Why a Cat Won’t Go After a Person Who Harms You

If you’ve always believed your cat has your back, it might be time to revise your opinions. When the going gets tough, your cat gets going, at least according to the latest research from animal behaviorists in Japan. During a study designed to test just how deep cats loyalty runs, the researchers discovered that cats, unlike dogs, won’t react any differently towards a person who harms their owner than one who helps them. Keen to find out why a cat won’t punish a person who harms you? Here’s what you need to know.

Cats Versus Dogs

For dog lovers, the latest study is nothing new. In the age-old war of cats versus dogs, dogs have always been portrayed as the loyal, unconditionally loving sort. Cats, on the other hand, have been painted as the kind of standoffish, aloof creatures whose affection for humans is fully conditional on how well they keep their food bowl filled up. Over the past few years, cat lovers keen to put the rumors about their furry friends to bed have been treated to all kinds of studies that suggest that cats are capable of forming the same level of emotional bonds as dogs. According to the studies, cats will seek their owners out for comfort if they feel scared, will respond to their owner’s voices over other peoples, and will form deep attachments to their human family. But have cat lovers been celebrating too soon? Are cats actually the self-centered egomaniacs they’ve often been called? Maybe…

The Background

Published under the very lengthy and very self-explanatory title of “Cats (Felis catus) Show No Avoidance of People Who Behave Negatively to Their Owner” in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, the latest study to add fuel to the flames of the ‘dogs are better than cats’ argument sees a group of Japanese researchers attempt to replicate the same research methods that have previously been used to measure canine loyalty on cats. According to gozmodo.com (gizmodo.com/cats-are-just-as-disloyal-as-you-suspected-new-study-s-1846379601), previous studies into canines have revealed that dogs actively avoid people they perceive in a negative light. Tests were conducted in which a dog sat and watched as their owner asked a stranger for help to move some junk.

A second stranger was invited into the scenario to act as a neutral control. In the first test, the stranger declined the owner’s request. In the second, they helped. After each test, the stranger held out a treat for the dog. The reactions of the dogs were illuminating. If the stranger had helped their owner, they would take the treat. If they hadn’t, the dog would avoid approaching them at all costs. The results of the study suggest that dogs, like us, are sensitive to social cues. They’re able to assess conversations through body language to understand the context and make judgments appropriate to the situation. But what about cats? How would they react when strangers acted rudely to their owners? Would they notice? And if they did, would they even care?

The Cat Study

Intrigued to find out if cats exhibit the same behaviors as dogs, researchers gathered together a group of 36 cats from households and cat cafes. As the BBC notes, during the experiment, a cat looked on as its owner tried to open a box to retrieve something from inside. Two strangers were positioned on either side of the owner, and the owner turned to one to ask for help in opening the box. During the first set of experiments, the stranger refused. In the second, they helped. In both cases, the other stranger sat by passively as a neutral control.

Once the stranger had either helped or refused help to the owner, both they and the neutral stranger then held out a treat for the cat. The scientists watched. Would the cat prefer to take a treat from someone who had helped their owner than from a neutral bystander? If they did, it would suggest a positive bias, implying the cat felt more kindly towards the helper. Would they avoid taking a treat from the stranger who had refused to help their owner? In this case, it would suggest a negativity bias, suggesting the unhelpful interaction had made the cat feel wary and distrustful of the stranger.

The Results

When the same methods were used on canines, the dogs showed a definite negativity bias. If a stranger had refused the owner’s request for help, the dog would show their distrust by refusing a treat. Would the cats do the same? In a word, no. Regardless of whether the stranger had helped their owner, turned their back, or sat passively by throughout the entire thing, the cat didn’t seem to care one iota. Food, it seems, is food to a cat. If it’s offered, they’ll take it, regardless of who’s doing the offering.

Jumping to Conclusions

So, the results are in. But what exactly should we be taking from them? Some people might be tempted to conclude that the experiments show that cats have no real feelings for their owners and are the selfish, self-centered little creatures we’ve always secretly thought they are. But are we actually entitled to that conclusion? On the basis of this study alone, probably not. Studying animals might be easy enough, but drawing conclusions from those studies is problematic. All too often, we apply our own standards and ideas to the results, resulting in an anthropomorphic bias that’s rarely helpful. Ultimately, cats aren’t humans. Interpreting their behavior through our own lens leads to all kinds of conclusions that we’ve really no right to make.

Dogs have evolved alongside us and have a shared, interdependent relationship. That’s not the case for cats. For much of their history, they were solitary hunters who had no need for the social cues of pack animals like dogs. They may be domesticated now, but they’ve been less impacted by cohabitation than dogs have. Essentially, cats aren’t dogs. Neither are they small, furry people. They’re sentient beings with their own distinctive way of thinking. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of affection or love, it simply means they have a different way of thinking about and demonstrating those concepts than us. Ultimately, if we want to know what cats think or feel, we’ll need to start seeing the world through their eyes… and leave our preconceptions at the door.

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