Surprise! Cats Actually Like People

April 13, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

If you’re a dog lover, chances are you think cats aren’t very fond of people and would rather be left alone. A new study begs to differ.

Those who are not feline fans often believe that cats are an unsociable lot that only bothers with their owners in order to score food.

But results of a new study from Oregon State University and Monmouth University (New Jersey) say otherwise.

The study, published this month in Behavioural Processes, found that cats don’t just enjoy spending time with people, they actually prefer it over several other potentially stimulating options.

“Increasingly, cat cognition research is providing evidence of [cats’] complex socio-cognitive and problem-solving abilities,” the study authors said. “Nonetheless, it is still a common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable.”

Study Methods

Researchers studied the individual preferences of 38 cats within and between 4 stimulus categories: human social interaction, food, scent, and toys. All the cats studied were adults; 19 were from shelters and 19 were pet cats, and gender distribution was roughly equal. To control the cats’ motivational state, the researchers deprived the cats of food and human contact for 2.5 hours before the study sessions began. The other stimuli used (scent and toys) were novel to the cats at the time of testing, although the cats may have been exposed to similar items in the past.

After the deprivation period, researchers introduced the cats to 3 stimuli from each of the 4 test categories one at a time and then studied their reactions to each. Human interaction included vocal calls, petting, and a chance to play; these were presented serially so that the same human was involved with each option. The food choices included chicken, tuna, and chicken-flavored meat soft cat treat; the toy options were a movement toy, a mouse toy, and a feather toy; and for the scent category, cloths were individually marked with the scents of catnip, an unfamiliar cat, and a gerbil. The researchers alternated the order in which the stimuli were presented to the different cats to get a better read on which they found the most stimulating.

The researchers watched as each cat engaged with the different items, evaluating both the cats’ preferences within each category and their overall category preferences. Because there were no significant differences between the 2 populations in either of these areas, the shelter and pet populations were combined for the final analysis.

Within-Category Results

  • Human interaction: Playing was preferred significantly more than vocalization, but there was no significant difference between petting and vocalization or playing and petting.
  • Food: Significantly more cats preferred tuna over the chicken meat soft treat, but no significant difference was noted between tuna and chicken or chicken and the meat soft treat.
  • Toys: The movement toy was preferred by significantly more cats to the mouse and feather toys, but there was no significant difference in preference between the mouse and feather toys.
  • Scent: The catnip scent was preferred significantly more than either the gerbil or the cat scent, but no significant difference was noted in the preference between the gerbil and cat scents.

Between-Category Results

What did most cats choose when having all stimuli in front of them? Human interaction.

"While it has been suggested that cat sociality exists on a continuum, perhaps skewed toward independency, we have found that 50% of cats tested preferred interaction with the social stimulus even though they had a direct choice between social interaction with a human and their other most preferred stimuli from the 3 other stimulus categories,” the study authors said.

Nineteen cats, or 50%, chose to interact with people over food, catnip, and toys and spent 65% of the final session doing just that.

Conclusion

The study says future research can “examine the use of preferred stimuli as enrichment in applied settings and assess individual cats’ motivation to work for their most-preferred stimulus as a measure of reinforcer efficacy.”