Tag: cat socialization

Study: Cats Will Happily Accept Food From Jerks

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.

Now a research team in Kyoto has taken another study designed for dogs — known as the “helpful stranger” study — and placed cats in the same situation to find out how they react.

Sure, I'll Take A Treat!
A new study shows cats don’t discriminate when it comes to who’s giving them food.

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.

How Long Is Too Long To Leave A Cat Alone?

“If you want a pet but you don’t have time to walk a dog, get a cat.”

“As long as they have food, cats are fine. They don’t care if they’re left alone.”

“Cats are solitary creatures who are content to ignore you.”

Despite taking over the internet and solidifying their status as one of the most endearing animal species, cats are still widely misunderstood, as these oft-spoken sentiments illustrate.

Of course, as we cat servants know, our furry friends do care very much about remaining in the company of their favorite people.

In a new column on Psychology Today, bioethicist Jessica Pierce backs up something we’ve been saying for ages: Cats are social animals, and it’s harmful to think of them as one step above a plant, content to live a solitary existence as long as they’re fed and watered.

The myth of the aloof, independent cat feeds another misconception: that cats are just fine when we’re not around. Indeed, a common piece of advice for someone thinking about acquiring a pet is “if you are gone a lot and don’t have time for a dog, get a cat instead.” Many people believe that cats can be left alone for long hours every day, and can even safely be left alone for days or even weeks, as long as food and freshwater are made available to them.

This is bad advice and does cats a great disservice because domestic cats kept as companion animals in homes likely need their humans just as much as companion dogs do.

So how long is too long to leave a cat alone? Unfortunately no one knows for sure.

There haven’t been studies on the topic, in part because many behavioral scientists still believe cats are too difficult to work with in research settings.

The big tough guy who cries by the door when I step out of the house for 20 minutes.

But new studies — including the research out of Oregon State that showed cats view their humans as parent-like figures — show cats form strong emotional connections to their people, mirroring the behavior of dogs and even human children.

Other recent studies demonstrated that cats crave human attention and affection even more than food, and look to their humans for reassurance when they’re uncertain about things.

Some people will say that’s all fairly obvious and unremarkable, but there are two primary reasons the findings are significant: First, in the scientific community something has to be proven in a controlled, replicable study. Anecdotes don’t count. Secondly, there’s finally enough research to confirm cats absolutely form bonds with their humans, and those bonds are genuine.

Although felines are superficially aloof, when you get to know them better it becomes clear they’re simply good at pretending they’re nonchalant.

“No more computer, it’s Buddy time!”

While cautioning that cats are individuals with their own personalities and quirks, Pierce suggests looking to research on dogs and loneliness.

“The rough guidelines for dogs—that about four hours alone is comfortable, but longer periods of alone time may compromise welfare—may be a reasonable place to start for cats,” Pierce wrote, “but further research into cat welfare is needed in order to develop empirically-grounded guidelines for leaving cats alone.”

As for Buddy, who is known to meow mournfully and park himself by the front door when I leave, his one-off limit is about 12 hours, or half a day. I’m okay with leaving him alone overnight after he’s been fed, and while he may not like it, he’s fine if left alone for an extended period once in a while. I wouldn’t do that regularly.

Anything more than that, however, and I’ll enlist the aid of a friend to stop by, feed him and play with him. Maybe that way I won’t get the cold shoulder and resentful sniffs when I return.

Buddy and the People

Buddy and the People. Sounds like a dance-rock band, doesn’t it? Or maybe an 80s pop group with a Huey Lewis vibe.

One of the more interesting aspects of being a cat caretaker minion is seeing how our furry friends interact with other people. For those of us who write about cats — and everyone who has a cat — most of our musings tend to focus on our direct relationships with the little ones.

But getting to sit back and watch how they respond to others can be just as much fun, and sometimes we get to see new aspects of our cats’ personalities.

Buddy is exceptionally friendly and sociable. I like to think it’s because I socialized the shit out of him as a kitten, taking him to new places, having him meet new people, and even making friends with a few dogs. But the truth is he’s been that way since kittenhood, and hopefully I did my best to encourage it.

