The age-old war of cats versus dogs continues to rage on. For people who side with the cats, there’s some bad news. A new study has added ammunition to the idea that cats don’t share the same sense of loyalty as dogs… or at least, they don’t when there’s food involved. After extensive experiments involving a group of owners, their cats, and a couple of strangers, Japanese researchers have concluded that cats, unlike dogs, don’t avoid strangers who refuse to offer their owners a helping hand. If it’s true, it flies in the face of other studies that seem to suggest cats form strong emotional bonds with their owners.
After decades of cats getting a bad rap for being aloof and uncaring, the tide had slowly begun to turn. Over the past few years, more and more studies have been released to show that cats are as capable of forming bonds with their owners as dogs. They seek their owner out when they need reassurance; they respond to their owner’s voice more than other peoples, and they can become anxious and stressed when they’re parted. For cat owners, it was confirmation of what they’d known for years. Cats love us. They might see us primarily as convenient can openers, but take the food away, and there’d still be plenty of affection left over. But now, a new shadow of doubt has been cast over the entire argument.
In a study titled ‘Cats (Felis catus) Show no Avoidance of People who Behave Negatively to their Owner,’ a group of Japanese researchers set out to investigate some of the intricacies of our relationships with cats. Using the same methods previously used to study dogs, the researchers tasked themselves with examining how cats would respond to strangers who refused to help their owners. During the experiment, a cat watched as its owner tried to open a box. On either side of the owner sat two strangers. As the cat looked on, the owner turned to each stranger in turn and asked for help to open the box. As theconversation.com (theconversation.com/cats-dont-avoid-strangers-who-behave-badly-towards-their-owners-unlike-dogs-155319) notes, during the ‘helper’ trials, the stranger responded to the owner’s request by opening the box. In the ‘non-helper’ trials, the stranger refused, while the other stranger sat passively by. Once the first part of the test was completed, the researchers moved onto the second round. Both strangers offered the cat a treat while the researchers looked on. If the cat approached the helpful stranger first, it would indicate a positivity bias: the stranger had helped the owner out, so the cat felt more warmly toward them. If they avoided taking any food at all from the non-helpful stranger, it would indicate a negativity bias: the stranger hadn’t made any attempt to help the owner, resulting in feelings of mistrust in the cat.
When dogs have been studied using the same research methods outlined above, they’ve typically refused to take any food from the unhelpful stranger. Would the cats react in the same way? Would their feelings towards their owner take precedence over their appetites, or would they show no signs of caring either way? As it turned out, it was the latter. Of the cats studied, none showed any preference as to who they took food from. They didn’t avoid the unhelpful stranger and neither did they show any favoritism toward the helpful stranger.
Studying behavior is one thing. Drawing conclusions from those studies is another. So, what exactly does the research reveal? Are cats really the selfish creatures they’ve historically been portrayed as? Do they really care more about filling their tummies than they do about fulfilling any obligations to us? Possibly. But as Science Daily Press points out, reaching those kinds of conclusions from studies like this involves a huge leap, a leap that isn’t entirely justified. When we look at the results of studies into animal behavior, we do so through a filter. We interrupt their behavior in the same way we interrupt people’s behavior, attaching the same significance and meaning to their actions as we would to human participants. But the thing is – cats aren’t humans. Anthropomorphizing our pets is natural, but it’s not particularly helpful, at least from a scientific angle. Cats have a distinct way of thinking that isn’t always aligned with our way of thinking. We can’t understand what they do and why they do it by applying a human-centered mindset. The only way we can truly understand their behavior is to look at the world through their eyes.. something that’s just as challenging as it sounds.
A Cat’s Perspective
When the cats involved in the study were being monitored, they were being monitored through a human perspective of what constitutes selfish and selfless behavior. But that distinction is largely meaningless to a cat. They don’t have the same moral code as us and they don’t operate using the same moral norms. They weren’t aware that some strangers were being helpful and some were being unhelpful because the concepts of ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ don’t exist in a cat’s lexicon. They might be able to pick up on human social cues and emotions, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily understand the intricacies of social interactions, and it certainly doesn’t mean they can apply judgment to those interactions.
Dogs have the advantage of having been influenced more by domestication than cats have. They also have the advantage of being pack animals who are naturally more social. Cats are descended from solitary hunters who didn’t require social skills to get by. But while dogs might react to experiments in a way that suggests they care more about their owners than cats, it doesn’t follow that cats are less loyal or committed to their owners. It simply means they might express those emotions in different ways, ways that as yet, our understanding of feline behavior is too limited to pick up on. The study, in its essence, reveals that cats like food. If they’re offered a treat, they’ll take it. We might use it to back up our own preconceptions about how cats behave and think, but there’s no real evidence to do so. Cats don’t behave like dogs. Neither do they behave like humans. The intent is different. The only way to truly understand a cat’s behavior is to look at the world through their perspective… something that so far, very few studies have managed to do.