My cat has a morning ritual: He’ll meow in front of the treat cabinet, which now contains healthy snacks, then gobble down his first yums of the day before padding over to the carpet or the couch to lay down.
Ya know, because he worked so hard. After a long and tiring night of sleep and the grueling physical exertion of working his jaw muscles to eat, he needs a respite. A cat nap, if you will.
He’s not unique in this respect, and his morning siesta is just the first of many. Cats need their beauty rest after an exhausting day of lounging, sleeping and having their food literally placed before them.
A new study confirms what we already know — that cats are lazy little bastards — and even hints at new levels of laziness unbeknownst to us thus far.
Working hard or hardly working?
“Get a puzzle feeder,” they say. “Make ’em work a little for their food,” they say. “It’ll stimulate their instincts.”
Animal behaviorists have recommended toys like puzzle feeders and treat balls for years, prompted by research that shows animals enjoy “contrafreeloading,” a fancy way of saying when given a choice between free food and food in a puzzle feeder, animals will opt for the latter.
The behavior is consistent across many species of domestic and wild animals, from dogs and rats to chimpanzees and birds. Maybe it stimulates their urge to forage. Maybe it gives them something fun to do. Or maybe food just tastes better to animals when they’ve earned it.
Cats, however, aren’t contrafreeloaders. They want the easy yums.
That’s according to a new study by a University of California at Davis research team. Cats didn’t ignore the food puzzles entirely, but they showed a clear preference for the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.
“It wasn’t that the cats never used the food puzzle, they just used it less, ate less food from it, and typically would eat from the freely available food first,” said UC Davis’ Mikel Delgado, a co-author of the study.
As for why cats aren’t taken with puzzle feeders — besides their inherent laziness, of course — that question will take more studies to answer.
“There are different theories about why animals might contrafreeload, including boredom in captive environments, stimulating natural foraging behaviors, and creating a sense of control over the environment and outcomes,” Delgado said.
When it comes to cats, Delgado’s best guess is that puzzle feeders might just be the wrong game since it doesn’t stimulate their hunting instincts. Maybe the next study should involve small pieces of chicken and turkey tied to the ends of wand toys, so our mighty little hunters can catch their “prey” and dine like proper tigers.
What would you do if you encountered a hungry, injured feral cat hiding under a car near your home?
If your first thought is to help the poor little one, enlist the aid of a local rescue and get the cat some much-needed veterinary attention and food in its belly, congratulations: You’re a human being with a conscience.
One New York Times columnist, however, thinks the solution is to indulge in a fantasy about murdering the innocent animal, of using a weapon she doesn’t own and soundly disapproves of to wipe it from existence.
When Margaret Renkl saw the “ragged, battle-scarred tom, thin but not emaciated, with one eye that didn’t open all the way,” her first thought was to kill it, not help it.
“If I owned a gun, I swear I would have shot that cat,” Renkl wrote in her Aug. 3 column, titled “Death of a Cat. “I would have chased that hissing cat out from under the car without a thought and shot it as it fled.”
Imagine: An effete, 60-something, morally self-satisfied woman playing Charles Bronson, standing over the corpse of a cat and slipping a still-smoking pistol into its holster before heading back inside to tweet-lecture the unwashed masses on civil rights, COVID etiquette and respect for wildlife.
The staff of the New York Times really seems to be working overtime to prove it’s tone-deaf and hypocritical: It wasn’t so long ago that a Times columnist tut-tutted those who disapprove of breeding and selling $20,000 designer cats while millions of homeless animals are euthanized annually.
Times columnist Alexandra Marvar even went so far as to praise people who use their wealth and connections to flout laws against poaching illegal wildlife, reminiscing about the days when “wild cat companions were were associated glamour, class and creativity.”
“Salvador Dalí brought his ocelot to the St. Regis. Tippi Hedren lounged with her lions in her Los Angeles living room. Josephine Baker’s cheetah, collared in diamonds, strolled the Champs-Élysées. In their time, these wild creatures made chic pets,” Marvar wrote.