My Brother, the Other Big Buddy

My brother is Buddy’s favorite person in the world, aside from Big Buddy of course. Bud knows he’s family and treats him that way.

When my brother was staying with me for a few nights and he took the couch, there could not be a closed door between us. Buddy wasn’t having it.

Eventually I relented, warned my brother that he’d likely be startled by feline hi-jinx before falling asleep, and would be woken up rudely at least once overnight. Maybe he’d wake to find Buddy perched on his chest and licking his face. Maybe he’d be violently ripped out of sleep by my jerk of a cat pouncing on his stomach. Or maybe he’d get the classic “Isn’t your face a reasonable place to walk?” indifference cats are famous for.

My Niece, the Terrible Toddler


(Buddy retreating from my niece. This was the one and only day he wore a collar, spending most of his time trying to get it off before I relented after about two hours and removed it for him.)

His daughter, my niece, is a completely different story. Buddy is terrified of her.

They were babies at the same time, and we’ve got some cute photos of the two of them. I’ve always been careful to supervise any interaction, making sure they’re gentle with each other: No tail-pulling, no clawing. They were good together.

Then my niece became fully ambulatory, and everything changed. Suddenly Buddy’s home, his kingdom, was invaded by this lumbering, oblivious toddler who could very likely hurt him by lack of fine motor skills alone. She chased him, tried to pet him and was delighted every time he ran in terror and retreated to higher ground.

One weekend when I was the babysitter, the Funcle, she asked if she could use the wand toy — Da Bird, for cat servants in the know — to play with him.

Why not? I thought. I showed her how to hold the wand and demonstrated how we play with the cat chasing the feathers.

Then I handed it to her and watched with horror as she proceeded to swing it at Buddy like a slugger trying to blast a 3-0 pitch out of a ballpark.

We put the wand toys on hold after that.


My Mom, the Wicked and Cruel

Buddy loves my mom, but my mom does not love Buddy.

She’s the kind of person who gets grossed out by cat hair on her clothes and thinks cats are inscrutable, selfish little beasts. Most of the time she ignores poor Buddy’s attempts at affection. She won’t acknowledge him when he rubs up against her legs or bunts his head against her hand.

This has afforded me the opportunity to make her feel guilty with cartoonishly monstrous accusations:

“This poor little cat just wants you to love him, and you can’t even give him a scratch on the head and say good boy? What kind of person is so cold-hearted?”

She’s watched Buddy for me a few times, mostly when I’ve been gone for long weekends. She knows Buddy sleeps on top of me, and I really lay the guilt trip on her for refusing to allow him to sleep in bed with her:

“You’re telling me you’re going to listen to little Buddy crying at the bedroom door, you’re going to hear his tiny paws beating desperately against the door and ignore his plaintive mews for comfort? He just wants to be loved! You are a terrible, disgusting person. Oh, and don’t forget to put fresh water in his bowl every time you feed him.”

Then to add the final touch, the killer ingredient in the guilt sandwich, I’ll text her my first night I’m away and tell her to send me daily photos of Bud next to the current day’s newspaper, so I know he’s still alive.


My Friends, the Apostates

True to a cat, the Budster is like a heat-seeking missile when it comes to approaching the least cat-friendly person in the room.

It’s like he’s saying “You will like me, human!” as he sprinkles on the sugar, rubbing up against the newcomer and purring like a sweet little kitty.

“You aren’t big on cats, are you?” I’ll usually ask. “Just pet him. Rub your hand through the fur on his back and scratch the top of his head.”

Invariably: “Wow, his fur is so soft!”

And just like that Buddy’s made a new friend, or has enlisted the services of a new servant, however you choose to look at it.

Perhaps the best are the naysayers and dog people. They never fail to set themselves up.

“Cats are okay, I guess, if you’re into stubborn pets who just sit there,” they’ll say. “But dogs? Dogs can do stuff. You can train dogs. You can’t train cats.”

That’s my favorite moment.

“Hey Bud!” I’ll call out, and Buddy’ll pad on over to me. “High five!”

The disbelief on the faces of doubters when Buddy slaps his little paw against my open palm is delicious.

Buddy 1, Guests 0.