Are Cats Really Aloof? : Short Wave It's the latest installment of our series, "Animal Slander," where we take a common phrase about animals and see what truth there is to it. The issue before the Short Wave court today: "Do cats deserve their aloof reputation?" We look at the evidence with cat researcher, Kristyn Vitale of Oregon State University. Follow Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia and Emily Kwong @emilykwong1234. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Does Your Cat Really Hate You?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/804955209/805031647" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here, the host of SHORT WAVE.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, I'm Emily, SHORT WAVE's reporter.

SOFIA: We just want to say thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE so far. Please help us out by telling us what you like and how we can improve the show by completing a short anonymous survey at npr.org/shortwavesurvey - all one word.

KWONG: It takes less than 10 minutes. And you'll do all of us at SHORT WAVE a huge favor by filling it out.

SOFIA: If you do, you'll give us the greatest gift you can give a person - the gift of data.

KWONG: That's right - npr.org/shortwavesurvey. And thank you so much.

SOFIA: OK, onto the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: ...From NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Order in the court. Be seated.

KWONG: Hello, world. Emily Kwong and Maddie Sofia here with some exciting news.

SOFIA: We got about 50 emails. You, the people, have spoken. Animal Slander is a new series.

KWONG: Woo-hoo (ph).

SOFIA: It's official.

KWONG: For anyone who didn't hear our inaugural episode - and I've come around to this whole concept.

SOFIA: You certainly have.

KWONG: It's a series where we take these common phrases and stereotypes about animals...

SOFIA: First, we did blind as a bat and memory of a goldfish.

KWONG: ...And figure out how much truth there is to them or if they're really just slanderous to these animals, give them a bad rap, you know.

SOFIA: This episode - Cats.

KWONG: (Imitating cat meowing).

SOFIA: People say a lot of negative things about cats, myself included sometimes.

KWONG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: If you don't believe me, just ask our project manager, Erin Register.

ERIN REGISTER, BYLINE: I just don't like when people say that cats don't like people or cats aren't friendly. They aren't playful. They're less friendly - than dogs.

SOFIA: Before Animal Slander was even a passing thought in my mind, Erin was pushing us to do episodes on cats, which might have something to do with a very large cat-versus-dog debate barely simmering below the surface of the SHORT WAVE team.

KWONG: Barely simmering. OK, we'll probably never settle this dispute about which animal is better. But...

SOFIA: We can at least set the record straight on some potential slander that cats endure...

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...Such as cats are aloof, especially compared to dogs, that they love food more than they love us, and the idea that cats love people who don't love cats.

KWONG: Exactly. And for more on that, we spoke with Kristyn Vitale.

Kristyn, I have to start with a hard-hitting question - cats or dogs?

KRISTYN VITALE: You know...

KWONG: (Laughter).

VITALE: ...I don't have a favorite necessarily and can't really say which one's better.

SOFIA: Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

KWONG: She wouldn't play our game.

VITALE: Kind of a diplomatic answer. But I think both species are very intelligent.

SOFIA: She's a researcher at Oregon State University. And she specializes in cat social cognition.

REGISTER: Basically, how cats are processing the social world around them.

SOFIA: So all rise.

KWONG: Hear ye, hear ye.

SOFIA: Court is now in session.

KWONG: Today on the show, you be the jury, science will be the judge. Do cats deserve their aloof reputation?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: OK. Maddie?

SOFIA: Yes?

KWONG: Today we're looking at some potential cat slander, beginning with the question - do cats deserve their aloof reputation? And Kristyn Vitale has been researching cat social cognition for years. One of her most recent studies was looking at cat attachments to humans and comparing it to dogs and babies.

VITALE: And what we know is that when these animals are placed in a strange situation, we see attachment behavior be heightened, and then we're able to measure it. So we wanted to put cats in a similar kind of strange situation and then look at if they displayed the same type of attachment behaviors toward their owner as we saw dogs and human infants.

SOFIA: Attach what now?

KWONG: Attachment style. So in psychology, there's this thing called the strange situation. It's this standardized procedure scientists can use to test how the subject - here, cats - attaches to its caregiver.

VITALE: There's actually three main styles that we see. The first is a secure attachment bond. So what this means is that the individual might show some distress when their caretaker leaves the room.

KWONG: So the cats in this experiment will cry or search for their human. But when the caregiver comes back, there'll be this little cute reunion. And the cat will resume normal behavior - exploring, batting around toys. Basically, Kristyn says they're able to use that caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the novel situation of the room. That's a secure attachment bond.

VITALE: But we also see insecure responses where those individuals can't use their caretaker in that way and either excessively cling to them, which is known as insecure ambivalent, or excessively avoid them when they return, which is insecure avoidance.

SOFIA: OK. So with these three different attachment styles in mind...

KWONG: Secure, insecure ambivalent and insecure avoidant.

SOFIA: Honestly sounds like the last three people I dated.

KWONG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: You know what I mean? OK. So anyways...

KWONG: That's a reveal.

SOFIA: ...With those in mind, they run this study.

KWONG: Yes. First they brought in a cat or a kitten and its owner. And like we said earlier, human leaves, then human comes back.

VITALE: And we see how that cat behaves during that reunion. Do they display attachment behavior toward the owner when they come back? And if so, is it the same styles of attachment that we see dogs and babies display toward their caregivers?

SOFIA: So what do they see? More attached or less attached than dogs?

KWONG: The same.

VITALE: Yeah. So it was very, very interesting to find just how closely those numbers matched what we've seen in dogs and humans. The majority of both dogs and human children are securely attached. And that's anywhere from about 60 to 65% of the population, which, again, is exactly what we found in the cats.

