Southpaws: The evolution of handedness

It had been assumed that handedness was a uniquely human trait; however, now we know that many in the animal kingdom prefer to use one paw, eye or even antenna for certain tasks. This is referred to as lateralization.

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Is your pet a southpaw?

Try these tests to see if your furry, feathered or scaly friends prefer to use their left or right appendages for certain tasks – and what this reveals about their behaviour.

Dogs: See if Fido wags his tail to his left or right. If he’s like most dogs, furious wagging to the right means he is relaxed and ready to approach whatever he sees; if he wags to the left he might prefer to withdraw.

Cats and rodents: Give your cat, rat or hamster a jar with a tasty treat and see which paw they use to try and extract it. If your pet is a cat, expect toms to use their left paws and the females to use their right.

Parrots and other dextrous birds: This is an easy one. “Anything they are interested in they will pick up with their dominant foot,” says Culum Brown at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Watch out for odd combinations of lateralised behaviours too. Unlike most birds which view the objects they hold with the eye on the same side, the Australian galah manages to pull off a cross-over number, using the eye on the opposite side.

Fish: Place an unfamiliar object in the centre of your fish tank and record if your fish go around it clockwise or anticlockwise, indicating their eye preference. Be aware, though that the preferred eye might change depending on whether the object is disturbing or attractive and whether your fish are bold or shy (Animal Behaviour, vol 74, p 231).

Reptiles and amphibians: Move a food morsel into your pet’s field of view from either the left or right side and watch which direction elicits more or quicker catches. For most species tested so far, the right side appears to be the favourite.

Horses: Chances are that your horse has already been trained to be handled from the left side. Recent research suggests that horses prefer to use their left eye for assessment and evaluation of their surroundings regardless of such training. Yet horses are also likely to react more strongly to alarming sights they see with the left eye too, which leads Lesley Rogers and Nicole Austin at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, to propose that it might be worth exploring if they should actually be trained from the right instead.

Learn more here.