While Marvar romanticizes wild animal “ownership,” the reality is sadly less glamorous: Instead of Josephine Bakers leading “chic” diamond-collared cheetahs on idyllic walks through Paris, it’s Texans prodding confused and depressed tigers into tiny backyard enclosures at taser-point, insisting that “muh freedoms” guarantee them the right to treat the world’s iconic megafauna like toys.
So why does Renkl hate cats? Because she’s read bunk scientific research that claims cats kill billions of birds and small animals every year:
I was thinking of the first nest the bluebirds built this spring, the one in which not a single baby survived. I was thinking of the gravid broadhead skink who would lie on our stoop every afternoon, warming her egg-swollen body in the sun. She disappeared one day to lay her eggs and guard her nest, I assumed, but now I wasn’t sure. I was thinking of the chipmunk who lives in a tunnel under our stoop and of the little screech owl, its feet holding down some small prey, its eyes glowing in the infrared light of our trail camera.
The more I thought about those vulnerable creatures, already crowded out by construction and starved out by insecticides, the angrier I got at the feral tom. In truth, I would never kill a cat, but I can surely hate one with a murderous rage. A person who has spent a quarter-century trying to create an oasis for wildlife can go a little mad when a cat shows up in the photos on her trail camera.
Note that Renkl didn’t actually see the starving cat kill those birds or squirrels. She simply assumes that a bird who doesn’t return to her glorious backyard oasis has been gobbled up by evil felines. Her rage is prompted by emotion and assumption, not fact.
She doesn’t have a negative word to say about the construction and pesticide industries either, reserving her “murderous rage” for a raggedy cat just trying to survive because she read studies claiming cats are furry little Adolf Hitlers, exterminating birds one bloody feather at a time.
We’ve talked about those cat-blaming studies here on Pain In The Bud: They’re sloppy meta-analyses of earlier studies using plugged-in, arbitrary data and dubious numbers from questionnaires to arrive at the conclusion that cats kill as many as 20 billion small animals in the US alone.
It’s cherry-picking at its worst, beginning with a pretedermined conclusion and inventing, massaging and selecting “data” to support that conclusion rather than doing the hard work of collecting authentic data and honestly interpreting the results.
The researchers who published those studies should be mortified to have their names attached to them. They’re engaging in activism, not science.
We’re not the only ones who have a problem with the aforementioned studies. A team of scientists and ethicists examined the claims and “found them wanting,” blaming the sloppy science of those studies for the claim that “cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity” and the subsequent war on cats in countries like Australia, where some states offer $10 a scalp for people who kill adult cats and $5 a scalp for kittens.
What kind of twisted logic compels people to kill kittens in the name of protecting animals?
The primary and most-cited studies claiming cats kill billions of animals “take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large,” the critics wrote. The studies ignore “ecological context,” bury contrary evidence and ignore mitigating factors, like the fact that cats often prey on other animals that kill birds.
In other words, they start with a pre-determined conclusion and shape the dubious data to fit, as I wrote above.
And so the claim that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals is repeated as fact by an unskeptical press, and ostensibly serious people, like the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Pete Marra, advocate a “nationwide effort to rid the landscape of cats.” That’s a nice way of saying he wants to kill hundreds of millions of innocent domestic cats because he doesn’t want to see the glaring flaws in studies about the species’ ecological impact. (Marra also compares feral cat advocates to tobacco companies and climate-change deniers, which is an astounding claim from a man whose name is synonymous with manipulating research data to support his views.)
This is absurd stuff, akin to the extermination of cats in the Dark Ages prompted by stories alleging cats were the agents of Satan, witches and heretics, and central figures in devil-worshiping ceremonies. The only difference is the people of the Dark Ages, who didn’t know better, were driven by religious belief. Their modern day counterparts are driven by religion masquerading as science.
