Photograph by SETH CASTEEL
Photograph by SETH CASTEEL

What if Everything You Think About Cats Is Wrong?

A study of feline behavior shows that cats can be taught—despite their reputation for being untrainable and aloof.

This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

For those who’ve long wondered if their cats regard them merely as kibble dispensers, a report in the journal Behavioural Processes should be reassuring. In a study that exposed adult cats to four categories of stimuli—food, toy, scent, and human social interaction—the majority of cats preferred human interaction over all other options, even food.

This type of research “was done on dogs in the ’90s” but not on cats until now, says Oregon State University’s Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a co-author of the study. “We’re trying to catch up.” Cats are stereotyped in the U.S. as untrainable and unsocial, she says, but they can be taught using the same general principles as dogs—so long as the incentives are right. Vitale’s next study will research how to use cats’ preferences to train them.

What else don’t we know about cats? For instance, is the kitten in this photograph scared or playful? (Answer: It’s leaping at a toy dangling in front of the camera.) Cat emotions are notoriously hard to decipher: A new study in Italy by veterinary scientists found that most owners don’t recognize the range of signals cats use to show stress. “Dog owners know more about dog behavior,” says author Chiara Mariti. In contrast, cat owners often interpret their pets’ behavior as normal to the species, rather than a signal about how they’re doing.

Scientists are working hard to solve such feline mysteries. Last year a Swedish university launched a five-year study into human-cat communication. The goal: to see if cats react to different ways humans speak to them, and to translate meows into emotions and desires.

The Science of Cats

Independent Streak When dogs and cats were tasked with solving a puzzle, a study in the Journal of Comparative Psychology found, dogs looked to humans for help with an impossible task while cats kept trying on their own.

Cat Transit By analyzing mitochondrial DNA in the remains of some 200 ancient cats, researchers in France found that felines spread across the world first with farmers from the Fertile Crescent and then with sailors trading around the globe.

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