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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]


September 8th, 2015 (01:45 pm)

So there was a study done on cats recently, a study that seems to have thought it was about whether cats care about their humans. What the people running the study actually did to determine this was that they put cats in an unfamiliar environment with their owner, with a stranger, and alone, and then monitored how they behaved in this situation. Their theory was that if cats cared about their people, they would go to them for comfort. If they didn’t go to them for comfort, it must mean cats don’t care about their people.

First of all, this is some serious anthropomorphizing shit that they are pulling right here. They are assuming that when a cat is stressed out, instead of going into hyperalert mode to assess the situation (as our Basil cat does) or just hiding from everything entirely (as our Ari does), they are going to run to their human companion like a kid hiding behind its mother’s leg. Apparently dogs do that, and, I mean, good for dogs. But the fact that a cat doesn’t turn to its human in that situation doesn’t mean that cats never care about humans. Other, better studies have shown that cats pretty much perceive their humans as being basically the same as themselves -- they think we're big giant clumsy bald cats, basically. You wouldn’t study whether cats cared about each other by putting them in a stressful situation and then watching to see if they cuddled close together. You would just observe them in their daily lives, wouldn’t you? See if they spent time together, see if they groomed each other, see if they played together, see if they enjoyed each other’s company? How did this study get from “cats don’t turn to humans for comfort in this one specific stressful situation” to “cats don’t care about people”?

And then the news reporting! The study is stupid enough, but the reporting! Sorry, but your cat really doesn’t need you, says the Huffington Post. Really? Because right now I’m the reason they have food and water. Research suggests cats don’t miss you when you’re gone, says the San Diego Tribune and half of the other articles on the subject, and just -- really? How in the world did they get to that conclusion? No one studied the cats being left alone for an extended period of time in their normal habitat! That is not even close to being what this study was about! And my personal favorite, from the Hindustan Times (for some reason several Indian newspapers picked this up, all with similar headlines), and bewilderingly classed under “Sex and Relationships”: Mean kitty, bad kitty: Your cat doesn’t mind your absence. Yes. Yes, that is exactly what we have determined. All cats are mean and all cats are bad. Because they become alert and wary in strange situations, instead of seeking comfort from humans. They are bad. Bad, bad creatures. Go kick that cat you’ve got right out on the curb and get yourself to the shelter to pick up a nice dog. Don’t worry. The cat won’t care.

*sigh* Cats are cats, guys. They are naturally independent. They are also capable of forming emotional bonds with their people, and liking to be around their people, and missing their people when they’re gone. We had to hospitalize Ari once and you should have seen her when we came to visit her for the first time. Even before she could see us, the second she heard our voices, she bolted upright in the cage and started jumping up and down, trying to see us. When we got to see her she ran all around the cage (with an IV in her foot, no less, which was knocking everything all over the place) and then kept shoving her head in our hands over and over, begging for pets. She kept doing that for maybe 15 minutes, and then she got up and ate for the first time in weeks -- that was why she’d been hospitalized, because she had some illness, probably pancreatitis, that was keeping her from eating. The illness had settled down when she was in the hospital, but she still wouldn’t eat until we got there. She was as excited to see us as any puppy could be. But most of the time, in less extreme circumstances, she doesn’t jump up and down and thrust her head into your hands like a puppy would. She expresses her love and affection like a cat -- by following us from room to room, walking with her tail straight up and a little crook in the tip, by crawling on us, by exposing her belly, by blinking slowly. Basil is less affectionate but uses the same signals. And when we go to the vet Basil explores things with his tail down and Ariadne hides wherever she can, and we do not take that as a sign that they don’t love us. We take it as a sign that they are cats.

It is unsurprising that this particular study was originally designed, not for assessing the emotions of cats, but for assessing the emotions of humans. It was supposed to gauge how kids behaved in a weird situation, whether they'd cling to their parents or not, and was supposed to be an index of parental attachment.* The idea that you can just grab a study model like that and impose it on species it was not designed for is kind of ludicrous. The fact that there are like 300 articles about it today is more ridiculous still. And people will continue to think that animals should behave just like people, and they will continue to miss their cats' affection signals, but there probably won't be that many of those anyway if they keep treating cats like people instead of like cats.

Anyway. Tl;dr, there is bad reporting about cats in the world, and I am salty about it.


*Which seems like bad study design even for humans? What about kids who respond to unfamiliar situations by exploring them instead of running to their parents for comfort? What does the study say about them? What about parents who are *deliberately raising* their kids to respond to unfamiliar situations that way? Do they love their kids less, do those kids love their parents less? WAAAAAAAT1

1Except apparently that is not even what the study is supposed to measure, and kids who are close to their parents are supposed to explore a strange situation confidently when a parent is around, show distress when they leave and run to them when they come back. This makes more sense, but this is not what three of the articles about the cat study that I read said. They clearly stated that cats were not seeking comfort from their humans when their humans were in the room. Did they take the same study model that they used for studying humans but change up the expectations for cats? Because if so they did a terrible job and basically I don't understand anything about this study except that it sucked.


Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 01:41 am (UTC)
Cat lady

Yeah, no shit. SO many of these studies boil down to "cats are inferior dogs," which, sure. I'm an inferior specimen for a woolly mammoth, too. :) I sometimes wonder if anyone else notices this and is annoyed by it, so thanks for that! This is an excellent deconstruction.

I have sometimes noted that Ophelia loves us in a way that is closest to the ways that humans express affection - she does greet us at the door when we get home, she makes sure we're emotionally and physically OK, she tries to soothe and bathe and cuddle us - but that's an example of a cat making an exceptional effort to transcend the species barrier and meet us partway. (And even then, she's quite capable of going Full Cat and doing something inscrutable yet irritating.) That doesn't mean she cares about us *more,* though. It means she makes more of an effort to patronize to the big bald weird cats who are clearly stunted in communication.

(Amber, on the other hand, greets us in a frenzy if she's been left alone more than a couple hours, to the point of shrieking and *fluffing her tail* with emotion. It's very silly, but even then does not approach the demonstrativeness of some dogs. So what?)

Cats have evolved to be wary of showing too much reaction and to act standoffish and alert in alarming situations. It doesn't make them un-affectionate any more than dogs being more inclined to look to humans for help means they suck at problem-solving; it's all in the framing. Oh, and it turns out wild and feral cats *do* coexist and get lonely without their colonies, they just need a lot more personal space than dogs (surprise) so it looks like they're "not living together" to humans who expect a different model of closeness.

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:03 am (UTC)

Also, because I can't resist and it seems in keeping, the Worst Cat Ever. :)


Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:17 pm (UTC)

LOL The Worst Cat Ever is indeed very in keeping with this! I will never get over my shame about the fact that the first time I saw that site it went right over my head and I thought it was literally a weird hairless cat. (In my own defense hairless cats really are very weird-looking sometimes) (except that really, really is not much of a defense)

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:36 pm (UTC)

Oh, hairless cats really are weird! I was confused at first too; Shash can attest that I blinked a few times and said hesitantly "wait, is that a ... hippo? why do they think it's a cat?" :)

But it seems hilariously apropos here, for truly, hippos make terrible cats.

Posted by: Ponykins (rolypolypony)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 11:05 am (UTC)

It means she makes more of an effort to patronize to the big bald weird cats who are clearly stunted in communication.

YES. Well put! :)

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:37 pm (UTC)


I know it's also anthropormorphizing, but she seriously does do the "perhaps if I say it slower and louder" thing to us!

Posted by: Ponykins (rolypolypony)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 03:42 pm (UTC)

Hahhahah!! I love that! I know that Lydia totally does the same thing to us, especially when trying to tell us she wants treats! "Ok, if I do this really LOUDLY, maybe these fools will finally understand??"

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 08:29 pm (UTC)

I'm glad we're not the only stupid bald cats! ;) Poor Lydia; don't tell her Feelie's been trying for 13 years and still can't get through.

Posted by: Ponykins (rolypolypony)
Posted at: September 10th, 2015 12:16 pm (UTC)

Hehehhe! I'm not sure if she'd give up or double her efforts - the latter would be terrifying! ;)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:14 pm (UTC)

Aww, Ophelia sounds like a sweet cat to have around. I fully understand that cats not demonstrating affection in the ways humans do doesn't mean that they don't care, but I still like it when cats *do* go out of their way to express affection in ways we understand intuitively, because, well, I understand those ways intuitively.


It doesn't make them un-affectionate any more than dogs being more inclined to look to humans for help means they suck at problem-solving; it's all in the framing.

YES. Species are different from one another! And you can't judge one by another's standards! How's that for a framing!

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: September 9th, 2015 02:41 pm (UTC)

She really is. Though at this precise moment she is hitting me with her giant paw because she wants my coffee, so, yeah. Still a cat. :) Heck, the jokes about them training US are also true - she figured out that yawning sometimes makes us do what she wants because the cat breath is so awful, and now she yawns *at* us. Like right now...

Let's not forget that if cats were able to compose long essays about and/or perform studies on us, the results would not be flattering. "The species has a disgusting pile of fur attached at the head parts but is otherwise embarrassingly bald; speaks only pidgin cat; with great effort can be convinced to produce kibble; has weather powers but refuses to use them; seems affectionate in an indiscriminate way but largely expresses this by clumsy paw-maulings."

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