Okay, maybe you know cats that fit the bill. But it is not the case that “cats skew toward independency,” in the words of a new study on cat social behavior. In fact, researchers at Oregon State University found, many pet and shelter cats are pretty eager to interact with humans — particularly people who seek out kitty caresses.
“In both groups, we found [cats] spent significantly more time with people who were paying attention to them than people who were ignoring them,” said Kristyn R. Vitale, a postdoctoral scholar in animal behavior and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal Behavioral Processes.
This may come as little surprise to people who have spent time with cats, some of which might be confused with lap dogs. Nor was it a great surprise to Vitale, whose previous research found that cats will choose to interact with humans over food or toys. But the idea that cats are attuned to our behavior and respond to it remains somewhat novel, because despite cats' popularity as pets, little research has been done on their social relations with people.
That might be, the study says, “due in part to a common misconception that cats are not a social species” — the meme fodder.
“It’s a cool study, and it does show that when we’re attentive to cats, they are interested,” said Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow who studies cat behavior at the University of California at Davis’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
The study consisted of two experiments. In the first, 46 cats — half at a shelter, half at their own homes — were placed in a room with a stranger who sat still on the floor. For two minutes, the person pretty much ignored the cat; for another two minutes, the person could call the animal by name and pet it freely when it approached. The second involved only pet cats, who went through the same two cycles with their owners. On average, the cats spent much more time near the human when showered with attention, Vitale said.
Delgado praised the “cat-directed” design of the study, noting that previous research has suggested that cats are usually more into interactions that they instigate.
“Even in the attentive phase, the cat had a lot of control, and that’s really what we think they like — the ability to leave,” Delgado said. “It’s not that they’re aloof. It’s just that they want choice.”
The 23 shelter cats in the study, whose stays at the Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis, Ore., ranged from three to 455 days, spent more time than pet cats interacting with the inattentive person, which Vitale said could reflect that those felines needed attention or that their living situation conditioned them to unfamiliar people.
John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol biologist who has long studied cat behavior, cautioned against reading much into the differences between the two groups, because cats are territorial, and only the pets were tested in familiar surroundings. “Cats behave quite differently depending on whether they know the place they’re in,” Bradshaw said.
But Bradshaw said the study importantly emphasized that cats are kind of like us at an individual level: Sure, some are aloof. But some are plenty friendly. Why that is remains unclear, though he said his own work has pointed to “a complex interplay between genetics, early experience of humans, and learning during adolescence.”
The takeaway for cat owners, Vitale said, is that it’s worth making the first move even the most detached-seeming kitty.
“In my opinion, it’s very important to go out and try to interact with your cat and see what happens,” she said. “I think there’s this idea that dogs are this way, and cats are that way. But there’s a lot of variability in both populations.”
By offering a little love to a grumpy cat, Vitale added, “you may actually be helping them become more social toward you.”