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HomeHealth and LifestyleA Feline Scientist Explains Why Your Cat Might Actually Like You

A Feline Scientist Explains Why Your Cat Might Actually Like You

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This article is part of our Pets special section on scientists’ growing interest in our animal companions.


Over the last two decades, a flurry of scientific studies have demonstrated, over and over again, that dogs are social savants, highly attuned to human cues.

But even as canine cognitive science flourished, few researchers bothered to probe the social skills of cats. After all, dogs were descended from the social gray wolf and had been intentionally engineered to perform specific roles alongside humans. Cats, on the other hand, were descended from the solitary African wildcat and had not been under the same selective pressure from people. They were viewed as antisocial and also, for good measure, uncooperative, making them unappealing research subjects.

In recent years, however, a handful of undeterred scientists have produced a small body of research suggesting that we have underestimated cats’ social skills, and that interest is growing. “I see more and more papers each year,” said Kristyn Vitale, an animal behavior scientist at Unity Environmental University in Maine. “We’ve just got a lot of catching up to do.”

Dr. Vitale, who has three cats of her own, often collaborates with Monique Udell, the director of the human-animal interaction lab at Oregon State University. Dr. Vitale spoke to The New York Times about their research — and about her dream study of cat cognition.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What do people tend to get wrong about cats?

The biggest thing that I see is people stating that cats are not social creatures, or that social interaction isn’t important for cats. Cats are really flexible with their social behavior. So it’s highly individual, and based off the cat and their personal experiences.

Cats have to experience socialization with humans within a key time period of their lives in order for healthy social behavior toward people to develop. So if you have a cat that has never encountered a person before, especially early on as a kitten, they’re going to grow up fearing humans, because they never learned that humans were something that could be a source of good things.

When given the right experiences, we do see that companion cats can definitely form bonds with their owners, these bonds can be strong, and they can be stable over time.

You’ve taught kitten training classes. What does that entail?

Very much like a dog class, we did things like sit, come when called, go to mat, walk on harness and leash. For the final class, people would teach a trick that they wanted to do with their cat. So I had people teaching jump through a hoop. I think the most advanced behavior was sit and stay while going out on a kayak on a lake.

We had over 50 kittens and their owners. Kittens, 3 to 8 months old, were able to come to this environment, do training, do socialization, and we never had a fight break out. A lot of it is managing the situation, watching cats’ behavior. When a cat starts showing signs of stress, it’s time to end it and send them home.

What are you working on now?

We’re collecting data on cat-assisted interventions for children with developmental differences. So children bring their pet cats into our location at Oregon State University and learn how to train their cats, how to read their body language and behavior. We’re looking at whether there are potentially benefits for the child in terms of their physical activity or their social well-being, and then also, on the flip side, if there are any benefits to the cat. Is there a deeper bond that’s formed between the cat and child? Are there differences in social behavior or their ability to read social cues?

What’s your dream study?

We’ve just started exploring the social cognition of pet and shelter cats, but we haven’t really done it with these cats living outdoors. There are the cats that live in Rome, in the Colosseum. In Japan, there are cat islands, which I have visited, where you just have huge groupings of cats living together. I think that would be interesting to look at: How socially intelligent are these cats living outdoors?

What would you like cat owners to know?

We had a research project come out that showed that when you pay attention to cats, cats spend more time with you. I think people all too often get a cat and let it sit in the house and don’t do anything with it. It’s really just about exploring that bond and what they prefer and what you can do together.

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