How to Test Object Permanence in Your Cat

The psychologist Jean Piaget first described the stages of object permanence in his own infant children. Since then, many people have used the same tests to study how animals understand their world. With some simple tests, you can get a better idea of what your cat understands.


  1. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 1
    Decide on a target. This is an object your cat will be trying to find. Use an object your cat likes to play with as a target. (Make sure the target doesn't make any noise, move, or have a scent your cat can detect, however, or else the test won't be valid!) The target can be anything small and hideable, but make sure you can fit it in your closed hand without any of it being visible.
    • Do NOT use a treat as the target, because cats can often sniff out treats instead of having to reason about where it would be.
  2. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 2
    Choose some hides. They must be big enough to cover the target, and easy to use so you can quickly hide the target while the cat is watching. Make sure the cat is able to retrieve the target - for example, don't use an upside-down cup because your cat is likely to end up pushing the cup around instead of knocking it over.
  3. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 3
    Set up a camera to record your cat`s performance, if desired. It`s best to use a tripod, or else get someone to help you, because hiding the target is easier with two hands. If you use a tripod, make sure you check the view your camera can see, so you know it`s getting a good picture. If your cat wants to play with the tripod, wait until they`re bored of it before starting testing.
  4. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 4
    Get the cat's cooperation. Pick a time when your cat is in a playful mood, and start playing with the target, getting them to bat at it. (This is easier to do with a kitten.) Testing should be fun for your cat as well as you. If the cat isn't interested in finding the target, the results won't be valid.
  5. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 5
    Go from easiest to hardest. Stop when your cat fails the test - the tests build on each other, so they can't pass a harder test if they fail an easier one. But be sure to do several tries, to make sure the result reflects their real ability. Make sure to give them lots of encouragement, and to use a consistent phrase, such as 'find it', to let them know it's time to look for the target.
  6. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 6
    Hold the target in the air. Wave it a little to get the cat's interest, and then move it slowly around, so the cat has to turn to follow it. After your cat turns a full circle, set the target down and let them paw at it. Following the object as it moves out of their visual field is stage 2 object permanence. (Your cat should pass this one.)
  7. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 7
    Take one of the hides and set it on the floor. If your cat wants to play with the hide, let them do it, and wait for them to lose interest. Then, get their attention focused on the target, and move the target half-under the hide, so they can only see part of it.
    • If they can find the target when it's partially hidden, that's stage 3 object permanence. This means that the cat can see part of an object and know that the rest of the object must be there somewhere, out of sight. Repeat this a few times, to make sure your cat didn't pass by accident or get distracted or something.
  8. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 8
    Make sure your cat is looking at the target. Then put it completely out of sight under the hide. It's very important that your cat sees the target going under the hide - otherwise, the test is invalid.
    • If your cat gets the target out from under the hide, that's stage 4 object permanence. This means they know that objects that are out of sight still exist, and can be found again.
  9. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 9
    Set out both hides. If your cat wants to play with the hides, wait until they lose interest, and then get them focused back on the target. Hide the target under one hide, over and over, letting your cat get it every time. Then, hide it under the other hide.
    • If they go for the first hide, this is called the A-not-B error, and it means they failed. If they go for the hide it's actually under, they're at stage 5 object permanence. This means they know that the object must be where they saw it disappear, instead of where they usually find it.
  10. Image titled Test Object Permanence in Your Cat Step 10
    Hide the target in your hand. Then, while your cat is watching, move your hand under one of the hides, set the target down (careful not to make a sound or cause visible movement), and pull your closed hand out again. Hold your hand out to the cat, so they can see the target isn't in your hand.
    • If they to check your hand, and then go to the hide and uncover the target, they're at stage 6, the highest level of object permanence. This means they can infer movements that must have occurred, even though they didn't see or hear the movement occurring.


  • Don't give them any hints, such as pointing or gesturing towards the target. To be on the safe side, don`t say where they need to look, either - it`s hard to tell how well a cat understands human speech.
  • If you're not getting good results, try using cat treats. Simply give your cat a treat every time they paw at the target. Not all cats need to be given treats to be tested (some find finding their toy exciting enough) but it can certainly help with motivation.
  • You don't have to do all the testing at once. If your cat is getting bored, or you run out of time, stop testing and try the next test another time. You can repeat the first test each session, as a warm-up, and then skip ahead to where they're at. If you're not planning to test stage 5, you don't need to get a second hide, and if you're not planning to test stage 6, you could use a target too big to fit in your hand (such as a pen).
  • Most cats will probably be at stage 3 or 4. But it`s possible your cat may score lower or higher. Like humans, individuals cats can differ in intelligence. Some cats are really dumb, others are geniuses by cat standards. While it may be fun to think about having a really smart cat, remember that dumber cats can still be great pets.
  • If your cat is still a kitten, test them again in a few months. They might have gone up a stage!

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Categories: Cat Training