We've all felt it — the sneaking suspicion that our cats only love us because we feed them. Take my cat, Josephine. She's extra affectionate when I ring her dinner bell, but when she hops into my lap at other times of day, I sometimes wonder if it's only because she knows I'll feed her again soon.
A new study published in Behavioural Processes allays my fears that my cat is in our relationship purely for the expensive kitty chow.
Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a PhD candidate at Oregon State University's Animal Science program, looked at 50 cats — some from a shelter and some that were family pets. The kitties were kept away from toys, human beings and food for a few hours.
Then, the cats were given the option to socialize with people, get food, smell stuff or play with toys. The time a cat spent in each area was recorded, as were the order of the cat's choices. The point, says Shreve, was to "examine individual cat preferences."
According to the data collected and crunched, "Although there was clear individual variability in cat preference, social interaction with humans was the most-preferred stimulus category for the majority of cats, followed by food," according to the paper. About 50 percent of the cats preferred people and 37 percent preferred food. But even those cats that got lower social scores weren't what Shreve would call antisocial. "Some who preferred food also spent a large percentage of the time interacting with the humans or also spent a large percentage of time playing with the toys, etc."
Shreve says she's ultimately interested in understanding cats better. As a cat trainer and a scientist, she wants to know what can motivate cats for training — and she also wants to further human-cat understanding. "We can examine if these preferred items serve as enrichment for cats which would be beneficial to shelter cats and potentially other captive wild cats to reduce negative behaviors."
She also wants to dig into some of our preconceptions about cats, including their reputation in our culture as being aloof, independent and maybe even unloving. Shreve's study pokes a good-sized hole in those ideas, not to mention the idea that cats can't be trained: "Although cats are commonly trained in scientific settings and for entertainment outlets, many still perceive cats as untrainable. This may be partially due to our lack of scientific understanding," she says.
Cats are mysterious, sure — it's part of what makes them interesting and different from our other favorite pets. But that doesn't mean we can't use good science to understand them better.