What’s with this silliness about cats being aloof? I’ve lived with cats nearly all my life and have yet to figure out where that fable comes from. Well, I have one idea: perhaps dog people, who are accustomed to companion animals who obey their commands, don’t recognize that felines, while more independent, can be just as devoted to their people.
Our little black cat is a poster girl for attachment to humans. One of her routines is the Kiss Parade: she walks back and forth on my desk, and each time she reaches me, she pauses to mash her nose or forehead against my lips for a kiss. To (kiss) and fro (kiss), back (kiss) and forth (kiss). She does the same thing with my husband.
Scientific data is coming out debunking the “aloof” stereotype. A study published in this month’s issue of Animal Cognition demonstrated that cats bond with their people. NBC summarized the study’s findings: “Cats may not do what we tell them to, but they usually adore their human caretakers.”
The study investigated whether cats distinguish their guardians’ voices from those of other people. The data yielded a resounding “yes.” The kitties’ reactions were subtle — they swiveled their ears and heads towards the sounds of their people’s voices more than those of strangers, and their pupils dilated (demonstrating strong emotions) more often when they heard their caretakers speak.
Felines are not being coy, stubborn or indifferent by displaying only subtle responses instead of bounding towards the sounds of their favorite people’s voices. They have good reason for their ways. For example, they have evolved to hide signs of weakness and distress lest predators target them as easy kills. On top of that, cats are not pack animals like dogs, who are born to follow the leader enthusiastically and consistently. Cats are individualistic and try to appear tough, but that is a far cry from being indifferent.
Cats know how to read and communicate with people. Another example from my compact black kitty: when she wants me to get down on the floor to play with her, she locks in direct eye contact, then pointedly flops down on the ground with her tummy up. Translation: “I know you can’t resist rubbing my furry belly, so come down here and get it.” When I do, she jumps up, goes to her toy, and paws at it pathetically. She couldn’t be much clearer, or savvier. She understands where her leverage lies with me.
Her effective machinations make it hard for me to deny the truth of a Discovery headline about another study: “Cats Adore, Manipulate Women.” The underlying study, published in Behavioural Processes, shows that cats form intense bonds with their human family members, and especially with women. People and felines were found to influence each other strongly, but women interacted with their cats more than men did.
Perhaps most interesting was the give-and-take between petters and pettees that researchers discovered. Cats remember kindnesses like playing with them, and return the favors by doing what their humans ask them to later. If the reverse is true — that refusing cats’ requests (e.g., to play) leads cats to ignore your own desires — it could explain why some cats might appear aloof. If your kitty isn’t paying you enough attention, consider what you have done for him lately.
Photo credit: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock