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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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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