The Washington Post

Capricious and aloof? A new study challenges our notions about cats.

- BY KARIN BRULLIARD More at washington­ news/ animalia

How cats became our pets is still a bit mysterious, but the general idea is that it was their decision. Cats figured out that early farmers’ grain stores drew rodents and started hanging around for easy meals. People found these exterminat­ion services useful, and some found the furry little felines charming. Cats, fans of warmth and soft bedding, found all this very convenient.

The takeaway is that cats — solitary, aloof, predatory — are in this relationsh­ip purely for themselves.

Kristyn Vitale Shreve doesn’t buy that. She teaches cats to play together in “socializat­ion” classes. She teaches people to train their kittens to sit, stand and perform tricks. She thinks that what cats like and want is, well, complicate­d.

So Vitale Shreve, a PhD student at Oregon State University, decided to formally study cats’ tastes. She and colleagues gave 55 cats — a mix of shelter animals and pets — three choices of foods, toys, scents and kinds of human interactio­n. Then she presented each feline with its four favorites and watched what happened.

The results of this observatio­n of cats — which, importantl­y, had not eaten in 2.5 hours — might upend most people’s ideas about feline desires. Fully half preferred to socialize with people, and they included the shelter cats that did not have a relationsh­ip with their tester. Food was not too far behind. Four cats preferred toys, and just one oddball’s favorite option was catnip.

That didn’t shock Vitale Shreve, who studied feral colony cats as a master’s-degree student.

“I’ve worked with cats a lot,” she said. “It’s not surprising to me to see cats being social. I’ve never seen cats being unsocial.”

Dennis Turner, a longtime cat researcher who is director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerlan­d, said in an email that the findings are “important” as well as “gratifying,” because they bolster something he and other researcher­s found two decades ago during a study of feral cats: While strays showed a preference for people who feed them, “it takes more than that, talking with or stroking the animal, to maintain that preference and establish a relationsh­ip.”

In contrast to scientific research about how dogs think and how smart they are, there has been relatively little devoted to cats. Several American universiti­es now have laboratori­es devoted to canine cognition. But there’s no such lab devoted to felines, which means a fairly simple study that attempts to peer into their minds can break new ground.

Ask dog researcher­s why there are no feline cognition labs and they usually chuckle and say one thing: Cats are terribly uncooperat­ive subjects.

Vitale Shreve, who dreams of founding the first cat cognition lab, said the idea that it’s impossible to train cats to participat­e in cognitive tests is wrong.

“A lot of people try to apply tests created for dogs or other species and then apply them to cats,” she said, noting that she modified her preference test to be more catfriendl­y — shorter and with less handling — than is typically used with dogs.

“If you’re having trouble measuring behavior in the species, it’s probably not the species that’s the problem,” she said. “It’s the methodolog­y.”

To be sure, some of the cats wanted nothing to do with the study. Five didn’t finish the tests “due to nervous behavior (hiding, shaking, dilated pupils),” the authors wrote in their paper, which was published in the journal Behavioura­l Processes. Six others finished but turned their noses up at every choice.

John Bradshaw, a British biologist who founded the Anthrozool­ogy Institute at the University of Bristol, says it’s true that cats are trainable. But you “have to get them in the right frame of mind.”

A bigger issue is that there are far more practical uses for dog training and understand­ing how they learn. Pooches guide blind people, assist hunters, sniff out cancer and detect bombs. That means more money for studies, he noted.

“It’s certainly possible to train cats to be relaxed in an experiment­al setup,” said Bradshaw, the coauthor of a recent book on cat training. “But given that it takes longer than it takes for a dog and there are fewer applicatio­ns, why would anyone do it? And I think that’s a pity.”

Bradshaw had one quibble with Vitale Shreve’s study. He said cats that preferred interactin­g with people using the feather toy should be categorize­d as liking playing with a moving toy, not social interactio­n.

“It kind of detracts from the headline that cats love people more than they love food or toys,” he said. “What they really like is hunting.”

Yet it does not detract from 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,” Bradshaw said. And while that might not sound like a bombshell conclusion, it’s important for a young field.

“The research is playing catchup with what everyone knows. But that’s very valuable, because it puts it in the scientific literature and allows scientists to move on” to other questions, Bradshaw said — such as “why do some cats like being petted and others don’t?”

For now, Vitale Shreve thinks the takeaway for cat owners is that they might need to do a little investigat­ion to figure out whether their pets are motivated by kibble or catnip. She already has more studies of cat thinking and behavior underway.

 ?? COURTESY OF KRISTYN VITALE SHREVE AND BEHAVIOURA­L PROCESSES ?? In the study, each cat’s favorite human interactio­n, food, toy and scent was randomly placed equidistan­t at the edges of a square.
COURTESY OF KRISTYN VITALE SHREVE AND BEHAVIOURA­L PROCESSES In the study, each cat’s favorite human interactio­n, food, toy and scent was randomly placed equidistan­t at the edges of a square.

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