The debate is over: Cats care, study shows

A study at the University of Oregon puts a longstanding myth to rest.

Lion cub

A zookeeper hugs the lion cub named as 'Pusat', who was rejected by his mother after his birth, at the Zoo of the Kayseri Metropolitan Municipality in Kayseri, Turkey on August 23, 2019.

Photo by Sercan Kucuksahin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Cats form attachments to their caregivers at the same rate as humans and dogs, a new study shows.
  • Seventy kittens were tested in the initial study, followed by another with 38 cats over one year of age.
  • Cats speak a different language than dogs, which likely caused confusion as to their nature.

The notion of uncaring and aloof felines is a persistent myth most often told by non-cat owners. Dogs, as wonderful as they are, are subservient and easily trainable. Cats are different beasts. They do not respond to punishment, only reward — clicker training is quite valuable — which baffles humans that expect cats to act like dogs.

I've long been baffled by the misperception that cats aren't attached to humans. Whenever my wife and I are in our living room, our three cats surround us. One demands a lap or chest, another chooses to rest against a thigh, the third always nearby. Often, when I'm working in my home office, they share a futon. When I switch rooms, some or all follow, sometimes thinking I'm walking to the treat jar, sometimes simply to tag along.

Fortunately, I'm not the only person to question this long-held assumption. Researchers at Oregon State University decided to put feline feelings to the test. As their new study, published in the journal Current Biology, shows, cats form attachments to their human owners.

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Lead researcher and noted cat enthusiast, Kristyn Vitale, who works in the Human-Animal Interaction Lab in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, says,

"In both dogs and cats, attachment to humans may represent an adaptation of the offspring-caretaker bond. Attachment is a biologically relevant behavior. Our study indicates that when cats live in a state of dependency with a human, that attachment behavior is flexible and the majority of cats use humans as a source of comfort."

To test this, 70 kittens (between three and eight months of age) were placed in a room with their owner — or, as a cat might say, their human servant — for two minutes. The owner/servant then left for two minutes. Researchers wanted to see what happened when they returned. Nearly two-thirds of the kittens, 64.3 percent, showed immediate signs of attachment. The other third, well, not all kittens are cut from the same cloth.

The researchers then tested 38 cats that were one year of age or older. The percentage of attachments was nearly identical: 65.8 percent attached compared to 34.2 percent "insecurely attached" — they'll live with you, but only because there's no other option.

It's tough to gauge exactly why some cats are insecure. Given that many cats are adopted, their history is unknown. One cat I adopted was abused; he lived in a closet for months before I took him into my home. He became attached, sleeping curled up by my side every single night, until one day he broke through a screen window and ended up living in a parking lot with a cat commune a block away. It was strange, walking by him on a daily basis, but he made his decision and lived out his life as he chose.

Cats

The view from my home office: Magellan (9), Osiris (19), and Baltasar (4) keep me company while I work.

As the team in Oregon writes, domesticated animals retain certain juvenile behaviors because of their relationship with humans. When your food and shelter sources are provided, "growing up" is not as necessary as with feral cats. This goes beyond cats; humans and dogs do the same thing. In fact, it appears that cats are as attached to caregivers as humans and even more so than dogs.

"The current data support the hypothesis that cats show a similar capacity for the formation of secure and insecure attachments towards human caregivers previously demonstrated in children (65% secure, 35% insecure) and dogs (58% secure, 42% insecure) with the majority of individuals in these populations securely attached to their caregiver."

Attachment is a mammalian phenomenon. We all have preferences; humans tend to like subservient animals, human or not. Cats might be not be dogs, but that doesn't mean they don't care. They might not care in the way that you'd like. Yet when you learn to speak their language, the bond goes in both directions.

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What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
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The Sun was half of a binary system, a new paper suggests

The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.

Image source: NASA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
  • Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
  • The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.

If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

Poll: Americans under 40 favor major political reforms

Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.

Demonstrators In Louisville calling for justice for Breonna Taylor.

Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
  • The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
  • Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
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New tardigrade species withstands lethal UV radiation thanks to fluorescent 'shield'

Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.

Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)
Surprising Science
  • Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
  • It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
  • Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
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Culture & Religion

Eighth century pagan temple to Old Norse gods unearthed in Norway

Rare structures and artifacts of the Viking religion practiced centuries prior to Christianity's introduction have been uncovered by archaeologists in Norway, including a "god house."

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