It is glaringly palpable to Spokane feral cat care givers that felines are instinctively curious and they can and do learn. In the home as well as natural wild environment, cats adjust their behavior and strategies according to conditions. There are cats that fetch, open door handles, use the toilet for a litter box, or break into packages of cat food. Well-planned-out experiments that take into consideration the cats’ physical abilities and limitations and intrinsic feline behavioral traits prove cats to be interested, intellectual and able to learn.
Reflex action and conditioned learning are great for some behaviors, but an unlike kind of learning is required for more flexible behavior, one which allows the cat to foresee the consequences of his/her own actions, and adapt his/her actions based on past successes and failures. It is a survival requirement that cats learn that some foods are toxic or taste bad after only one slip-up and will then avoid that food. This trait is referred to as Instrumental Learning or trial-and-error. In puzzle-boxes studies, cats first scratched and clawed arbitrarily at the sides of the cage, until inadvertently discovering the lever that let them out. Their later tries were less random.
Different animals have different inborn behaviors. For instance, an untrained cat and an untrained Border collie dog are both presented with a group of ducklings. The dog shepherds the ducklings and looks after them. The cat pursues the ducklings and eats one or more of them. Is the cat brainless because he/she doesn't guide the ducklings? Is the dog slow on the uptake because he/she fails to recognize those ducklings as prey and doesn't t recognize a meal opportunity?
Neither creature is more or less clever than the other if judged by this test. Both acted upon their instinct. The dog came from a breed with a robust herding instinct developed by human selection over generations and simply did what comes naturally to Border Collies. The cat too merely followed her inborn instincts.
Studies will continue to take place but cat lovers know a cat is a cat and that is that.