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.
“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.”
Joseph Stromberg at Vox is only the most recent ailurophobe to launch a broadside against the feline species. His 28-paragraph essay on the supposed evils of Felis catus, published last week, tells readers that cats are “selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures.”
His argument breaks down into four simple points: “Your cat probably doesn’t love you.” “Your cat isn’t really showing you affection.” “Cats are an environmental disaster.” And, “Your cat might be driving you crazy.”
We called Bradshaw, an internationally recognized cat and dog researcher and author of several books on pet ownership, including Cat Sense, for his learned opinion on the “science” of cat-bashing.
The Difference Between Dogs And Cats
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.
Compared to a stranger, the dogs become more disturbed when their owners leave, and interact with them more when they return. By contrast, Mills' cat experiments — which are still ongoing and haven't yet been published, but were featured in a BBC special last year—haven't come to the same conclusion. On the whole, the cats seem disinterested both when their owners depart and return.
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.
Your Cat Really Is Showing Affection
A Cat Not Faking It
After wedging a seed of doubt into the emotional relationships between humans and their cats, the enemies of felinekind try to insert themselves into the physical expressions of human-feline love. Stromberg is no exception:
Many cats... will rub up against the leg of their owner (or another human) when the person enters a room. It's easy to construe this as a sign of affection. But many researchers interpret this as an attempt, by the cat, to spread his or her scent — as a way to mark territory. Observations of semi-feral cats show that they commonly rub up against trees or other objects in the exact same way, which allows them to deposit pheromone-containing secretions that naturally come out of their skin.
In other words, all the squirming and rubbing cats lavish on their owners are just the feline equivalent to a dog lifting its leg and peeing all over a fire hydrant.
Bradshaw says this notion is way off-base. "Superficially, [rubbing against humans] looks like scent marking," he says, but "the display that goes on when a cat raises its tail and rubs its sides against another cat, or a person, is a social action."
"Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street."
Some researchers suggest the behavior has a its roots in the creation of a "clan scent" for packs of wild cats, but no one has published proof. What's important, Bradshaw says, is the interaction between creatures. The raised tail is a signal of good intent. When two cats know each other well they will rub their whole bodies against each other, including their sides, which have no scent glands. They often then lie down together and purr. Cats will do the same thing with their owners. Claiming this behavior is no deeper than a wild cat rubbing its face on tree bark is like saying that human handshakes are mostly about checking for secret weapons.
A 2013 study supposedly shows cats hate when humans pet them.
The research indeed found that cats pumped stress hormones into their bloodstreams when they were petted excessively. But Bradshaw points out that the research was conducted in Brazil, a country where house cats are far less common than small dogs. He thinks pet owners used to rough-and-tumble dogs might not prepared to handle cats in ways they enjoy. The cats grabbed and picked up for the study were reacting to a long history of unpleasant interactions, not simple human touch.
"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
Threats To All Birdkind
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.
Bradshaw says cats learn to kill from their mothers. In the wild, a kitten follows its mom on many hunts in the first eight weeks of its life. She teaches the skills of sneaking up on prey and pouncing with lethal precision. But housecats born at home or to breeders miss that crucial step. Kittens instead spend their first eight weeks yowling at cotton balls and bits of string. Unless you trained your pet in the art of war before the end of its second month—a crucial period in its development—it's probably next to useless against live prey (even if it does sometimes get lucky).
"Obviously there's some deep ancestral memory of stalking prey," he says, "but a cat by itself is usually not a very good hunter."
Whenever local fauna succumb to feline hunting, he says, "it almost always turns out to be feral cats." Australian experiments with 24-hour cat curfews turned out to have minimal impacts. Still, the ASPCA suggests keeping cats indoors to prolong their lives, so it's probably a good idea. Also, spayed and neutered housecats will never birth feral kittens that could endanger wildlife.
If you really want to do right by the environment, Bradshaw says, cats are way better than dogs.
Okay, Your Cat May Give You A Parasite That Controls Your Thoughts
Toxoplasma gondii parasites form a cyst in a mouse brain.
Jitinder P. Dubey via Wikimedia Commons
Stromberg is wrong about cat love, but there's a chance he's right about horrible brain-controlling parasites in cat poop. Even Bradshaw can't defend your kitten now.
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.
Flegr goes on to note that even infected people may not be heavily impacted by the bug, and that cat poop is not the only way humans catch it. (In fact, it's incredibly common.) Not all researchers agree with Flegr's dire interpretations of the evidence, though T. gondii does turn dangerous when patients have damaged immune systems.
Ultimately, yes, your cat probably loves you, but that might just be the mind-controlling parasite talking.