What I Need To Know About Cats – Cats are the only asocial animal that we have successfully domesticated. We are disappointed that they did not join them as easily as the dogs. But are we just missing the signs?
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What I Need To Know About Cats
You’ll find everything from the story of the world’s biggest space mission to the truth about whether our cats really love us, the epic hunt to bring poachers to justice and the small team that brings life to long-buried World War II tanks. . What you won’t find is any reference to, well, you-know-what. Enjoy.
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Dogs seem almost biologically incapable of hiding their inner mood – shuffling, snuffling, tail-wagging hints at happiness, nervousness or sheer joy, without embellishment. Despite what the famous painting might want to tell you, dogs make terrible poker players. We collect their clues easily.
Cats also have a sophisticated body language – their mood is signaled by wagging tails, ruffled fur, and the position of their ears and whiskers. A purr usually (but not always) indicates friendliness or happiness. They are a reliable method of working if the cat is in a friendly mood or best left alone.
While we can be reasonably sure of a dog’s bond with us, despite the thousands of years domesticated cats have kept us company, they still suffer something of a bad PR image. The independence that many see as a bonus is seen by others as detachment or selfishness. Their detractors claim that they only really show affection when the food bowl is empty.
Cat owners will claim that this is all nonsense, of course, and that their bond with their cat is as strong as any dog owner. But why does this image of the distant and unfriendly cat remain? And is there any truth to it?
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At least, the image of the “independent” cat has done it little damage in terms of popularity as a pet. It is believed that there are as many as 10 million domestic cats in the UK alone. Around 25% of households were believed to have at least one cat when a study was carried out in 2012.
One clue to the image of the cat may come from how they were domesticated in the first place. It was a much more gradual process than that of dogs – and cats were very much in the driving seat. The first domesticated cats began to appear in Neolithic villages in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. They did not depend on their early human hosts for food – they were encouraged to get it themselves, keeping crops and food stores safe from rats and other vermin. Our relationship with them was, from the very beginning, a little more distant than the dogs, who helped us hunt and relied on humans for a share of the food. (
Dogs and humans are very similar and have been living together for a long time. In a way it was a co-evolution – Karen Hiestand
The cat that may currently be curled up on your sofa or staring at you from its vantage point on the bookcase shares many of its instincts with those of its pre-domestic ancestors – the a desire to hunt, to guard the territory, to guard it from another cat; they are much closer to their old selves than dogs. Our domestication of cats has only partially removed them from the wild.
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“Mostly, it’s just a lack of human understanding about the species,” says Karen Hiestand, veterinarian and trustee of International Cat Care. “Dogs and humans are very similar and have been living together for a long time. In a way it was co-evolution. With cats, it is much more recent. They come from a solitary ancestor who is not a social species.”
, tends to live a solitary life, mostly meeting when it’s time to mate. “Cats are the only asocial animal that has been domesticated. Every other animal we have domesticated has a social bond with other members of its species.”
When cats take care of their basic needs like food and litter, they are more likely to seek out companionship (Credit: Getty Images)
Because cats are so out there among the animals we live with, it’s no wonder that we might have been getting their signals wrong.
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“Because they are so self-determined and can take care of themselves, cats are becoming more and more popular,” says Hiestand. “But whether the lifestyle suits them is another question. Humans are expecting cats to be like us and like dogs. And they are not.”
Research on the emotions and sociability of cats has long lagged behind that of dogs, but has picked up pace in recent times. Much of it is in its early stages, but already research has shown that the sociability of cats towards humans is a rather complicated spectrum.
“It is very variable, driven by genetics, and part of the sociability can come from what they experience in the first six or eight weeks. If they have positive experiences in the early part of their lives, they will probably love humans and want to spend time with us.”
Even the domestication of cats itself is a spectrum. Stray ferals often hide or run away from humans, behaving much more like their wild ancestors. In places like the Mediterranean and Japan, colonies of “community cats” thrive in fishing villages, friendly enough to ingratiate themselves with the locals who feed them. In Istanbul, for example, semi-stray cats are fed and cared for by the locals, and have become part of the city’s identity, even leading to a recent documentary film.
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Then there are the cats who live with us, but even this subset is a spectrum; some keep a relative distance, while others positively thrive on human company. (Find out if your cat is controlling you.)
Just like dogs, cats do a lot of communication with their bodies rather than through sound. “I think it’s much harder for people to read their body language compared to dogs,” says Kristyn Vitale, a PhD researcher who studies cat behavior. That’s not necessarily the cat’s fault.
One vital characteristic may have allowed dogs to overtake cats for our affection. A study from the University of Portsmouth found that dogs have learned to imitate the expressions of babies, which triggers a desire to nurture in their human owners. The change seems to have been the development of a muscle that raises the inner eyebrow – and it is not something found in their wolf ancestors. “Puppy dog eyes” aren’t just a cliché, they’re an evolutionary trick that has strengthened the bond between dogs and people.
The bad news for cats? They lack this muscle. As a result, looking at cats can seem cold and unfriendly, and two cats looking at each other can often be a prelude to fisticuffs. But a slow blink look – one that your cat probably gives you from across the room – is something else entirely; it is their way of expressing love. Even turning their head to one side is not necessarily contempt, but a sign of their relaxation.
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Vitale draws attention to her study at Oregon State University, where cats and dogs were left in a room by their owner, with the owner suddenly returning a short time later. “One interesting thing is that the majority of cats that were safe with their owners, when they returned, greeted them and went back to explore the room, with a few moments of coming back. The dogs did the same,” says Vitale. “If the dog ran around the room, played with toys and sometimes came back to the owner, we don’t worry so much.” The researchers called this “secure attachment” – calmness when the owner returned, suggesting a strong emotional bond.
“The bias of human expectations for the animal affects their behavior,” says Vitale. By trying to make cats behave more like dogs – we lean carefully – we are trying to push them out of their natural behavior.
Hiestand says that our historical inability to see the temperament of cats as different from dogs is part of the issue. Even experts with years of training are not immune. “I went to a conference in 2007 and felt like an absolute idiot,” she says. “There was all this basic information about cats that I didn’t know, like they like their water and their food in separate places. This research is all fairly new, but once you have the humility that what you thought you knew about them is wrong, you start to learn things that are interesting.”
If cats have positive contact with humans early on, they are more likely to want to form bonds with us (Credit: Getty Images)
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Take the way cats rub themselves against their owners. This was considered a kind of territory marker, as wild cats can do on trees or other landmarks in their territory. But when they do it on people, it’s usually a sign of affiliation – the cat is
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