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They say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but what about cats? Let me introduce our Bengal cat Masyanya Markovna Bonus, whose patronymic name Markovna refers to the Markov stochastic memoriless process. Once fed, she quickly transitions to a new state (discarding the history simultaneously) and starts demanding the food again.

Masyanya Markovna is ten years old. By cat's standards this a near-retirement age. This is often the time when cats start developing health problems. For example, our poor kitty lost all her teeth recently. Yet, she stays mentally sharp and eager to learn.

We are not the first owners of Masyanya: she has been living with us for only three years. It was not until two years ago when my wife noticed how our ever hungry animal was reaching out for food. Jokingly she suggested we should teach her to do the ‘Stand!’ trick. We knew cats could be trained, but our cat was already fairly old. Before she joined our family, she was not trained to do any tricks. Neither did I have animal-training experience.

To our astonishment, the experiment was successful. Encouraged by this, we decided to try some new dog tricks. It was a slow process bearing some similarity to training a deep artificial neural network. In short, it can be easy to teach the kitty do one trick, but quite problematic to teach another one. Cats (somewhat similar to sophisticated machine learning algorithms) overtrain easily. As a result, no matter what the command is, the cat may want to perform the trick she learned first. However, once you are done with two tricks, you can do many more.

Another parallel to machine learning: Cats are sensitive to priors (at least this was our case). For example, they may perform the trick quite well in a familiar setting (e.g., the living room), but completely refuse to do anything in another setting. They react to the voice commands, but they are also very sensitive to the body language.

To substantiate our story, we post the video of the latest performance, where our awesome cat does several dog tricks:

What is a takeaway message? One is quite clear: Cats are highly trainable, even mature ones. But, perhaps, more importantly, if mature cats can learn new tricks, people should not be afraid to do the same. Even though lots of people may try to discourage you, uncovering and nurturing your talent should not stop in your 3rd or 4th decade.

This series of cat posts is co-authored with Anna Belova.