Are cats jerks? Or are YOU the jerk?

A new study from Oregon State University makes it clear: it's you.

  • Researchers discovered that the more attention you give a cat, the more likely they are to return it.
  • Cats are territorial; being in their home environment greatly affects their attitude.
  • The common wisdom that cats are aloof is provably false.

This weekend, my wife and I visited the San Diego Zoo. Having grown up nearby, she visited often as a child, though it was my first time. While I generally avoid zoos, this particular one is a leading conservation institute. While a sense of overbearing voyeurism inherent in the zoo process persists, at least my money supported beneficial projects. Plus, where else am I going to see baboons?

For the most part, the animals seemed content, or at least not distressed. Except one: the jaguar. When I passed by, two small children were plastered against the glass partition, the jaguar pacing back and forth seeking an exit ramp. Smiling parents snapped photos, laughing as their kids smacked the glass in an attempt to gain the jaguar's attention. "Look, he wants to play!" one mother commented.

No, that's not what the cat wanted to do. I wasn't sure if the mother was just reassuring her son no ill will would befall him or she really was that ignorant. I heard many odd ideas about what the animals were doing throughout the day. That's the danger of anthropomorphizing other species: we usually get it wrong.

Forget wild animals, we misunderstand domesticated breeds all the time. I'm not sure how many times someone has told me that house cats are aloof, but any cat guardian that takes the time to form a relationship with their housemates will quickly laugh that one away. For example, the picture below is where our three cats spend most of the day while I work at my laptop.

Photo: Derek Beres

Osiris, Baltasar, and Magellan in their favorite territory.

Considering all three are males, it's not always this peaceful. Every night we have to separate them; either two of them sleep on our bed, or just the Maine Coon, Magellan, the most territorial of them all. Every morning includes lap time or they get irritated. To claim that cats aren't social is simply a way to claim your ignorance about this particular animal.

Which is the topic of a new study, conducted by researchers at Oregon State University and published in the journal Behavioral Processes. In the first experiment, a total of 46 cats were studied, 23 at a shelter and the other half in their own homes. A stranger sat in the middle of the room, ignoring the cat for two minutes before spending the next two showering them with attention. The second study followed the same protocol, though with their guardians, not strangers.

Regardless of whether it was guardian or stranger, cats are more social when humans pay attention to them. As lead author of the study, Kristyn R. Vitale, says:

"In both groups, we found [cats] spent significantly more time with people who were paying attention to them than people who were ignoring them."

They're pretty human in that sense. The more you pay attention to someone, the more likely they are to interact with you. Of course, there are a few things to consider:

  • Like humans, some cats are more social than others.
  • Understanding how your cat likes to be engaged is essential. Our cats are three distinct animals with different personalities, and so are treated as such.
  • Cats are territorial. They generally prefer to be at home with strangers than with their owners in a foreign space.

Territory is generally secondary with dogs, who prefer to be around their owner most of all. In fact, treating cats like dogs is likely the main reason many people are ignorant about feline social behaviors. As Jackson Galaxy writes in Total Cat Mojo:

Part of the issue is that we, perhaps subconsciously, look at cats through dog-colored glasses; that is to say, we expect them to communicate with us in a way that we can instantly recognize. As you can guess by now, that expectation goes against the entire history of our relationship to cats.

How Do You Like Meow: Buster | My Cat From Hell

For example, meet a dog in the street and you'll likely pet them on their head, neck, pretty much anywhere within reach. You can't just pet a cat wherever you'd like, nor is it smart to scratch one from above or behind without establishing a frontal nose-to-finger relationship first. Some cats are quickly stimulated; an "innocent" neck scratch turns into an opportunity for biting.

So don't be surprised when you're at the receiving end of a claw for petting a cat on the rear. It's not the cat being a jerk. It's you.

Because, like humans, cats like to maintain control of their environment. As Mike Delgado, who studies cat behavior at UC Davis, says:

"It's a cool study, and it does show that when we're attentive to cats, they are interested. Even in the attentive phase, the cat had a lot of control, and that's really what we think they like — the ability to leave. It's not that they're aloof. It's just that they want choice."

Upbringing is also a major component. My Russian Blue, Osiris, is nearly 19 and still burrows into my chest and neck with his head, a likely sign that he was separated from his mother too young. This makes sense, given that I rescued him from a Lower East Side storefront when he was just two months old. Our purebred three-year-old Doll Face Persian, Baltasar, who we rescued when abandoned by his owner six months ago, never lived on the streets; he shows no similar behavior.

Cartoon by Futurism

Thinking a cat is aloof or mean is a matter of not knowing their history. Even for cat owners there is an important educational component. For example, site swapping newly introduced cats sets the rhythm for future success in maintaining a harmonious household; providing plenty of scent soakers is essential, while giving tree dwellers plenty of climbing apparatus is beneficial for their emotional well-being.

If you want to maintain a good relationship with the animals you bring into your home, learn to speak their language; don't expect them to learn yours. As the researchers conclude:

Together, this body of research indicates domestic cats can detect human attentional state and modify their behavior in response, demonstrating they are sensitive to human social cues and tend to be more social when presented with an attentive human.

Translation: be a jerk and you produce jerk cats. That's a choice, not destiny.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.