I’ve always wondered: can animals be left- and right-pawed?

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This is an article from I’ve Always Wondered, a series where readers send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Send your question to alwayswondered@theconversation.edu.au

While watching my cat engaging in yet another battle with my shoelace, I noticed that he seemed mainly to use his left front paw. Do animals have a more dexterous side that they favour for particular tasks, just like humans? – Mike, Perth.

The short answer is: yes they do! Like humans, many animals tend to use one side of the body more than the other. This innate handedness (or footedness) is called behavioural or motor laterality.

The term laterality also refers to the primary use of the left or right hemispheres of the brain. The two halves of the animal brain are not exactly alike, and each hemisphere differs in function and anatomy. In general terms, the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere controls the left side.

Laterality is an ancient inherited characteristic and is widespread in the animal kingdom, in both vertebrates and invertebrates. Many competing theories (neurological, biological, genetic, ecological, social and environmental) have been proposed to explain how the phenomenon developed, but it remains largely a mystery.

Animal ‘handedness’

Humans tend to be right-handed. Lefties or “southpaws” make up only about 10% of the human population, and more males than females are left-handed.

Great apes show similar handedness patterns to humans. Most chimps, for instance, seem to be right-handed. But not many studies have looked at laterality in non-primate animals.

Read more: Why are most people right-handed? The answer may be in the mouths of our ancestors.
There is some evidence to suggest that dogs and cats can be right- or left-pawed, although the ratio seems to be more evenly split than in humans, and it is unclear whether there are sex differences.

If you’re a pet owner you can do an experiment for yourself. Which paw does your cat or dog lead with when reaching out for something, or to tap open a pet door?

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