Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Researchers Finally Ask: Does Your Cat Even Like To Be Around You?

This cat has had enough and is running away
from home. Photo by Danielle Menuey.
While dogs happily and obliviously boast the reputation of being “man’s best friend”, cats have a reputation of being antisocial, independent, and downright grumpy. But do cats really deserve that? Scientists finally decided to find out.

Kristyn Vitale Shreve and Monique Udell from Oregon State University and Lindsay Mehrkam from Monmouth University asked 25 pet cats and 25 shelter cats their preferences.

How do you ask a cat what it prefers, you ask? You run a preference test, of course! A preference test is an experiment in which you place two or more things at equal distances from a subject and then test which of those things the subject spends the most time with.

Researchers suggest that these are some happy cats. Photo by Courtney Magnuson.

The researchers wanted to know if cats preferred: (1) food, (2) toys, (3) social interactions with humans, or (4) interesting odors. The trouble with that, however, is that there are many different foods, toys, interactions, and odors to choose from. So first, the researchers tested each cats' preferences within each category.

Will work for food. Photo by Charity Juang.
For food, the researchers put a soft chicken-flavored treat, actual chicken, and tuna into and around three puzzle boxes (so the cats would have easy access to taste some of each food, but couldn’t quickly gobble it up) and measured where the cats spent their time over a 3-minute period. Most of the cats liked the tuna most, next followed by the chicken, and they liked the soft treat the least.

For toys, the researchers made a movement toy by attaching a Dancer 101 Cat Dancer Interactive Cat Toy to a board and placing a GoCat Da Bird Feather Toy on the end with clear fishing line that was moved by an experimenter who was hidden outside the room. They then offered the movement toy, a still GoCat Da Bird Feather Toy on a board and a fuzzy shaker-mouse and they measured which toys the cats interacted with over a 3-minute period. Most of the cats liked the movement toy most, and they didn’t have much of a preference between the other two toys.

To test for cat preferences for types of human interactions, the cat’s owner (if it was a pet cat) or a researcher (if it was a shelter cat) spent one minute talking to the cat, another minute petting the cat (or holding their hand out to offer petting), and another minute playing with the cat with the feather toy (or holding out the toy). Researchers measured what proportion of each minute the cat spent interacting with the human. The cats interacted most with the humans during the play condition, next followed by petting, and least of all talking.

To see what odors cats preferred, the researchers put out cloths embedded with the scent of a gerbil (a potential prey), another cat, or catnip. The cats overwhelmingly preferred the catnip.

The preference test. Image from Vitale Shreve et al. 2017.

Once the researchers figured out what each cat preferred in each category, they set up a four-way grid with their favorite food, toy, social interaction, and odor and let them spend the next three minutes any way they liked.

Although there was a lot of variation among cats, 50% of the cats most preferred the social interaction with the human... even over food! Interestingly, the pet cats (who interacted with their owners) were no different in this regard than the shelter cats (who interacted with a researcher). But 37% of the cats most preferred food (maybe you have one of these cats). 11% preferred toys over all else. Only 1 cat (a pet named Hallie) preferred odor… the catnip fiend!

So although cats all have their own personalities, most of them really do like people. And they especially like to play with people. And, it turns out, they even do better at this than dogs (most of whom prefer food over people, when it really comes down to it). So go play with your kitty and give her some tuna… she’ll love you for it.

And, yes. This means that even cats can be trained with human interaction and food:


...But maybe not this one:

Some cats need more work than others. Photo by Jen Bray.


Want to know more? Check this out:

Vitale Shreve, K., Mehrkam, L., & Udell, M. (2017). Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat ( Felis silvestris catus ) preferences Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.03.016

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