Good kitty! Cats prefer playing with people than enjoying a good meal, study finds

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — Are cats really as aloof and indifferent toward humans as their reputation suggests? Probably not, according to a recent study published in the journal Behavioural Processes. Felines may crave our attention more than they let on.  In fact, when given a stark choice, they’ll even forego eating just to bond with us.

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) and Monmouth University in New Jersey arrived at this startling conclusion based on a series of tests — known as “preference assessments” —  they conducted with 50 cats chosen at random from private homes and animal shelters.

Cat sleeping on blanket
A new study finds that despite their reputations as loners, cats would rather play with humans than eat a tasty treat.

They placed the furry creatures in isolation for several hours, and then exposed them to four broad types of stimuli, with three variations in each: human, food, toys and scents.

Cat preferences ranged widely at first but when forced to choose between a narrower set of options, about half the felines displayed a clear preference for human interaction, the researchers found.

Food was the second most popular attraction, while toys and scents ranked much further behind.

Interestingly, researchers found no statistically significant differences between pet cats and shelter cats in their reaction to the four stimuli.

“While it has been suggested that cat sociality exists on a continuum, perhaps skewed toward independency, we have found that 50% of cats tested preferred interaction with the social stimulus even though they had a direct choice between social interaction with a human and their other most preferred stimuli from the three other stimulus categories,” the researchers concluded.

It is not clear how many of the men or women recruited for the study were also pet owners, or had a strong prior affinity for cats.  But the felines tested had no obvious motive to choose human interaction.

Still, the study was not without potential flaws.  Cats might well have chosen humans with the expectation that it would also improve access to food or other benefits, for example.

The study authors, co-authored by Krystyn Shreve of OSU’s Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, acknowledged that cats display “complex socio-cognitive and problem solving abilities” that require more in-depth research.

Past studies have suggested that cats tend to think of humans the same way they think of other cats – and to adopt the same behaviors.  For example, brushing against our legs or raising their tails up in our presence is the same behavior that cats display among themselves.

Dogs, by contrast, try to adapt their canine behaviors — for example, their style of play — specifically to humans, as a bonding strategy.

These findings reinforce the view that grooving with humans isn’t that high up on the list of feline priorities.

But the latest study suggests that cats are far more socially-oriented and desirous of human attention – at least opportunistically — than they sometimes appear.