Science Can’t Tell You If Your Cat Loves You (Yet)
All over Facebook recently, I’ve been seeing headlines along the lines of Your Cat Hates You (warning: autoplay). They link to this clip discussing a psychological study by animal behaviorist Professor Daniel Mills at University of Lincoln. The study replicates earlier research on babies, demonstrating that babies are attached to their mothers by watching their behavior when brought into a room, left alone with a stranger, and then reunited with their mothers.
Mills first replicated the study using dogs, and found that dogs reacted very similarly to babies. Cats, on the other hand, reacted very differently. While babies and dogs displayed distress at realizing their mother/owner had disappeared, cats didn’t seem to care very much and went on playing with the stranger. When the mother/owner returned, the babies and dogs ran to them while the cats acknowledged their return with a glance and then returned to playing.
Mills states that the research is not complete yet, though the trends I mention above have already emerged. He believes this shows that while dogs are attached to their owners and see them as a source of love and protection, cats seem to see their owners only as a source of food.
As translated by the media and every “dog person” in your Facebook feed: your cat hates you.
Personally, I would love to see this experiment recreated with a teenager. Parent and teen enter the room. Teen sees a Playstation 4 in the corner and proceeds to play with it. A stranger enters and picks up the second controller. While the teen is distracted, the parent leaves the room. The teen does not notice. Eventually, the parent returns. The teen does not notice.
Headline: Science Proves Your Teen Hates You.
An alternate experiment could involve two adult best friends with the exact same situation described above. Headline: Science Proves Your Best Friend Hates You.
Let’s be clear: I think the study is interesting and has value. But, the way it’s interpreted by the media and general public is, frankly, embarrassing. I’ve never really understood the “dog person” vs “cat person” fight, and why I’d have to choose one over the other (in much the same way that I was baffled when someone first told me I could like either The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, but not both, god forbid). What’s interesting, here, is that cats are very different creatures than dogs, but humans have developed an equal fondness for living with both. How do we measure things like their happiness, or their intelligence, or their total amount of output of love, when they’re so very different? These are interesting questions and I hope the research helps explore them.
The idea of a cat seeing their owner not as a provider of safety is particularly interesting to me. When I take my cat to the vet, he’s very scared and will burrow his head in the crook of my arm. Is he doing it because I make him feel a little safer? Or is it just a convenient place for him to burrow? I do think if I let him go, he’d careen around the room knocking things over until he found a bowl to hide under. When a stranger enters our home, our two cats don’t run to us for safety – they run under the bed. Is that something particular to cats? It’s been ages since I’ve had a dog, so I can’t really compare.
Anyway, I think even Professor Mills is a bit to blame for the insipid response to his research, judging by his soundbites in which he simplifies things to the point of saying that cats probably see you as a provider of food and it’s hard to say if they return feelings of affection. For people who have cats, it’s quite easy to say that the feelings of affection are returned. My cat, Fry, comes to bed every evening and crawls under the bed covers, purring and licking my face before collapsing into a puddle of fluffy love. He’s not doing it for food, as there’s always food in his dish anyway. He could get more warmth by curling up on top of the heater. So what does he get out of it? I’d call it love. I’d be (sincerely) interested in what an animal behaviorist would call it, and how it might differentiate from a child crawling under the covers to cuddle his parent.
Here’s the video: