It's a debate as old as time - are cats truly affectionate creatures, willingly lavishing us with cuddles, kisses, and love?
Or have cat owners been lured into the ultimate kitty world-domination scheme, in which our cats throw us scraps of feigned attention in return for all the meat dinners they can eat?!
If you have a cat it's hard not to have your own theory about how your cat feels about you. But like me, you might have noticed that every few months there is a flurry of seemingly contradictory news headlines that proclaim that definitive proof has been found that we are mere kitty slaves, or alternatively that our cats actually care about us a whole lot.
So in this week's Sunday Read I wanted to see what science has to say about the matter. Have scientists uncovered evidence of our cats' machiavellian ways? Or have our cats revealed themselves to be much more soppy bundles of love than they would like to let on?
Let's start back in 2013...
In 2013, a group of researchers at the University of Tokyo decided to test whether cats could recognise their owners' voices after having their name called several times by strangers. They found that sure enough, most cats have a strong response to their owner's voice vs. the voices of strangers.
BUT they also found that when hearing their name called by their human, 9 out of 10 of the cats in the study didn't actually do anything. Their ears twitched so they'd obviously heard their human calling, but they didn't meow back or move their tails. (Saito, A. & Shinozuka, K. 2013)
My knee jerk response when I first saw this research was - aren't these cats just thinking, after hearing their name called four times in a row by different people "yeah, that's my name human, don't wear it out. Whaddaya want?!"
But there is also a more subtle point to be made here. By contrast with dogs who throughout history have made themselves useful by taking commands from humans, and became domesticated that way - cats essentially domesticated themselves. They didn't require any helpful tips from us on how to become mouse catching supremos, so never trained themselves to respond to our voices. It's not so much that they don't care. It's just that they're not constantly listening out for instructions! (... and, I might add, if anyone is going to be taking instructions in a cat-human relationship, it's the human, right?!)
Ouch, right in the feels! Fast forward to 2015, and there's a new study making waves in the cat love world. The scientists behind this research wanted to test whether cats form a 'secure attachment' to their humans - in other words, whether they feel reassured when we are around, and suffer from separation anxiety when we're not. Previous studies had shown that dogs and children both form this sort of bond with their primary caregivers, and so the researchers wanted to see if cats felt the same way.
They did so by putting the cats into an unfamiliar room - either with their owners, or with a stranger or on their own - and monitored them for signs of distress, or relief at an owners' presence. What they found was that unlike dogs and children, the cats didn't appear to take any comfort from the presence of their owner. (Potter, A. & Mills, D. 2015)
Newspapers worldwide heralded this research as definitive proof that 'your cat doesn't care about you'. But again the results are much more subtle. What they tell us is that cats are much more territorial than either dogs or children, and derive their feelings of comfort and security from being on their own turf. No presence of a human - loved or otherwise - is going to stop them from feeling anxious if they're taken out of their home 'safe' patch. But that's not to say they don't form a close bond with their owners...
"Our findings don't disagree with the notion that cats develop social preferences or close relationships, but they do show that these relationships do not appear to be typically based on a need for safety and security."
Professor Daniel Mills, study author
Ah, here we are in 2017. A team of scientists in the USA conduct a beautifully simple experiment (in theory - I'm sure that wrangling all these cats in practice was a headache!).
They recruit 25 pet cats and 25 shelter cats and present them with a selection of 'stimuli' that fall under four main categories: social interaction, food, scent or toys.
They then record how much time the cats spend interacting with each stimulus, and at the end - take their favourite one from each of the four categories and let the cat choose freely between them, to determine their ultimate most-preferred thing to do.
When the time comes to crunch the data, the researchers find that different cats had different preferences. However - in both the pet and shelter population - interacting with humans was the overall favourite, with food relegated to second place! (Vitale Shreve, K. et al. 2017)
And voila, science proves what we knew all along - our cats love us more than food. (But they love us most *with* food!!).
I think it's noteworthy that this is the only study of the three that really asks what cats like, on their own terms, rather than comparing them to dogs - or children! The lesson I take away is that our cats don't 'love' us in the same way that dogs do. But why would they? They are completely different species with a different evolutionary history, list of priorities and suite of senses. But that doesn't meant that our cats don't love us.
Of course, none of these academics will go as far as saying the L-word, and who can blame them - love is a pretty amorphous term, and it means a lot of different things to different people.
So let's just go with this. Our cats recognise our voices, thankfully don't turn into nervous wrecks when we have to go out, and literally prefer hanging out with us to eating food. If that isn't a special kinda love, I don't know what is.