By Andrea Carne
Let’s open this discussion with the whole cats vs. dogs “thing.” Honestly, why do we continue to debate this ongoing battle of the species? Social media is filled with cartoons and memes depicting the supposedly obvious differences and, while I can enjoy the funny side as much as anyone else, there is a serious side to the argument when it comes to actual research.
Case in point: A new study by Chijiiwa et al. (2021) on cat behavior has already gained a lot of press this year, not because it’s an interesting study (even though it is), but rather because many have jumped on its apparent support of the age-old stereotype of cats: i.e. unlike dogs, they are “indifferent” to the needs and affections of their guardians.
When researching this latest study, I was immediately met with headlines like Double-Crossing Cats Will Not Choose Owners over Their Enemies, study finds and Cats are Too Socially Inept to Be Loyal.
As a cat-loving cat behavior consultant, such headlines disappoint me because they depict cats with an anthropomorphic bias, as if they were small, furry versions of ourselves. And this, in my opinion, does cats a great disservice. If we truly want to understand cats better – and, let’s face it, we have so much more to learn – then we need to stop thinking of them as “furry little humans” and start thinking of them as CATS. We need to appreciate them as distinct, behaviorally complex animals who think about the world in quite a different way to humans…and dogs…and any other species!
And this is what this latest study points to. Despite the sensationalized headlines crafted to grab the reader’s attention, and rather than it being a huge victory for the many humans who believe cats are selfish, narcissistic loners, the study instead helps us understand that our felines simply don’t think the way we do when it comes to social cues.
So, with that as my preamble, what did the study in question actually find? Well, in a nutshell, it concluded that cats, unlike dogs, will not avoid strangers who refuse to help their guardians.
Carried out by researchers from Kyoto University in Japan, the study involved 36 domestic cats (13 of which were owned house cats and 23 who lived in cat cafes), their owners and some actors. In an experiment that adapted a technique previously used on dogs, the actors were split into “helpers” and “non-helpers.” Each cat was put in a situation where they watched their guardian try to open a transparent container and take an object out, with no success, before turning to another human for help. In the “helper” group, an actor assisted the guardian in trying to open the container, while in the “non-helper” group, an actor refused to help the owner and instead turned away.
To offer a point of comparison, a third person sat in both situations and remained completely neutral. Then – and here’s the crux of the study – after each scenario was complete, the actor and the neutral person both tried to offer a treat to the cat and the researchers recorded who the cat took the treat from.
The result? After four trials, regardless of whether the person had helped the guardian, not helped the guardian, or stayed neutral, the cat happily took a treat from them. In other words, they seemingly gave no relevance to what had just happened between the humans and happily took food from any and all participants.
Cats vs. Dogs
Now, in a similar experiment with dogs, the dogs would clearly avoid the actor who did not help their guardian, thus adding fuel to the fire of the ongoing debate of cats vs. dogs – that dogs are loyal and cats don’t give two hoots about their guardians.
But this is certainly not what I believe, and it’s not what the researchers believe either. As they wrote in their paper: “It is conceivable that the cats in this study did not understand the meaning or goal of the owners’ behavior…But even if they did understand the owner’s goal or intention, they might have failed to detect the negative intention of the non-helpful actor.” (Chijiiwa et al., 2021).
This is to say the cats in the study may not have understood that the non-helper was not helping their guardians due to them not having the same social evaluation skills as humans – or dogs for that matter.
So, should we be concerned that cats don’t comprehend human social relationships at the level dogs do? No, of course not. Again, we need to stop lumping completely different species in the same boat and resorting to human-based analogies like “dogs care about us and cats don’t.”
As the researchers themselves stated: “We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation abilities as dogs, at least in this situation, because unlike the latter, they have not been selected to cooperate with humans … cats’ evolved social system and their particular domestication history might have resulted in a restricted capacity for third party-based social evaluation.” (Chijiiwa et al., 2021).
Boyle (2021), in her review of the study, put it this way: “It’s more likely that cats don’t understand our social relationships as much as dogs do, because dogs were domesticated much earlier. What’s more, the ancestors of dogs lived in social packs, whereas cats were solitary hunters, which could mean dogs already had existing social skills that were hyperdeveloped when they were domesticated.”
The other reason we shouldn’t write cats off in terms of their relationships with us based solely on this study is that (a) it only centers on one specific situation in a relatively small study, and (b) there are plenty of research studies from recent years which show cats do form bonds with us, do look to us for guidance, and can suffer from separation anxiety.
Examples include a project by Galvan and Vonk (2016) which concluded that cats are sensitive to the emotions of humans (particularly their owners) and a study led by Quaranta (2020) which revealed that cats not only recognize certain human emotions, but also respond via their own stress levels. Such studies point to a higher level of emotional understanding and reaction from our cats than we previously realized.
As a cat behavior consultant, part of my continuing education in this fabulous field is to keep up-to-date with the latest research. It is studies like this latest one from Kyoto University that not only give us greater understanding of our felines and the way they behave, but also an informed appreciation for their distinct, species-specific way of seeing the world. So, let’s look past the sensationalized headlines and the tendency to think of our feline friends as furry little versions of ourselves, and instead look at the actual science.
The more we know, the more we appreciate what a fabulous – and distinct – creature the cat is and how blessed we are to have them share our homes and our lives.
Boyle, A. (2021, February 19). Cats Don’t Avoid Strangers Who Behave Badly Towards their Owners, Unlike Dogs. The Conversation
Chijiiwa, H., Takagi, S., Arahori, M., Anderson, J.R., Fujita, K., & Kuroshima, H. (2021). Cats (Felis catus) Show no Avoidance of People who Behave Negatively to their Owner. Animal Behaviour and Cognition 8 (1):23-35
Galvan, M., & Vonk, J. (2016). Man’s other best friend: Domestic cats (F. silvestris catus) and their discrimination of human emotion cues. Animal Cognition 19 193-205
Quaranta, A., d’Ingeo, S., Amoruso, R., & Siniscalchi, M. (2020). Emotion Recognition in Cats. Animals 10 1107
Ng, K. (2021, February 28). Double-crossing cats will not choose owners over their enemies, study finds. The Independent
Saplakoglu, Y. (2021). Cats are too socially inept to be loyal. Live Science
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp.50-51. Read the full article The Problem with “Furry Little Humans”
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About the Author
Andrea Carne is a graduate of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia where she majored in journalism and drama before, later in life, following her dream to work in the field of animal behavior. She is a qualified veterinary nurse and dog trainer and member of PPG Australia. Her special area of interest is cat behavior and her passion for it led to the establishment of her own cat behavior consultancy Cattitude, based in southern Tasmania, through which she offers private in-home consultations.