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Double-crossing cats will not choose owners over their enemies, study finds

Kate Ng
·3-min read
<p>A study by researchers at Kyoto University found cats largely accept treats from a stranger even if they display negative behaviour towards the feline’s owner</p> (iStock)

A study by researchers at Kyoto University found cats largely accept treats from a stranger even if they display negative behaviour towards the feline’s owner

(iStock)

Many cat owners accept they are not always the most attentive of pets. But most might at least feel entitled to their feline friend’s support in the face of an enemy.

New research suggests such expectations would be misplaced.

Whereas dogs have been shown to avoid a person who behaves negatively towards their owner, the same cannot be said for domesticated cats.

Cats show no preference for people who treat their owners positively over those who behave negatively towards them, researchers from Kyoto University found.

In short, your cat will happily betray you to accept a snack from your enemy, the study suggests.

This is not to say our cats are not smart enough to tell the difference. The researchers noted cats have “remarkable cognitive abilities” and are able to follow human pointing and gazing cues, as well as discriminate between human emotional expressions and states of attention.

They can also recognise their owners voice and form attachment-like bonds. However, the differences between the reactions in cats and dogs towards negative behaviour displayed to their owners could be attributed to their vastly different domestication histories and ecological backgrounds, researchers said.

Dogs have an approximately 15,000-year-old relationship with humans and have been bred selectively to reproduce particular temperaments and character traits. Cats, on the other hand, have not been subjected to such intensely controlled breeding and are descended from cheetahs, which are solitary hunters and fiercely territorial.

“Due to the weaker influence of selective breeding during domestication, cats should show a lesser capacity for third-party based social evaluation than dogs,” said the study.

The experiment involved 36 domestic cats and their owners, who would be accompanied by two strangers: an actor and a neutral person.

The owner would participate in two scenarios in which they would attempt to open a container while their cat watched.

In both scenarios, the owner pretended not to be able to open the lid of the container, and asked the actor for help. In one scenario, the actor would help open the container, while in the non-helper scenario, they would refuse. The neutral person does nothing in either setting.

After each scenario, the cat would be offered food from both the actor and the neutral person to see who it would approach. The experiment was repeated four times with each cat.

The study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour and Cognition, found that cats in both groups were as happy to accept a treat from the actor, no matter how they treated their owner, as they were to accept it from the neutral person.

“We found no evidence that cats evaluate humans in third-party interactions: they neither avoided a non-helper nor preferred a helper, despite their known sensitivity to human behavioural cues,” said the study.

It is possible cats simply have less affinity to their owners than we might hope. In 2013, researchers from the University of Tokyo found that while cats recognise their owners’ voices, they often choose to effectively ignore them.

A 2015 study by animal behaviour specialists at the University of Lincoln also found that domestic adult cats do not look to their owners as their primary source of security and safety in the way that dogs do.

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