Something New and Stunning About Kitties' Love Language

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat human interaction

Story at-a-glance -

  • Yet another recent study suggests our cats really enjoy interacting with us
  • One of the keys to successful interactions with your cat is to let him be the initiator
  • An earlier study by the same researchers observed that cats even prefer interacting with humans to treats and toys
  • If your cat is standoffish, it’s worthwhile to try interacting with her, and there are specific steps you can take to encourage her

Attention all cat parents! Yet another study suggests the unthinkable — our cats actually enjoy hanging out with us!

'It's Not That They're Aloof. It's Just That They Want Choice'

An Oregon State University research team found that kitties look forward to interacting with humans, especially those who stroke and pet them. In groups of both pet cats and shelter cats, the researchers observed the kitties spent significantly more time with people who paid attention to them than people who ignored them. Their research was published in January in the journal Behavioural Processes.1

The study was in two phases. In the first, 46 cats — 23 shelter residents and 23 privately owned kitties — were put in a room with a stranger who sat on the floor and remained still. The person ignored the cat for two minutes, and then spent two minutes calling the kitty by name and petting him (or her) when he/she approached.

The second phase of the study involved only pet cats and their owners (versus the stranger), in the same two scenarios described just above. According to lead study author Kristyn R. Vitale, Ph.D., on average, the cats spent much more time near their owners when the owners showered them with attention.2 The structure of the study tested the hypothesis that cats are more amenable to interactions with humans that they (the cats) initiate.

"Even in the attentive phase, the cat had a lot of control, and that's really what we think they like — the ability to leave," Mikel Maria Delgado, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow who studies cat behavior at the University of California at Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Washington Post. "It's not that they're aloof. It's just that they want choice."3

Interestingly, the shelter cats in the study, whose stay at an Oregon shelter ranged from three to 455 days, spent more time than the family cats interacting with the person who ignored them. According to Vitale, this could be because the kitties really needed attention. It could also be that shelter life had conditioned them to unfamiliar people.

John Bradshaw, Ph.D., a University of Bristol biologist and cat behavior expert, cautioned against reading too much into the differences in behavior between pet and shelter cats. Cats are territorial, and only the privately owned kitties were tested in an environment that was familiar to them. "Cats behave quite differently depending on whether they know the place they're in," Bradshaw told the Washington Post.4

Another Eye Opener: Cats Even Choose Humans Over Treats!

These latest Oregon State research results validate an earlier study (conducted by the same researchers) that concluded cats actually seem to like humans a lot more than they let on.5 In that 2017 study, the research team set out to determine what types of things stimulate cats, and to what degree.

As in the more recent study, there were two groups of kitties involved — pet cats and shelter cats. The cats were isolated for a few hours, after which they were presented with three items from one of four categories: food, scent, toy and human interaction. The researchers mixed up the items so the cats could better evaluate which ones they found most stimulating and determined the kitties' level of interest for a given stimulus by whether they went for it first, and how and how long they interacted with it.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of felines, the researchers observed a great deal of variability from one cat to the next, regardless of whether they lived in a home or a shelter. But overall, the cats preferred interacting with a human to all other stimuli, including food.

The kitties spent an average of 65 percent of their time during the experiment interacting with a person, leading the researchers to conclude that cats really do like being with their humans, despite how they might behave around them. Vitale's advice for cat guardians is to try making the first move even when faced with the most standoffish kitty.

"In my opinion, it's very important to go out and try to interact with your cat and see what happens," she said. "I think there's this idea that dogs are this way, and cats are that way. But there's a lot of variability in both populations."

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How to Turn Grumpy Cat Into Cuddly Cat

Feline experts have observed that friendly cat parents tend to have friendly cats, which could be a result of role modeling (nurture) or genetics (nature), or a combination.

It's also well established that early socialization and handling are important in shaping the personality and temperament of kittens. This means giving them positive experiences with lots of different people, animals, unfamiliar cats, new environments and human handling.

Kittens exposed to these things during the critical developmental period of 8 to 15 weeks are more likely to be friendly and social adult cats. They're also better equipped to handle the everyday stresses of life, such as a change in their human's work schedule, or the arrival of a new member of the household.

If your kitty is an adult and for reasons either known or mysterious doesn't seem interested in being physically close to you, there are things you can try to help her learn to love being a lap cat:

Be a calm presence — Most cats are very rattled by sudden noises or movements, or anything that can be interpreted as aggressive or even assertive. Speak softly and move quietly and slowly around your cat. Focus on being very Zen and entirely non-threatening while you're in her environment.

Avoid direct eye contact — Many kitties are hugely uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact from their humans. This is because most animals view prolonged eye contact as an act of aggression and staring at your cat can make him feel anxious and fearful. A better approach when gazing at your cat is to close your eyes for a few seconds, then open them and look away, or simply glance away once kitty meets your gaze. This will show him you're not a threat.

Practice appropriate petting etiquette — Cats are exquisitely sensitive to touch, and are often quite particular about touching they enjoy versus touching they don't. As a general rule, most kitties enjoy a nice scratch at the base of the chin, on the cheeks behind the whiskers and at the base of the ears. Some cats also like to be rubbed around the base of the tail.

Most cats (though there are exceptions) don't appreciate tummy rubs. This is because if your kitty lived in the wild, predators would be a constant threat. The most vulnerable spot on your cat's body is her belly, because just beneath the surface of that tender skin lie all the organs that keep her alive.

Use high-value treats to your advantage — While you're working to convince kitty to hang with you, be sure to keep a supply of his favorite treats within reach at all times. When he approaches you, offer him one. If he jumps up next to you, or better yet on your lap, offer another. The trick is to help him associate being in physical contact with you with delicious snacks.

Help with grooming chores — Cats are big into grooming. They groom themselves, other cats, the family dog, their humans and even the occasional inanimate object. Because they're so into grooming, many kitties also really enjoy a gentle brushing. If yours does, he'll show you through body language.

Make brushing sessions a time to quietly bond with your cat, and if you see his tail start to twitch or he suddenly walks away, he's telling you he's had enough for now.