Catnip to cat lovers everywhere: your fluffy friend loves you right back | Fay Schopen

Research has shown that cats love human company above all else. That may be news to some – but not to me and my loyal, sociable sidekick

In very important news: cats are nice. Yes, that’s right – forget about Legs-it; purge your mind of Trump’s climate change idiocy (if only) and don’t worry about the axing of your gluten-free bread prescription. Just turn to your nearest source of feline fluff (try a friend, neighbour or simply venture on to the street if you find yourself devoid of cat) and say “ahhhh”.

This is no idle “ahhhh” mind – this is admiration backed by hard, scientific data – a study of 45 felines led by researchers at the University of Oregon has found that the majority of cats prefer the company of humans to food (yes, food), toys and smells such as catnip and other cats. The simple test, known as a free operant preference assessment, put cats in a room with four different kinds of stimulation and measured the time the animals spent with each one. The majority of the cats – who were both pets and chosen from local shelters – opted for human interaction, with food coming second.

This will not be news to cat lovers. I have a cat. I may have mentioned this before. She is exceedingly nice. She follows me around, she materialises on my lap the second I sit down, caring not for the laptop, the plate of food or the newspaper in her path. She gets visibly excited when she hears me coming downstairs.

Ask any cat owner, and stories of their pet’s sociability will abound – cats who beg to be picked up, cats who like to be worn around their owner’s necks like scarfs, cats who sleep on people’s heads (very common), one amazing cat who meets her owner at the tube station every night (“We walk home together – about a quarter of a mile,” she says – doesn’t your own cat seem inadequate now?), cats who are loyal in relationship break-ups (my cat has bitten all my boyfriends to date, but never me – I’m proud of her) and one cat who slept on a colleague’s pillow for months after her mother died. Another colleague’s sadly missed cat was so friendly “he actually got more Christmas cards from the neighbours than us”, she says.

Tabby cat.
‘Why do cats get such a bad press?’ Photograph: Kathryn Hearn

So why do cats get such a bad press? As the Oregon researchers point out, despite this evidence, it is still common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable. They add that the data can be used to better train cats, using their preferred stimuli as a reward – but at the risk of contradicting science, if you are attempting to train your cat, good luck to you.

Cats are so often misunderstood. “I think she missed you,” said an astonished dog-owning neighbour some years ago when she looked after my (previous) cat. Like many non-cat owners, she assumed cats were snooty, distant creatures, indifferent to human companionship.

It is interesting that this study comes to an opposite conclusion to one last year from the University of Lincoln that appeared to show that cats did not demonstrate attachments to their owner. That research, based on Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation” test, originally formulated to demonstrate how attached children were to their caregivers, found that when you put a cat in an unfamiliar room it did not look for reassurance from its owner or seem to miss them if they were absent. The test seemed flawed to me – cats are territorial, so simply do not look to their owners for reassurance in unfamiliar places. But it nevertheless played into popular prejudices about cats being aloof and uncaring – unlike, of course, dogs.

Ginger Maine Coon cat.
‘Cats are so often misunderstood.’ Photograph: Kathryn Hearn

Ah, dogs. Cats are often talked about as diametrically opposed to dogs. I am resisting the temptation to tell you that my cat is better than your dog, for example, because I don’t have to get up at 6am to take her for a walk. But I understand that some people see taking a dog for a walk at 6am as a fun thing to do. And, truth be told, I am extremely fond of dogs myself. I am, for the first time ever, thinking about getting a dog, and have recently taken to spending inordinate amounts of time online researching which dog breeds get on well with cats. Just don’t tell the cat.

Like people, like dogs, like all living things, cats exist on a continuum – some are friendlier than others, but the vast majority, you’ll find, are loyal, friendly, and outgoing – just like dogs. But this simple fact perhaps doesn’t have the hard-hitting us versus them, cats versus dogs, black versus white dichotomy so many people seem to hold dear. Perhaps it’s just simpler to think that way. But isn’t the truth – your cat likes you, she really likes you – rather nice?


Fay Schopen

The GuardianTramp

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