These people don’t seem keen on thinking about how they justify the callous culling of hundreds of millions of domestic cats — intelligent, sentient animals who have feelings — in an unproven effort to protect birds and rodents.
Renkl ends her column by telling us she got her wish, in a way. A few days later, a neighbor’s kid came to her for help after some wildlife-loving do-gooder poisoned the poor animal. As she watched the tomcat convulse and twitch in an agonizing death, Renkl stopped to take pity…on herself.
“For weeks I have been trying to understand my own tears in the presence of a dying cat I did not love,” she wrote.
To her credit, by the end of the column Renkl does acknowledge her rage is misplaced, generously allowing that a cat trying to survive isn’t evil. But that concession comes after several hundred words painting cats as the driving force behind the destruction of wildlife and presenting flawed studies as credible science.
Sad news, gentlemen: A new study from a team at Colorado State University claims men who love cats are perceived as “less masculine” and are less likely to score dates with single women.
The study surveyed 708 women between the ages of 18 and 24, showing them photos of men photographed alone and with cats. The women were asked whether they’d agree to a date with each man they viewed, and whether they’d consider a long-term relationship with each man.
When those same men were shown with cats, the number of women who said they’d date them dropped by five percent, while the number who said they’d consider a serious relationship dropped by four percent.
The women who took the survey also rated men “on masculinity and personality” according to their appearance in the photos. In addition, the participants answered questions like: “Is he reserved?”, “Is he generally trusting?” and “Is he lazy?”, and asked the women whether they believed the men were outgoing, sociable, kind and considerate.
“Men holding cats were viewed as less masculine; more neurotic, agreeable, and open; and less dateable,” wrote authors Lori Kogan and Shelly Vosche, who titled their paper “Not the Cat’s Meow? The Impact of Posing With Cats on Female Perceptions of Male Dateability.”
The researchers also asked the women if they viewed the men as dominant, gentle, sympathetic, affectionate, warm, decisive and possessed of leadership abilities.
The presence of cats hurt men across the board with the female respondents, who found the cat men “ultimately less datable in the short or long term,” Vosche and Kogan concluded.
That begs the question: Why?
Women want manly men, Vosche and Kogan argue.
“Women prefer men with ‘good genes,’ often defined as more masculine traits,” they wrote. “Clearly, the presence of a cat diminishes that perception.”
The results, they said, indicate “women are more likely to seek masculinity first, then consider other components of the potential mate.”
The findings were “influenced by” whether the women self-identified “as a dog or a cat person,” although it wasn’t clear just how much that impacted their responses.
Vosche and Kogan speculate “that American culture has distinguished ‘cat men’ as less masculine, perhaps creating a cultural preference for ‘dog men’ among most heterosexual women in the studied age group.”
The authors didn’t say why they concentrated on the 18 to 24 range, nor did they speculate on how women in older age cohorts might respond.
We would be remiss, of course, if we didn’t run this by Buddy the Cat. This is his blog, after all.
The outspoken tabby cat dismissed the study as “fake mews” and said it’s well-known that cats are “spectacular wing-men.”
In addition Buddy — who holds doctorates in being a cat and being handsome — argued that, while some cats may indeed make their human male servants seem less masculine, other cats — like Buddy — amplified masculine and desirable traits by several orders of magnitude.
“If a man is pictured with a scowling, flabby Persian, then sure, maybe women are less likely to view that man as masculine,” Buddy said. “But if a man is pictured with a ripped, dashingly handsome cat such as myself, women are 96 percent more likely to want to date him.”
Asked where he arrived at that figure, Buddy replied: “I made it up. But obviously it’s true.”
A Brazilian research team wanted to find out if cats experience separation anxiety when their owners aren’t home, so they visited the homes of 200 cat servants, wired them up with cameras and microphones, and conducted a rigorous study in which they first established a behavioral baseline, then compared the cats’ normal behavior with their actions when their humans weren’t home.
