Taking studies designed for children and dogs and applying them to cats has been all the rage lately after a series of studies yielded new insights about the way cats bond with their humans.
Earlier studies showed cats, like kids and dogs, look to their humans for reassurance in strange situations and derive comfort from the latter’s presence. Likewise, they’re less confident if they’re forced to face unknown situations without the “security blanket” of their big buddies nearby.
Both humans and dogs show a preference for what researchers call “prosocial individuals.” In plain language, it means they pay attention to the way strangers treat the people they care about. A dog who sees a stranger respond negatively to its caretaker will avoid the stranger, even if the latter is waving a delicious treat.
In the study, cats watch their owners try to open a box while two strangers are present:
“[C]ats watched as their owner first tried unsuccessfully to open a transparent container to take out an object, and then requested help from a person sitting nearby. In the Helper condition, this second person (helper) helped the owner to open the container, whereas in the Non-Helper condition the actor refused to help, turning away instead. A third, passive (neutral) person sat on the other side of the owner in both conditions.
After the interaction, the actor and the neutral person each offered a piece of food to the cat, and we recorded which person the cat took food from. Cats completed four trials and showed neither a preference for the helper nor avoidance of the non-helper.”
At first glance it looks like cats really don’t care if a person is helpful or friendly toward their “owners.” If a person is offering them yums, why shouldn’t they take them?
That sounds like exactly the sort of thing cats would do, but the research team says we should hold off on judging our food-loving feline friends. It may be that cats simply don’t understand that the stranger(s) aren’t being helpful. After all, if your cat sees you struggling with a package, does she offer to help?
If it is true, it’s not necessarily cats’ fault: We’ve long known they aren’t as well-attuned to human social cues as dogs are, a fact that can be attributed to their route to domestication. There simply wasn’t any reason to carefully breed cats to pick up on those cues, as we did historically with dogs, because cats were already wildly successful at their primary job, which was rodent extermination. Taking on cuddle and companionship duties didn’t happen until later when people began to value the little ones for more than their sharp claws and teeth.
“We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation abilities as dogs, at least in this situation, because unlike the latter, they have not been selected to cooperate with humans,” the scientists wrote.
The research team says the results are suggestive, but more studies should be done before drawing any real conclusions about our furry friends. Knowing cats often get a bad rep due to stereotypes and misunderstandings, we agree.