Study Works to Dispel Myth that Cats Don't Like Socializing With Humans

April 2nd 2017

Sarah Gray

"I think most cat owners would agree that their cat likes to interact with them, and I’ve received several emails from owners in support of the study saying just this!" Kristyn Vitale Shreve, author of a new study on cats' preferences, told ATTN: via email.

"I think a lot of people are tired of the stereotype that cats are not affectionate or social and are happy to see some evidence of this."

Milton the cat

Vitale Shreve, a Ph.D. candidate who works in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University and her co-authors of the study began with a common stereotype — Cats aren't trainable or sociable animals — and then asked, "what if we just don't know what stimuli they prefer?"

The study, published in the journal of Behavioural Processes in March, looked into "domestic cat preferences at the individual and population level using a free operant preference assessment," the abstract explains.

What they found is that after testing the preferences of cats out of four categories (social, food, toys, and scent) the majority of the cats preferred human interaction: "19 cats (50 percent) most preferred social interaction, 14 cats (37 percent) most preferred food, 4 cats (11 percent) most preferred toys, and 1 cat (2 percent) preferred scent," the study explains.

Vitale Shreve explained the process to ATTN: in layman's terms:

"The goal of our study was to examine what items individual cats prefer and if overall cats seemed to prefer one category of items over another. We measured preference for items based on the amount of time cats spent interacting with each item. At first, items within each category (food, social, toys, scent) were presented one at a time to each cat, with the most-preferred item from each of these categories then presented simultaneously to determine the cat’s most-preferred item category, overall."

The study quickly elicited headlines such as "Scientists Prove That Your Cat Probably Likes You A Lot."

"I do think this is a fair headline, although a little hyped!" Vitale Shreve told ATTN:. "Our study indicates the majority of cats tested preferred to interact with a human, even when that meant missing out on the opportunity to interact with their other most-preferred items."

Milo the cat

She does warn that given the small sample size (25 pet cats, and 25 cats from a shelter, of which only 38 interacted with stimulants in the final preference test, 19 pet and 19 shelter), the goal was not to make "species-wide conclusions."

"However, I think the conclusions from our study are relevant to the scientific community as a starting-point for future research in this area," Vitale Shreve explained. "Pet owners can take the information — that our study cats most-preferred social interaction followed by food — as a starting point when choosing rewards or enrichment for their cats. Pet owners or animal shelters could even utilize our methodology to examine what items their specific cats most prefer."

It's well established that human-cat interaction can benefit humans: playing with cats can boost a human's dopamine and serotonin levels, being around cats can also illicit the production of the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin, and a cat's purr can help slow down breathing, aiding with anxiety.

Now, scientists like Vitale Shreve are moving closer to understanding the preferences of cats, starting with the probability that they probably love their humans back.