Think cats love you only for your ability to make food magically appear in their bowls? Well, prepare to feel a little bit guilty.
A new study out of Oregon State University found that, when given a choice, most cats prefer human company to food, toys or interesting smells.
The study, published in Behavioural Processes, found that in a sample of pet and shelter cats, half of them preferred interacting with humans. 37 percent preferred food, 11 percent liked toys, and one cat preferred the smells of catnip and gerbils.
“Increasingly cat cognition research is providing evidence of their complex socio-cognitive and problem solving abilities,” read the study. “Nonetheless, it is still common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable.”
While this study may surprise dog people, cat lovers know what’s up. Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a co-author of the study and cat socializer, said that “[i]t’s not surprising to me to see cats being social. I’ve never seen cats being unsocial.” (Yes, cat socializer. She leads a class that teaches people to train their kittens to sit, stand and perform tricks.)
Dennis Turner, a cat researcher who is the director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland, said that these study’s findings are “important” and “gratifying” in that they bolster his previous research. In a study he performed with his colleague twenty years ago, they found that merely feeding a cat was insufficient for a true human-cat bond to develop. Turner said that “it takes more than that, talking with or stroking the animal to maintain that preference and establish a relationship.”
While there are many cognitive studies on dogs, this is one of few studies that has been successfully performed with cats. Cats are generally perceived as harder to train, and, because they are territorial, studies often have to be performed outside the sterile setting of the lab.
Because cat cognitive studies are new, this study is especially important for 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,” said John Bradshaw, a British biologist who founded the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol.
This research may also spur additional studies into cats. “I expect many more studies of the cat’s cognitive abilities in the near future,” said Turner. “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.”
Now before cat lovers gloat, it should be noted that 11 of the cats tested were unable to complete the study. Five didn’t finish “due to nervous behavior.” And six others—well, they didn’t like any of the choices. But that’s not aloof. That’s just playing hard to get.