February 28, 2011
It took 120 hours of observing 40 cat-human pairs for scientists to conclude that the bond between the two can be similar to other human relationships. And, yes, I know that most of you who have cats—or know someone who has a cat—will not find that surprising, so let’s delve into the details. It turns out that this study isn’t as simple as it appears.
The scientists (whose study appears in the journal Behavioural Processes) sent a team of researchers repeatedly into the homes of cat-human pairs in Vienna, Austria. The team would visit for about 45 minutes around the cat’s feeding time, with one person interacting with the cat and human and the other wielding a video camera. They evaluated the personalities of both the human (with a personality test) and the cat, through both observations (e.g., did the cat accompany the human to the door?) and a series of tests that included the cat’s reaction to being picked up. The video of the cat’s behavior and interactions with the humans in the room was later coded and the researchers analyzed it all with a computer program that looked for patterns in the behaviors of the cats and the humans.
The scientists found some correlations between human personality and the behaviors of the cats—such as that cats with humans classified as “extroverted” or “conscientious” exhibited more complex patters of behaviors—and concluded that “it seems that an important area of negotiation between the owner and the cat is mutual attention and friendly tactile interactions” and that the patterns in the relationships between the cats and humans resemble other long-term and complex relationships, “such as those between humans.”
But then the researchers also went on to claim, in a story published by Discovery News, that their research indicates that women tend to interact more with their cats than men do.
“In response, the cats approach female owners more frequently, and initiate contact more frequently (such as jumping on laps) than they do with male owners,” co-author Manuela Wedl of the University of Vienna told Discovery News, adding that “female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners.”
While I find the study interesting, I have a few quibbles. First of all, there is little in the study to back up the researcher’s claims about the differences between men and women in their relationships with their cats. Their sample included only 10 male owners, and this hardly seems like an adequate number for making conclusions about all male-cat relationships.
In addition, if I think about the realm of personalities and interactions that exist in just one friend’s cat household (he’s got three), I find it hard to imagine that 40 cat-human pairs would be enough of a sample to adequately analyze the large number of behaviors (162!) and personality traits included in this study.
My other problems with this study stem from my own human-cat relationship. My kitty, Sabrina, is a 13-year-old tortie, and she wouldn’t fit neatly into this study. She is a very different cat with me (friendly and cuddly, though she refused to pose for a photo for this post) versus people she has met before (friendly but often standoffish) versus strangers (where did she go?). And I suspect other cats may be the same. Any study in which you place total strangers into the animal’s home environment is going to produce some abnormal behavior, and judging a cat on that behavior only is probably unfair to the cat.
Furthermore, some of the tests of the cats’ behavior may not have given an accurate accounting of the cats’ personality. For example, they tested the cats’ response to a novel object, a plush owlet left on the floor. Many cats, like Sabrina, ignore most anything simply lying on the floor (perhaps they are used to messy housekeeping) but are happy to pounce on on object suspended just an inch above. And there are some cats, like my own, that do not enjoy the sensation of being picked up (would you?), even by their own human, but are otherwise quite friendly.
If I were to do this study, I would use a much bigger sample size, add more behavioral tests and have the human in each study pair repeat the tests without the researchers present but in front of a camera.
All that said, the researchers deserve some credit for being the first to attempt to tackle the complex personality dynamics within cat-human relationship. Sadly, though, they only scratched the surface of this complex world.
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