New Study Proves Unsuspected Social Ability in Cats

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A housecat. Cats had not been widely thought to gauge your state of mind, though ailurophiles have always known they do this.
A housecat speaking with his eyes and mouth. Ailurophiles have always known they do this.Credit: Seattle Cat Photo / Shutterstock

Guess what. Cats have gaze-driven communication, and in contrast to their reputation, may seek help when necessary. Not only do they seek assistance: Their form of communication depends on the available human’s state of mind. That is a level of social cognitive ability cats hadn’t been thought to possess, in contrast to dogs, according to a new study.

No, they’re not asking with their eyes. Many domestic dogs can wiggle their eyebrows and make themselves look insanely appealing. Then we adopt them and give them treats. Cats can’t do that.

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But it turns out they are aware of you and whether you’re in the zone to pay attention to them. The results, published in the journal Animal Cognition, fly in the face of their image as egomaniacs who are unaware of us except as feeding machines that are conveniently warm-lapped in winter.

A popular companion animal

“Originally all the tame animals were wild, but especially the Cat: he walked by himself and all places were alike to him.” – Rudyard Kipling, getting it wrong in 1902

Domestic cats have traditionally been considered solitary,” begins the Animal Cognition paper on their unexpected social cognitive abilities. Indeed it is not so, at least not exactly. A host of recent research papers has cast the cat in a new light: socially flexible, able to live solitarily or in groups, and definitely able to live with people. Or as the scientists put it: “Domestic cats are a popular companion animal, suggesting that they are successful in sharing a living space and communicating with humans,” point out Lingna Zhang of Nestlé Purina Research et al.

Yes, this paper was funded by the cat et al food company Purina and all five authors work for its research center, but that need not cast on its validity. They weren’t looking into feline food predilections but into communication strategies when presented with an unsolvable task.

What they found is that the cat’s strategy for obtaining a treat in a box it can’t access depends on the attentional state of the person in proximity, which they can gauge by your gaze.

Cats had not been widely thought to gauge your state of mind, though ailurophiles have always known they do this.

This is how the research was done. Housecats were presented with a solvable mission, i.e., a treat in a container with a loose lid. What did they do? They solved the problem and ate the treat while ignoring the presence of the caregiver. That is what cats do.

If however presented with the insolvable problem, an unreachable (but presumably aromatic) treat in a close container, then things got interesting. They asked for help – and were likely to do so sooner if the person was already engaged with them, i.e., looking at them.

If the person was attentive, the cats would look at them more often, engaging their gaze, and would approach the treat more frequently, compared with the case of the caregiver being otherwise occupied.

The differences were not huge (a nice way of saying “marginal”) but were significant, the Purina researchers say.

It had already been shown in separate research that cats can gain cues from human gaze (they can “read human gaze for referential information”). Dogs are widely known to do that; cats may do that if they feel like it. The authors of that 2018 “gaze” paper, published in Science Direct, found a higher success rate in young housecats but then one may wonder how well the old ones can see.

Now the Purina study suggests the cats may be hoping the humans gain referential information and open the damn box with the treat inside.

“A key part of any relationship is communication, and this study shows that cats are perhaps better communicators than we’ve given them credit for,” said the lead scientist François Martin in a statement. “The more attentive a cat owner is, the more engaged their cat will be in return, making their relationship stronger.”

Nu. No kidding. What do we cat owners say? That we knew this all along and that cats come in a range. Some cats are more communicative, some less, some ask for help, some just don’t get what good you are for. Some abhor attention, some are keyboard hogs and it isn’t because they like sitting on tiny protuberances. Possibly we have been inadvertently leading an evolutionary process in the cat, and not through breeding programs: An intriguing study published by the American Psychological Association found that people find the sound of domestic cat meowsic more pleasant than the yowling of African wild cats.

Today’s housecats issue short cries at relatively high frequency, almost a squeak sometimes, compared with the protracted throaty wail of the wild cat, that paper spells out. Maybe we just didn’t adopt the ones that sounded like banshees at a rave.

Cats also know when we are calling them by name, according to a 2019 study in Scientific Reports; crucially, that study wasn’t only done with housecats but in a cat café as well. We add that the cats, including at the café, recognized their names, as opposed to just sounds, even when uttered by strangers.

Which leads to the intriguing thought that maybe feral cats also realize when you’re calling your cat’s name, which could help explain how they also show up for supper. Who knows, maybe this is one way the global pet cat population reached a few hundred million, give or take a few who may belong to multiple households, even if the households are blissfully unaware they’re sharing pets. After 9,500 years or so of mutual domestication, cats may not be able to open sealed boxes, but they sure can open our houses.

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