he liked being near me.


And fetching.


He loved fetching his little furry mouse. He’d return the mouse to me over and over again, and gleefully take off after it each time I tossed it across the room. It was not something I taught him, but something he taught me.


Unfortunately, when he was four, he was diagnosed with FIP. At the time, it was a certain death sentence. I didn’t want to say goodbye, so I did everything I could to make him comfortable, and searched high and low for a miracle cure. The night before I planned to say goodbye, I was awakened by something wet on my face. It was his mouse, and there he was, on the bed, staring at me, expectantly. He was emaciated, except for his bloated belly, and his fur was limp and unkempt. He was so weak that I couldn’t believe this was happening. It had been months since he’d played with his toy. I picked up the mouse and tossed it toward the bedroom door. Raccoon took off, and a few moments later, brought the mouse back to me. I was amazed. Was he going to defeat the virus after all? Through tears, I tossed the mouse again, and he took off after it. But this time, when he returned it, he lay down beside me, barely able to catch his breath, and I knew he was letting me know he was done. The next day my heart broke as I had to say goodbye.


That night has haunted me to this day and brings me back to the point of this post. Why do some cats fetch?


On the surface it seems obvious: it’s fun for them.


And that should be enough. After all, I’ve said that cats are individuals, and I stand behind that. But there’s a nagging fact that gets in the way of that assessment. Every fetching cat I’ve ever had has one thing in common; they would only fetch one thing. My current fetcher, Gloria Vanderbilt, only fetches the cellophane wrappers from Smarties candies (yes, seriously). Fenix only would retrieve a feather toy (to the point where I made my own, but he didn’t like them as much). And Cougar would fetch crumpled paper balls. Toss anything else and the cat would run after it, sniff it, and bat it once or twice and walk away.

A few weeks ago I encountered a couple posts of cats fetching. I asked the posters if their cat fetched anything else, or just the item in the video. In both cases, the response was that they only fetched that one thing.

So maybe the question shouldn’t be why do cats fetch, but why do they fetch only one item (or class of items). And what about all those cats that don’t fetch? Are they just not interested in fetching, or maybe they just haven’t stumbled upon that thing they enjoy running after so much that they return it to you so they can do it again and again and again?

It’s like these items -- whether we’re talking about a furry mouse, a Smarties wrapper, or some other item -- triggers something deep in the cat’s psyche, brings out the wild and makes that item transcend all others. It’s like it taps in on some species memory that’s impossible to ignore. Or is it confusion? Or a genetic affinity for one of the item’s traits (sound? feel? smell?)? I’m going to write to as many experts in the field as I can find and see if I can get an answer. If you already have one, share it, please!

Oh, and if you’re a breeder or have had kittens, have you seen the desire to fetch a particular item inherited by the fetching cat’s kittens? Was it the same item or a different one? Yeah, this is kind of stuck in my head right now. If I find out what’s going on here, I’ll share it, but I have a feeling this is one more cat mystery that our feline friends are loathe to give up. And that, too, I’m okay with.

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