Do Cats Care About Us? A Scientist Weighs In

We’ve all heart the familiar knocks on our feline friends: They’re aloof, selfish animals who are indifferent to their humans as long as their bowls are filled with food and they’ve got a warm place to sleep for 16 hours a day.

NPR hosts took a look at those stereotypes in their new segment, Animal Slander, in which they take “common phrases and stereotypes about animals — blind as a bat, memory of a goldfish — and figure out how much truth there is to them, or if they’re really just slanderous to these animals.”

Emily Kwong and Maddie Sofia of Shortwave — NPR’s daily science podcast — host the series, taking a look at a different animal in each segment.

“We can at least set the record straight on some potential slander that cats endure,” Sofia said, “such as cat are aloof, especially compared to dogs, that they love food more than they love us, and the idea that cats love people who don’t love cats.”

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The feline mind has been a mystery to scientists for a long time. Credit: Shutterstock

Kwong and Sofia spoke to Kristyn Vitale, an animal behaviorist from Oregon State University. If Vitale’s name looks familiar to you it’s because we’ve talked about her work before on Pain In The Bud. Along with researchers at Sophia University in Tokyo, Vitale’s team at OSU has been putting out most of the headline-making cat research in recent years.

They were responsible for the much-talked-about study showing cats relate to their owners the same way human children relate to their parents in uncertain situations. They were also the authors of a study that found cats prefer affection from humans more than food.

The former validated the feelings of many cat servants by confirming the similarities between the parent-child and caretaker-animal dynamics. In other words, we’re surrogate parents to our cats.

“It was very interesting to find just how closely those numbers match what we’ve seen in dogs and humans,” Vitale said. “The majority of both dogs and human children are securely attached, and that’s anywhere from about 60 to 65 percent of the population, which is exactly what we found with cats.”

It wasn’t so long ago that scientists had apparently given up on cats, concluding they’re too uncooperative to serve as research subjects.

“I can assure you it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” comparative psychologist Christian Agrillo told Slate in 2014. “It’s incredible.”

Cats “freaked out” when taken from their homes to a lab for studies, Agrillo said, and most weren’t interested in the test.

“Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction,” Agrillo said at the time. “It was really difficult to have a good trial each day.”

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“Be cooperative? What’s in it for me?” Credit: Shutterstock

The teams at Oregon State and Tokyo’s Sophia University have worked around those issues by designing studies that focus on feline reactions rather than scenarios that required them to take certain actions. That method may not yield results in the sort of comparative psychology studies scientists like Agrillo design, but it’s given researchers a window into the feline mind.

Stereotypes about cats can dissuade scientists from studying them, Vitale said, which is why it’s important to debunk them.

The stereotypes “do bother me because some of these ideas are why the field of cat cognition has been stagnant for a long time,” she said. “A lot of these expectations shape the work that people want to do, and if we say cats are aloof and untrainable, well, then they can’t learn to how engage in cognitive testing. But in our lab we’re showing cats can be trained just as readily as dogs.”

Likewise, stereotypes can negatively impact the way owners treat their feline friends. That’s something we’ve talked about before: While dogs warm quickly to people, earning the love and trust of a cat takes effort. The better you treat a cat, the tighter your bond becomes.

“If people don’t think they can bond with their cat, or engage in a lot of these interactions, why even try?” Vitale asked. “And if we don’t try with our cats, that’s going to produce a very different individual than we see with dogs.”

As for the NPR hosts, they concluded cats have indeed been unfairly maligned.

“The next time someone says ‘I love this cat so much because it acts like a dog,'” Kwong said, “lovingly tell them ‘No, this cat acts like a cat.'”

6 thoughts on “Do Cats Care About Us? A Scientist Weighs In”

  1. We have 4 cats and have bonded with all of them. We’ve always thought cats have been unfairly maligned (in many ways. All of ours are affectionate and while they do love their food, they love cuddles and scratches just as much. They even bonded with our German Shepherd, who sadly died yesterday (old age). They used to greet him, snuggle up to him, and lie down next to him; two of them used to lick his face, and inside his ears. In December I went to London for a few days (I live in the north-east of England) and my husband reported that the cats were all disturbed. When I returned they greeted me with meows of greeting and requests for cuddles. Who said cats were aloof? Not I!

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  2. This is why I don’t listen to these scientists who obviously have only studied cats in a lab not in a home environment. My cats have always bonded with me and were never aloof. I had unique cats that could teach these scientists a thing or two about them. Although one was very carefree and used to open doors to go on vacation often, he was still very attached to his family and knew where home was. People who are not owned by cats don’t know anything about cats. Scientists have a lot to learn about cats. They are not dogs.

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    1. The scientist they’re interviewing, Kristyn Vitale, is a cat-lover and has produced several good cat studies over the past few years. The thing is, knowing something from having a cat is different from proving it in a lab environment with many cats in an experiment with repeatable results. It’s important to study cats so we understand them better. These latest studies are proving the old assumptions about cats wrong, which is a good thing.

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  3. This is an amazing post from you, thank you! I’ve always believed that many people simply don’t understand the intelligence of cats and how their brains work. We also have to take into consideration the differences in their personalities. They are as diverse as we are. In my decades of cat parenting — I’ve never really had 2 cats alike. Similarities, sure, but never identical matches by any means. I’d venture to bet every cat parent will say the same.

    I love the part of this article that talks about how cats see us as surrogate parents in uncertain situations. I agree, wholeheartedly. My belief is our cats are perpetual kids — probably around the 2 to 4 year age range in a human. (although this varies) The more I’ve worked with my cats on learning language, the more they understood. It wasn’t superficial either since they responded correctly to commands. They are amazing creatures with a treasure trove of gifts to offer us daily 😉

    Thanks for sharing this. Sending you & your babies loads of love! ♥

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    1. Thank you, Holly. This is a great time for studies about cats and feline cognition after the subject was ignored by scientists for so many years. We’re learning a lot more about how cats think and how we can communicate with them to become better caretakers. If you’re interested in reading more about the study referenced in the post (the one about cats treating their humans like parents) here’s our earlier post which goes into depth about it:
      https://littlebuddythecat.com/2019/09/24/study-cats-really-do-view-us-as-parents/

      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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