Study Reveals that Cats Prefer Human Social Interaction

new study on household and feral cats - petsempower (credit colostate.edu)
credit: colostate.edu

Researchers at Oregon State University have published the results of a study on household and shelter cats. After offering four different types of stimuli to individual cats, they discovered that, overall, cats preferred social interaction with humans to food.

Because cats have developed an unemotional reputation based on independence, many found this surprising. However, if you’ve ever lived with a cat, these results probably didn’t reveal any new information. They won’t follow you around like puppies do, but cats do show affection in a variety of ways.

Behavioral Study of Household and Feral Cats

There are dozens of short articles summarizing the study’s findings without an explanation of the testing.  If you were on social media in 2013, you probably remember a similar viral story about domestic cats killing billions of birds and contributing to species extinction. These stories removed the data from its context. While an interesting headline, the truth is more complex.

The social sciences offer many types of behavioral studies. Researchers use their knowledge to determine the best study conditions and variables. Consequently, the results are informed by the methods. And, underneath the headline results, there are a few pieces of information that could help you better communicate with your cat.

Cats and Categories

The researchers selected 25 pet cats and 25 shelter cats for the study ranging in age from 1 to 20 years old. Five of the cats didn’t participate due to nervous behavior. Seven cats adhered to stereotype and didn’t interact with any stimuli. While pet and shelter cats were categorized separately, they found no significant difference in individual or group preference between the two.

The remaining 38 cats revealed their preferences in four categories, which were each composed of three options:

  1. Human social interaction
    1. Human vocalization (talking)
    2. Petting
    3. Playing with a feather toy
  2. Food
    1. Chicken
    2. Tuna
    3. Chicken-flavored treat
  3. Scents
    1. Gerbil
    2. Catnip
    3. Unfamiliar cat
  4. Toys
    1. Erratic movement toy
    2. Mouse toy
    3. Feather toy

Test Presentation

For food, toys, and scents, each cat had free access to all options for a three-minute session. For social interaction, one human provided each of the three options for one minute. The experimenters recorded the amount of time each cat interacted with each stimulus. For the final test, they presented all four categories using each cat’s preferred option.

Results

The final test of all four stimuli categories revealed that half of the cats preferred human interaction to food, toys, and scents. Each category has its own information to share.

  • With a choice between chicken, tuna, and chicken treats, 22 cats (58%) preferred tuna.
  • 23 (61%) cats preferred a toy with erratic movement.
  • Another stereotype proved true in the scent category: 22 cats (58%) preferred catnip to the other scents.
  • According to the timing, 19 cats spent 65% of their three minutes interacting with their human, and 14 cats spent 69% of the food category eating.

As the experimenters stress, although there’s individual variation in preference, certain things were preferred within and between categories. As a cat owner, you can perform your own at-home study. Does your cat prefer tuna to chicken? Can you cover both social interaction and play by erratically moving a toy for your cat? This study is hopefully the beginning of many future studies about cat preferences.