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Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn’t On Your Side

What research actually says about felines

Sorry cat haters science isn't on your side
By Rafi Letzter | Popular Science

Some people just don’t like cats. That’s okay. Some people don’t like pizza. Or dogs. Or Harry Potter. But some cat-haters aren’t satisfied with not owning cats themselves. They need to drag the rest of us down with them.

The first thing you notice when you dig around in the seedy underworld of cat-bashing is that it’s an old hobby. The haters have left their mark across poetry, literature, and art for centuries.


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“There’s always going to be someone in a group who’s going to stand up and say cats are aloof, manipulative little devils,” says cat researcher John Bradshaw.

In his 1922 cultural history of the domestic cat, The Tiger in the House, Carl Van Vechten notes, “One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand….Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree.”

Feline Love Isn’t Needy

Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn't On Your Side feline love

 

Haters want you to believe cats don’t really care about their people. Stromberg points to a series of studies by Daniel Mills at the University of London and other researchers that show cats don’t look to humans for guidance in unfamiliar situations. Abandon your dog (or child) in a place it’s never seen before, and it’s likely to run to you on your return. Cats are more likely to explore the space on their own terms.

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Meanwhile, other experiments carried out by a pair of Japanese researchers have provided evidence for a fact already known to most cat owners: they can hear you calling their name, but just don’t really care. As detailed in a study published last year, the researchers gathered 20 cats (one at a time) and played them recordings of three different people calling their name—two strangers, plus their owners.

Regardless of the order, the cats consistently reacted differently upon hearing their owner’s voice (in terms of ear and head movement, as graded by independent raters who didn’t know which voice belonged to the owner). However, none of them meowed or actually approached the speaker, as though they’d be interested in seeing the person.

Bradshaw says this interpretation draws too much out of limited study—research similar to work he has done himself. “It shows something about cats, but it doesn’t show you that cats are not affectionate,” he says.

Dogs have evolved to be “almost obsessively” dependent on humans, Bradshaw says. In unfamiliar situations, they look to their humans as sources of stability and guidance, much like small children. Cats, on the other hand, “prefer to deal with things in their own heads.”

A creature that fails to run to your side in a strange situation does not necessarily have a cold, unfeeling heart. Some couples show up at parties and hold hands the entire time, talking mostly to one another. Others split up when they arrive, mingle, meet new people. But they still leave together when it ends. Your cat’s a mingler—an explorer.

 

“Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street,” he says. “Dogs put up with harsher treatment. Yank on a choke chain, and the dog bounces back. Cats say goodbye.”

Your Cat Is Too Clumsy To Threaten Wildlife

Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn't On Your Side cat slip

Perhaps the most damning charge against cats is that they are natural murderers who can disrupt local ecosystems. Stromberg pounced gleefully once again:

In the US, domestic cats are an invasive species—they originated in Asia. And research shows that, whenever they’re let outside, cats’ carnivorous activity has a devastating effect on wild bird and small mammal populations, even if the cats are well-fed.

So what’s an environmentally-conscious cat lover to do? Bradshaw says not to worry. It turns out, as long as your cat wasn’t born feral or on a farm, it’s probably a clumsy hunter. Birds and rodents zip away from its plodding, obvious approach.

Okay, Your Cat May Give You A Parasite That Controls Your Thoughts

Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn't On Your Side toxoplasma gondii

See, there’s this parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It enters the brains of prey animals like mice and alters their behavior to make them less afraid of predators. These bold, addled rodents ride their parasitic high all the way into your favorite pet’s gnashing jaws, and some of those parasites make their way into your cat’s litterbox. From there it’s a short jump to a human owner’s body.

Some reaserchers suspect that humans infected with T. gondii are susceptible to its nefarious mind control as well. Here’s what Kathleen McCauliffe wrote about the parasite in her extensive coverage for the Atlantic:

The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. [Parasite researcher Jaroslav] Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. And when it came to downing the mystery fluid, reports Flegr, “the infected males were much more hesitant than uninfected men. They wanted to know why they had to do it. Would it harm them?” In contrast, the infected women were the most trusting of all subjects. “They just did what they were told,” he says.

Ultimately, yes, your cat probably loves you, but that might just be the mind-controlling parasite talking.

Skeptical Kitten excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Read full, original post by Rafi Letzter in Popular Science: Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn’t On Your Side

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