Do Cats Really Ignore Their People?

November 9, 2015

cat study amyBy Linda Cole

Our feline friends are very good at disguising their true feelings. Sometimes it’s hard to know if your cat stares at you for attention or because she’s plotting her next move. Two of my cats will come when called, but the others usually don’t, unless I’m dishing out their CANIDAE cat food. Even though most felines don’t obey commands like our canine friends do, a 2013 study found that cats generally do care about their people and really don’t ignore us.

When cats made the decision to move in and interact with humans around 9,000 years ago, it wasn’t necessary for them to obey commands from people. They went about their business catching the rodents that were attracted to crops, and humans like having them around because of their hunting skills. The more docile kitties were most likely allowed into homes. The wildcat ancestors of modern day house cats essentially domesticated themselves, but there wasn’t really a reason for cats to develop a responsive behavior towards us.

For the most part, cats are more independent and self-sufficient than dogs, and don’t require human interaction to be happy. They are solitary creatures with an evolutionary history of surviving on their own wits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to interact with us. Kitties are just more subtle in how they show affection. Cats hide their emotions because in the wild they have to rely on their instincts alone. Showing injury or illness is a sign of weakness that predators can pick up on. So felines remain stoic as a survival tactic, but this doesn’t mean they ignore their people.

In the aforementioned study, researchers from the University of Tokyo monitored 20 pet cats in their homes for eight months. It was important to do the research in each cat’s home to avoid upsetting them. Scientists wanted to learn if felines could recognize voices and how they would respond when their names were called by their owners and people unfamiliar to them. Voices were recorded so the cats couldn’t see who was calling their name. With the owner out of sight, each cat listened to four recordings. Three were of strangers calling their name and one was their owner.

The researchers discovered that cats really do pay attention when we speak to them, but not in a way that’s easily noticed. When the felines participating in the scat study wendytudy heard human voices, they did respond. Not in an obvious way by meowing an acknowledgment or jumping up and running towards the sound of the voice, but in a quiet, subtle way. The cats indicated they heard the voice from their owner or a stranger by turning towards the sound – 50 to 70% turned their heads and 30% moved their ears – which is a normal reaction for cats when they hear any kind of sound. Some of the cats (10%) did react by meowing or moving their tails.

Their reaction to the sound of their owner’s voice or that of a stranger was pretty much the same, but the cats had a stronger and more intense response when called by their owner. They had a sharper head turn towards the sound and their pupils were dilated, which is a sign of intense emotions, like excitement.

The study found that cats can feel emotions and don’t ignore their people. They are quick to pay attention to us – felines just don’t feel it’s that important to let us know. There are some cats, however, that do race to greet their owners at the door and come or meow when called. Cats may appear aloof on the surface, but our felines friends have a special relationship with people they are closely attached to. In fact, our relationship with a cat is similar to our human-to-human relationships. Your furry feline tunes you out just like close family members do at times, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t special to them.

Those of us “owned” by felines are apparently a mystery to researchers conducting the study. They have no idea what the behavioral aspect of cats is that caused us to become attached to our pets. Perhaps it’s because we can see through our cat’s proud and dignified demeanor – accepting them for who they are as individuals. Cats may act like we’re their “staff,” but they really don’t ignore the people they love.

Top photo by Amy Humphries/Flickr
Bottom photo by Wendy/Flickr

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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