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Cats Aren’t Inherently Antisocial — It’s Just You

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Take everything you’ve ever been told about the antisocial personality of cats and toss it out the window. Over the years, cats have garnered a bad rap when it comes to their holier-than-thou and stand-offish behavior. Thanks to recent research done at Oregon State University, we now know we’ve completely missed the mark when it comes to reading our feline friends.

Forty-six cats took part in the study involving two experiments that gauged their interest in the company of humans. Not unlike dogs and humans, the cats appeared to prefer spending time with an attentive person as opposed to someone that was ignoring them. Sorry Grump Cat, it looks like actual cats actually enjoy people!

The study, published in the journal Behavioral Processes, looks at two different groups of cats – those currently living in and tested at a shelter and those living at and tested in their own home. During the first experiment, all 46 cats were placed in a room with a stranger. For a full two minutes, the person completely ignored the cat and then, for another two minutes, the person interacted with the cat by saying its name and petting it if the feline approached. The same process was used in the second experiment, except only cats with owners were tested and instead of a stranger, the cats were placed in a room with their owners.

Visualization of the amount of time the cats spent in proximity to the human. White dots represent individual cats. Oregon State University.

Unsurprisingly, cats spent a lot more time with humans when the humans were giving them attention. The 23 shelter cats included in the study actually spent more time with the inattentive person than pet cats did. According to Vitale, this could be because shelter cats tend to crave more attention due to their current living situation or, because of that same situation, shelter cats have been conditioned to be more comfortable than pet cats with unfamiliar people.

So where did all the hype about haughty cats come from? The stereotype appears stuck in a chicken or the egg loop and it’s possible that the more humans think cats are antisocial, the more antisocial the cats will become (or act) due to diminished interactions with humans, because humans think cats are antisocial, and so on.

Despite the commonly uttered stereotypes, the study’s findings probably won’t surprise anyone who has spent significant time with a cat. Kristyn Vitale, postdoctoral scholar in animal behavior and the lead author of the paper, wasn’t surprised either. Vitale’s previous research at OSU concluded that, when given the choice, cats prefer human interaction over food or toys.

It’s a cool study, and it does show that when we’re attentive to cats, they are interested,” said Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow studying cat behavior at the University of California.

A takeaway from Vitale’s research is that, much like humans and dogs, cats don’t come with a one size fits all personality. Some cats may be aloof while some may be extremely social – and that’s ok. If your cat seems detached, it’s possible you and your feline friend have been victim of the prevailing stereotype. So take some time today to sit down, say “hey kitty kitty,” and see what happens with your furry friend. You may just be surprised to witness a playful personality emerge if you play your cards right and “you may actually be helping them become more social toward you.”

In my opinion, it’s very important to go out and try to interact with your cat and see what happens,” Vitale said. “I think there’s this idea that dogs are this way, and cats are that way. But there’s a lot of variability in both populations.”

Bad news for Grumpy Cat, good news for actual cats.

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