SOFIA: So this idea that cats are aloof, certainly more than dogs...

KWONG: Animal slander.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

SOFIA: It feels good to be on that end of it, doesn't it?

KWONG: (Laughter) It does. I'm tapping into the rage I do possess.

SOFIA: OK, OK. All right. But...

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...As a devil's advocate...

KWONG: OK.

SOFIA: ...And at risk of sounding pro-dog, that is one study - right? - one little study.

KWONG: Well, I'm not done. We're only, like, seven minutes into this episode. And Kristyn's been studying this for years.

In previous research, you also found that cats prefer playing with humans over eating. Is that right?

VITALE: Yeah. So we actually had four different categories of items we were interested in looking at.

KWONG: OK.

VITALE: So whether cats most preferred different types of social interaction with humans - so that includes playing, petting or just being talked to.

KWONG: Maybe, you're not talking to your cats enough, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

VITALE: And we had three different types of food, three different types of toys and three different types of scents. And as you said, we found that the majority - 50% of the cats that we tested most preferred that social interaction with people and 38% most preferred food. So we still saw a lot preferring food. But the majority did prefer that social interaction.

KWONG: Food would not be second to me. Food would be...

VITALE: (Laughter).

KWONG: If I were a cat, food would be first (laughter).

SOFIA: You would be an aloof cat, wouldn't you?

KWONG: I will not say.

This probably goes without saying. But because we're on a quest to figure out how much of this cats are aloof is slander, you did some research to figure out if cats spend more time with people who give them attention, too, right?

VITALE: Right. So what we did was put a person in the room with a cat. Basically, what they did is just sit on the floor for two minutes either ignoring the cat and then two minutes of paying attention to the cat. And we looked at how much time the cat spent near to the person in each of those phases.

KWONG: One thing to keep in mind is they're also looking at how the cats were brought up. So they ran this experiment with pet cats but also shelter cats.

VITALE: And what we found is that both shelter cats and pet cats spend significantly more time with a person who's paying attention to them.

SOFIA: OK. So basically, regardless of the type of cat, cats were actually more likely to pay attention to you if you pay attention to them.

KWONG: That's right.

VITALE: And that makes sense. I mean, if we're, you know, hanging out with friends, and our friends are ignoring us, we're probably not going to be...

KWONG: (Laughter).

VITALE: ...Initiating a lot of interaction with them either.

KWONG: You know, it flies in the face of - I've sat in many, many living rooms with people who've said, oh, the trick to get the cat to pay attention to you is to ignore them.

VITALE: Oh, yeah. And there's kind of that old idea that cats like the people that hate them, you know? Like, if we know there's a non-cat person in the room, that's the person the cat's going to seek out. But at least the results of this study don't show that.

SOFIA: I have definitely tried to ignore a cat, hoping it would suddenly care about me when I could've just made my interests known, Kwong. This is lies. It's all lies all the way down.

KWONG: Think of all the cat friends you could've made along the way that you passed up.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: Honestly, I have some cat-based apologies, maybe, that I need to make.

KWONG: You better start acting right, Sofia.

SOFIA: OK, so it's not necessarily like every single cat is aloof or every single cat is social, right? It's like some of them are, some of them are not...

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...Just like dogs.

KWONG: Exactly.

SOFIA: OK.

KWONG: There's a whole spectrum of personality.

SOFIA: So...

KWONG: So you can't say, overall, cats are aloof.

VITALE: OK. So I will say, Emily Kwong...

KWONG: Yes.

SOFIA: After this hard hard-hitting, deep investigative reporting...

KWONG: (Laughter). Oh, boy.

SOFIA: ...That you have done, the evidence is clear. This is cat slander.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

KWONG: You'll be happy to know Kristyn is right there with you.

One last thing - do these sayings that cats are aloof, my cat doesn't care, they just want food - do they ever bother you?

VITALE: You know, they do bother me because some of these ideas, I think, are why the field of cat cognition has been stagnant for a long time. I think that a lot of these expectations shape the work that people want to do. And if we say cats are aloof and untrainable, well, they can't then learn how to engage in cognitive testing. But in our lab, we're showing cats can be trained just as readily as dogs. They can learn sit, come when called, go to mat and stay. We've even had kittens out of our class go onto kayaks with their owner.

KWONG: What?

SOFIA: (Laughter).

VITALE: So I think that some of these statements can harm not only the field but interactions of owners with their cats. If people don't think that they can bond to their cat or can engage in a lot of these, you know, interactions, why even try? And if we don't try with our cats, that's going to produce a very different individual than we see with dogs.

SOFIA: Well, well, well, I guess this one really is for you, project manager Erin Register.

KWONG: In defense of cats.

SOFIA: You can definitely tell half of our team that they're wrong...

KWONG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...Because science.

KWONG: Absolutely. And next time someone says I love this cat so much because it acts like a dog, lovingly, tell them no. This cat acts like a cat.

SOFIA: Whoa. You've really taken on this injustice. It's better than I could ever imagine.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: Thank you, Emily Kwong.

KWONG: You're welcome, Maddie Sofia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Hey. Before we get to the credits, please do not forget about the survey.

KWONG: You can find it at npr.org/shortwavesurvey.

SOFIA: This episode was produced by a tiny, securely attached human kitten named Rebecca Ramirez and edited with dignity and respect by Viet Le. Special thanks to Natasha Branch for her unbelievable engineering, as always, and to Emily Vaughn for fact-checking. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.