In what might be the laziest, most assumptive attempt at conducting animal behavioral research thus far in 2020, the team from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora handed out questionnaires to 130 cat owners that asked, among other things, about the body language and behavior of their cats when they weren’t at home to witness it.
Did these cat caretakers have Palantirs that allowed them to spy, Sauruman-style, on their kitties at home? Nah.
“Since there weren’t any cameras observing the cats, the owners answered based on evidence from reports by other residents, neighbors or any signs the cat left in the home, such as feces, urine or broken objects, [study author Aline Cristina] Sant’Anna said.”
My neighbor’s friend’s Uber driver, who parked outside for 16 minutes, said my cat looked angry when he briefly appeared in the window, so I’m gonna go ahead and write in this here questionnaire that Mr. Socks has terrible separation anxiety. Yep.
But suppose the data was reliable, instead of fuzzy third-hand accounts from cat owners who quizzed their apparently nosy neighbors about what their cats do in their down time. How do we know a smashed vase is separation anxiety, and not the result of a cat with the zoomies just knocking stuff over?
How do we know a cat who misses the litter box doesn’t have a UTI, or refused to use a dirty box?
But it gets better, dear reader. This team of superstar scientists decided the reason some cats were supposedly depressed or destructive is because they live with male caretakers instead of women:
Cats with behavior problems also tended to live in households without any female adults or more than one female adult; households with owners ages 18 to 35 years old; single pet households; and households with no toys.
“Maybe, for different reasons, the animals raised in households with no female adults or more than one female adult were less likely to develop secure and mentally healthy types of attachments with their owners in the sampled population,” [study author Aline Cristina] Sant’Anna said.
Or maybe the authors are getting paid to make wild, unsupported assumptions and combine them with worthless data.
The CNN version of the story doubles down by quoting a self-appointed expert who expounds on the cats-and-females theory:
Additionally, female cat owners tended to be more affectionate and doting, said Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant for more than 20 years.
Cats might be a little more distressed in the absence of their owners if they are younger adults who are busy and not focused on the fact that they have a pet, the researchers theorized.
“They’re happy to have a pet, but they’re going out, being social, [going on] dates and having parties,” added Johnson.
For those who aren’t keeping score, we now have an academic and a certified behaviorist telling us cats who live with men or adults younger than 35 are more likely to be depressed because they, like, totally heard we don’t scoop the litter boxes as frequently or something.
That’s because all men refuse to be affectionate with their cats, and people under 35 are party animals who snort cocaine off the posteriors of strippers when they should be feeding Fluffy, according to our experts.
Johnson’s credentials include working at a hospital for cats and running her own “cat behavior house call and toy business.”
It’s worth noting that there are dozens of organizations that certify people as cat behaviorists. Sometimes the difference between a certified behaviorist and one without certification is the former simply paid dues to a member group that issues the certificates.
By now my opinion on this study is abundantly clear. The methods and conclusions wouldn’t pass muster in most undergraduate classes, let alone a research paper published in an academic journal. (The researchers published their work to PLOS ONE, an open access journal.)
What I don’t understand is, why bother? According to the study, 13.5 percent of the cats demonstrated at least one behavior consistent with separation anxiety, but for reasons I elaborated on earlier, the data is worthless. I’m not a fan of questionnaire studies in the first place, let alone questionnaire studies asking people what other people told them about difficult-to-interpret animal body language.
And lastly, I’m not a fan of this idea that there’s a certain “type” of person who is the best kind of cat owner.
We should be dispelling crazy cat lady stereotypes, not perpetuating them. Maybe men are in the minority when it comes to adopting cats, but nothing other than unfounded assumption suggests we men aren’t loving and affectionate with our little buddies, just like there’s nothing but anecdotal evidence to suggest caretakers younger than 35 neglect their pets.
The past few years have seen an authentic boom in research into feline cognition, behavior and emotion, and for that I’m grateful. But we can do better than this.