Let me start out with the following:
Here we go again. Another day, another headline about a study claiming that cats are terrible, evil creatures and they want to murder you dead/are manipulating you/are The WORST. I almost didn’t link the story because I don’t want to promote it, but if you must read it you can click here.
I take issue with both the headlines and the studies themselves. There are a lot of studies in many disciplines that seem like they were only conducted to generate click bait headlines. Sadly, it seems that that cat related research is particularly prone to this as it’s easy to say, “Cats. What a bunch of assholes.” and people will just agree.
What Did The Study Say?
To summarize the problematic study du jour, the study came up with a questionnaire designed to measure psychopathic traits and identify which ones cats may be displaying. They used a series of questions to measure how many cats display some of these behaviors. Behaviors used including that cats demanding attention, cats disobeying house rules, being unresponsive to punishments, and cats not feeling guilty after misbehaving.
I’m not sure where to even begin with the problems I have with this study and similar studies in general. There is a lot more that we need to know about cats and a lot of research that could be done into improving the lives of cats, but what we get instead are studies like this that seem more interested in generating clicks than anything else. The funding for this study could have been used much better. It’s really disappointing to see this happen again and again and again.
Studies Like This Harm Cats
More importantly, however, studies and headlines line this actively harm cats. They promote the idea that cats are these terrible creatures that aren’t capable of love or being affectionate. This gives people who may have bad intentions for cats justification in harming them. It means that cats may be maltreated, killed, or that people will feel like they can just ignore their cats because they supposedly don’t want us around anyway. Even well-meaning cat owners may think they can just leave their cats at home for a weekend because they don’t have social needs because of headlines like this.
This study in particular attempts to apply a concept we use in humans, psychopathy, to cats. This is incredibly problematic because our cats probably aren’t thinking of things in the same terms we as humans do and we really need to stop trying to anthropomorphize every action a cat does. I often hear from people whose cats are biting them that their cat is seeking revenge, their cat hates them, or other things that place a lot of human interpretation of behavior on the cat.
Most of the time, if you look at the cat’s body language or the situation, the cat is really just afraid and trying to defend themselves. Cats aren’t actively being malicious and they actually prefer to avoid conflict if they can. If they are attacking someone, it’s either because they are trying to play or they are afraid and don’t see another way out. Trying to put human intentions on the behavior of another species without knowing what you’re looking for in that species can lead to misinterpretations.
Problems With The Methodology
Many of the specific items on the questionnaire also demonstrate a lack of knowledge of cat behavior. To me (and what do I know about cats?!), many of the items could be easily explained by a cat that is not getting enough stimulation or is in an environment that isn’t good for a cat. The problem in these cases isn’t the cat as they’re just acting out natural behaviors. The problem is the humans who haven’t provided the proper environment for the cat or aren’t playing with them enough. The cat is just being a cat.
I am particularly bothered by the item about cats not responding to punishments as, if you look at the science behind cat behavior or cat training, punishments are often not effective ways of modifying cat behavior. Punishments might work in some cases, but in general they’re not very successful (in addition to being straight up mean… but it’s the cats who are the psychopaths, right?).
Cats do much better with positive reinforcement or environmental modification that takes into account cats natural behavior. This behavior from this item isn’t actual an abnormal behavior and it’s not because the cat is a psychopath. It’s because punishment isn’t a great way to communicate to the cat that you want them to knock it off. You’ll be much more successful if you tell them what you want them to do instead!
I also note that some items, such as the ones about not feeling guilty, put unrealistic expectations on cats. How are the cats supposed to know what they are supposed to be guilty about? They can’t understand our words in the same way another human could. They’re also just doing a behavior that’s natural for them in many cases. Why would they feel bad about climbing up to a high place when that’s what cats do? Why would they feel bad about it when the humans they live with don’t provide them with a better alternative (like a cat tower) to relieve their natural instincts?
I certainly don’t expect everyone to completely understand cats. I started Class Act Cats as a way to help folks who are finding their cats’ behaviors to be stressful in a way that doesn’t involve punishment and is based on the actual science behind cat behavior. Cats aren’t mini-dogs and they certainly aren’t mini-humans. That’s okay! It doesn’t make them evil or freakin’ psychopaths or whatever silly claim the latest click bait headline is claiming.
I hope people will stop doing this type of research and instead of focus on research that actually benefits cats. I also hope that the media will quit picking up on every study like this in order to generate a few advertising dollars from the clicks it creates. Cats are really incredible, complex creatures even without the false narrative of having malicious intention behind every action. There’s no need to paint them in such a negative light or try to interpret their behavior through human eyes.