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Shocker: Some cats like people more than food or toys

A British Shorthair cat at an exhibition in Kyrgyzstan in 2015. (AFP/ VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO)

How cats became our pets is still a bit mysterious, but the general idea is that it was their decision. Cats figured out that early farmers’ grain stores drew rodents and started hanging around for easy meals. People found these extermination services useful, and some found the furry little felines charming. Cats, fans of warmth and soft bedding, found all this very convenient.

The takeaway is that cats — solitary, aloof, predatory — are in this whole relationship with us purely for themselves.

Kristyn Vitale Shreve doesn’t buy that. She teaches cats to play together in “socialization” classes. She teaches people to train their kittens to sit, stand and perform tricks. She thinks that what cats like and want is, well, complicated.

So Vitale Shreve, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University, decided to formally study cats’ tastes. First she and colleagues gave 55 cats — a mix of shelter animals and pets — with three choices of foods, toys, scents and kinds of human interaction (the options in this last category were talking, petting or playing with a person holding a feather toy). Then she presented each cat with its four favorites and watched what happened.

The results of this observation of cats — which, importantly, had not eaten in 2.5 hours — might upend your ideas about feline desires. Fully half preferred to socialize with people, and they included the shelter cats that did not have a relationship with their tester. Food was not too far behind. Four cats preferred toys, and just one oddball’s favorite option was catnip.

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That didn’t shock Vitale Shreve, who studied feral colony cats as a master’s student.

“I’ve worked with cats a lot,” she said. “It’s not surprising to me to see cats being social. I’ve never seen cats being unsocial.”

Dennis Turner, an longtime cat researcher who is director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland, said in email that the findings are “important” as well as “gratifying,” because they bolster something he and colleague found two decades ago. In a study of feral cats, he said, they concluded that while strays show a preference for people who feed them, “it takes more than that, talking with or stroking the animal to maintain that preference and establish a relationship.”

While Vitale Shreve’s results might seem surprising to most of us, more surprising is that her study was done at all. Science about how dogs think and how smart they are is so thriving that several American universities now have laboratories devoted to canine cognition. But although more cats than dogs live in American homes, there’s no such lab devoted to felines. That means a fairly simple study that attempts to peer into the feline mind can break new ground.

Like herding cats 

Ask dog researchers why there are no feline cognition labs, and they usually chuckle and say one thing: Cats are terribly uncooperative subjects.

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Consider a splashy study published last year that used brain scans to conclude that dogs process human speech in the same way we do, combining intonation and words to determine meaning. To determine that, the researchers trained dogs to lie as still as stones in an fMRI machine for eight minutes. Just try to imagine getting cats to do that.

But Vitale Shreve, who said she dreams of founding the first cat cognition lab, says comparing cats to well-studied dogs has “led to some of the stagnation in the field.” Also, she said, the idea that it’s impossible to train cats to participate in cognitive tests is wrong. That’s another reason her study on cat preferences is important, Turner said: It shows that tuna might motivate some kitties to cooperate, but others might respond to petting.

“A lot of people try to apply tests created for dogs or other species and then apply them to cats,” Vitale Shreve said, noting that she modified her preference test to be more cat-friendly — shorter and with less handling — than is typically used with dogs.

“If you’re having trouble measuring behavior in the species, it’s probably not the species that’s the problem,” she said. “It’s the methodology.”

To be sure, some of the cats wanted nothing to do with the study. Five didn’t finish the tests “due to nervous behavior (hiding, shaking, dilated pupils),” Shreve and her co-authors wrote in their paper, which was published in the journal Behavioural Processes. Six others finished but turned their noses up at every choice. But that’s not so strange. The dog trainer for that fMRI study told me last year that several dogs considered for participation couldn’t cut it.

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The case for dogs   

John Bradshaw, a British biologist who founded the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, says it’s true that cats are trainable — in fact, he’s the co-author of a recent book on the topic. But, he said, you “have to get them in the right frame of mind.”

But he argues that’s not the only reason there aren’t cat cognition centers. Because cats prefer to stick around their territory, they’re harder than dogs to take to labs to study. That means more feline research must be done at cats’ homes, introducing variables — different settings, different handlers — that puts “a lot of noise in the data” and requires far bigger sample sizes, he said.

A bigger issue is that there are far more practical uses for dog training and understanding how they learn. Pooches guide blind people, assist hunters, sniff out cancer and detect bombs. That means more money for studies, said Bradshaw, who knows: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he says he got “quite generous funding” to foot the bill for years of studying sniffer dogs.

“It’s certainly possible to train cats to be relaxed in an experimental setup,” Bradshaw said. “But given that it takes longer than it takes for a dog and there are fewer applications, why would anyone do it? And I think that’s a pity.”

Bradshaw had one quibble with Vitale Shreve’s study. He said cats that preferred interacting with people using the feather toy should be categorized as liking playing with a moving toy, not social interaction.

“It kind of detracts from the headline that cats love people more than they love food or toys,” he said. “What they really like is hunting.”

The feline future 

But it does not detract from the larger point that “not all cats are the same, despite the fact that people who don’t like cats say they’re all the same, they’re aloof, and so on,” Bradshaw said. And while that may not sound like bombshell conclusion, it’s important for a very young field.

“The research is playing catch up with what everyone knows. But that’s very valuable, because it puts it in the scientific literature and allows scientists to move on” to other questions, Bradshaw said, like “why do some cats like being petted and others don’t?”

For now, the takeaway for cat owners is that they might need to do a little investigation to figure out whether their pets are motivated by kibble or catnip, said Shreve, who’s got more studies of cat thinking and behavior underway.

Turner, the cat researcher in Switzerland, said he’s confident a feline research boom is still to come. There was a time, he noted, that scientists studying animal cognition focused only on primates. Then they realized some realized dogs were even better than apes at things like reading human gestures.

“I expect many more studies of the cat’s cognitive abilities in the near future,” Turner said. “And I expect that they will be as high as dogs, wolves and primates, given the fact that the cat is a predator which in the wild was forced to make decisions about where and what to hunt on a daily basis.”

Read more:

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