MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: Is the fear of cats in mice an instinct or learned behavior?

Date: Thu Mar 14 10:23:00 2002
Posted By: Louise Freeman, Professor
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 1015959240.Zo

My best guess is that fear of cats in mice is, like most behaviors, a 
combination of learned and inborn behaviors (instincts.)  I couldn't find 
any studies specifically about cats and mice, but I did locate a recent 
study (July 2001) by Pongracz, et al. in the journal Developmental 
Psychology, vol. 39, issue 1, pp. 53-62.  The researchers there found that 
rabbits who were exposed to cats as pups did not show fear of cats at 
weaning; rabbits who had not been exposed to cats did show fear.  So, 
there does seem to be some "instinctive" fear of the cat, but that can be 
overcome by experience, especially if the experience happens when the 
animal is young.  How old was the mouse in your study?

A study by Z.Y. Kuo in the 1930's also looked at cat-rat interactions.  He 
raised some kittens who observed their mother killing rats and others who 
were raised without ever seeing their mother kill a rat.  When given a 
chance to hunt rats as adults, 86% of the ones who had seen their mother 
kill a rat, killed rats, whereas only 45% of the kittens who had not 
observed rat-hunting killed rats.  So again, the tendency of cats to kill 
rats seems to have both instinctive and learned elements.  This study is 
found in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol. 11. pp. 1-36.

Keep in mind, too, that your mouse probably showed a much weaker reaction 
to the cat hair than it would have to an actual live cat.

I hope this helps you and your daughter in your research.

Louise Freeman
Mary Baldwin College

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