Copyright 2012, Sarah Hartwell

Owners sometimes wonder if pet cats have a paw-preference in the same way that humans are left-handed, right-handed, or more rarely, ambidextrous. These owners may have noticed that their cats favour one or other forepaw when reaching for a toy or small object.

A 1991 study at Ataturk University in Turkey [Ref 6] found that 50 percent of cats were right-pawed, 40 percent were left-pawed and 10 percent showed no preference. In 1993, a French study [Ref 2] of 44 cats found that 17 were left-handed and 6 were right-handed when reaching towards a moving spot of light. The remaining cats showed no preference. Cats that did have paw preference reacted faster with their dominant paw than with their less-used paw.

In 1997, Pike and Maitland [Ref 4] studied pet catss reaching for a static food treat found 46% to be right-pawed, 44% were left-pawed and 10% were ambidextrous. 60% of the studied cats used their preferred paw 100% of the time over the 10 week study and there were no significant sex differences.

In a 2009 study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour [Ref 1] and reported in New Scientist, Dr Deborah L Wells and Sarah Millsopp of the School of Psychology, Queen's University, Belfast studied the paw-preference behaviour of 42 pet cats. They found that female cats tended to be right-pawed, while males had a strong tendency to be left-pawed when faced with complex or difficult tasks. However, for simple tasks, the cats would use either paw. In 2012, the same researchers [Ref 5] noted that paw-preference develops between 6 and 12 months old. This may be linked to hormones and sexual maturity. Burgess and Villablanca [Ref 14] had also noted that kittens at 6 to 8 weeks old had not developed paw-preference.

For humans, a simple task would be something like opening a door or batting away an irritating fly. Most of us use whichever hand is closest to the object, or whichever isn’t already performing another task (such as holding a cup of coffee or using the computer mouse). However, we prefer to use our dominant hand to perform more complex tasks such as writing. Some people are ambidextrous and equally adept at performing complex tasks with either hands. Others have learned to use the non-dominant hand for certain complex tasks, for example I learned to manipulate fiddly microscopes with my left hand so that my right hand remained free for note-taking ... and when writing on a blackboard, I can use either hand!

In humans, left handedness is more common in men than in women. “Handedness,” “paw preference”, “dominant side” and “lateralized behaviour” are the main terms used to describe the same thing.


For simple games, such as grasping a toy mouse being dragged along on a string, the male and female cats showed equal preference for either paw. This would be why the French study [Ref 2], Pike and Maitland [Ref 4] and Tan and Kutlu [Ref 6] didn’t show a significant paw preference when the cats were performing the simple task of reaching for a moving spot of light or for a food treat.

If the mouse was suspended above the cats’ heads, they would use either paw and showed no preference.


One particularly difficult task presented to the cats in the study was a small jar containing a piece of tuna. All 21 female cats favoured their right paw. 20 of the 21 tom cats used their left paw exclusively while the remaining male appeared to be ambidextrous.

This was significant in showing that cats, like humans, are more skilled with one paw than the other. Although there was a 50/50 split between left and right paw preference, this split reflected a gender difference.

According to Dr Wells, "The more complex and challenging [the task], the more likely we're going to see true handedness,"

Like humans, cats have a forepaw that is more coordinated than the other, but this “handedness” is much less pronounced in cats than in humans. For simple tasks cats are more ambidextrous than humans, but when pushed to perform more complex tasks they use the more co-ordinated paw. But consider this – in the developed world, tools, utensils and appliances tend to be designed for right-handed people which reinforces our behaviour. The pronounced human “handedness” behaviour may also be conditioned during childhood to conform to cultural norms [Ref 17].


The answer depends on which studies you read and whether the cats were performing simple or demanding tasks. The studies from the 1990s mostly used a simple food-reaching test which didn’t cause the cats to properly show paw preference.

In 1990, Tan, Yaprak and Kutlu found 51.5% to be right-handed, 36.4% to be left-handed, and 12.1% to be ambidextrous. 41.7% of the males were right-pawed, 50.5% were left-pawed, and 8.3% were ambidextrous. 52.4% of the females were right-pawed, 33.3% were left-pawed, and 14.3% were ambidextrous.

In 1991, Tan and Kutlu [Ref 6] found 49.5% of cats were right-handed, 40.4% were left-handed and 10.1% were ambidextrous. 54.0% of female cats were right-handed, 36.5% were left-handed, and 9.5% were ambidextrous. 43.5% of male cats were right-handed, 45.7% were left-handed, and 10.9% were ambidextrous.

In 1997, Pike and Maitland [Ref 4] found that 46% of cats studied were right-pawed, 44% were left-pawed and 10% were ambidextrous.

According to Augustus Brown’s children’s book of obscure facts about cats and dogs “Play it Again Tom” (Bantam Press, Oct 2007), for complicated tasks, 20% of cats are right-handed, 38% of cats are left-handed and 42% of cats are ambidextrous

The more recent studies using different types of test show the split of left to right paw preference is closer to 50/50. In comparison, around 10% of people favour their left hand, while 90% are right handed, but this is also influenced by cultural pressures.

The hormone testosterone has been shown to play a part in determining handedness. Greater prenatal testosterone exposure appears linked to left-handedness. In dogs, but not cats, neutering and spaying eliminated the gender bias.


Dr. Stefanie Schwartz offers a few simple tests you can use to determine your cat’s paw preference. You need to repeat the tests at least 100 times over several days and keep a note of the results. Other things can affect the results though; a cat with an injury might use its non-dominant paw.


In case you’re wondering, a study at the University of Manchester, UK in 2006 found a similar gender-related split in dogs. In addition, dogs have a more pronounced “handedness” than cats and will use their dominant paw even if it’s injured. However, if your dog has been spayed or neutered, it will most likely lose paw preference. According to Dr. Stefanie Schwartz of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, studying right-brain and left-brain connections, genetics and sexual orientation may one day change the way dogs and cats are bred, raised, trained and used.