Have you ever wondered why women and cats have such strong relationships? Specifically, why some women (a very few, mind you) tend to collect large numbers of cats? While you’ve heard the term “crazy cat lady”, you never hear of “crazy gerbil ladies” or “crazy ferret ladies”!
In fact, some behavioral researchers wondered the same thing. A recently published study in the journal Behavioral Processes indicates the answer lies in a special bond that exists only between cats and women. Scientists from the Konrad Lorenz Research Station and the University of Vienna took a hard look at the behavioral interactions between 41 cats and their human companions, using individual personality assessments of both their human and feline subjects. Their findings might very well cause a paradigm shift in our understanding of these relationships.
Rather than being standoffish and selfish (as cats are often portrayed), the study showed that there was real attachment between cats and their pet parents. Of course, any cat parent will tell you these findings are not surprising in the least. As expected, the cats demonstrated food-seeking behavior, but the researchers also noted that cats and their people signaled each other when they wanted to receive or even give affection. Cats also demonstrated that they were able to keep track of how their physical and emotional needs were being met. Further, felines were more likely to remember kind gestures and respond to their human companion’s emotional needs if the human had previously responded to their own.
While these interactions were noted with both women and men living with cats, cats clearly approached women and initiated contact (i.e. jump in laps) more often than with men. In fact, a cat’s relationship with a woman mirrored that of a human-human bond more than a human-animal bond, in that cats could tell their humans when to feed and interact with them and the humans would do it! Like a human infant, cats were seen to control when they were being fed. It is interesting to note that a cat’s mewl for food sounds eerily like that of a human infant.
The results of the study showed that cats and their pet parents, particularly women, influence each other strongly. In some ways, they can actually control one another’s behaviors. "A relationship between a cat and a human can involve mutual attraction, personality compatibility, ease of interaction, play, affection and social support," said co-author Dorothy Gracey of the University of Vienna. "A human and a cat mutually develop complex ritualized interactions that show substantial mutual understanding of each other's inclinations and preferences." While I wouldn’t go so far as to say cats can manipulate women, the results of this study certainly provide food for thought.
Knowing that cats have a much shorter evolutionary history of living with humans than dogs makes these findings even more astounding! Is it possible that women who provide homes for many cats simply cannot help themselves? There are so many new questions! Obviously, this study only scratches the surface of the complexity found in human-cat relationships. So, the next time you interact with your cat, I challenge you to ask yourself who is really running the show.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks, DVM
Wedl M1, Bauer B, Gracey D, Grabmayer C, Spielauer E, Day J, Kotrschal K. Factors influencing the temporal patterns of dyadic behaviours and interactions between domestic cats and their owners. Behav Processes. 2011 Jan;86(1):58-67. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2010.09.001. Epub 2010 Sep 15.