Could your cat secretly be plotting to kill you?
Published 10/11/2015 | 00:00
Last year, pet food manufacturers Whiskas aired television commercials suggesting a link between domestic pet cats and their wild cousins.
Cleverly edited video footage showed wild cats (like tigers and snow leopards) morphing into domestic pet cats as they came through the cat flap, making the point that within every pet cat lurks a wild ancestor. Recent research suggests this may be closer to the truth than the advertisers imagined: studies carried out by the University of Edinburgh and Bronx Zoo has shown that pet cats share many personality traits with their wild cat relatives. So the big question that's being asked is this: does your cat secretly see you as potential prey?
The research was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, a magazine that has been published every three months since 1921, showcasing research that compares the psychology of different species, including humans and animals. The language of the journal is jargon-filled and technical, taking an academic view on behaviour, cognition, perception, and social relationships. The multi-national editorial board includes Irene Pepperberg, whose African Grey Parrot, Alex, achieved international recognition for his remarkable intelligence.
The story of Alex encapsulates the essence of the journal: this smart parrot showed that humans are not as different from animals as we've believed in the past. Alex had a vocabulary of over 100 words, and he used the words in a way that demonstrated a deeper understanding than has previously been expected of animals. He could distinguish seven colours and five shapes, and he understood the concepts of "bigger", "smaller", "same", and "different". Psychological studies of Alex, published in the journal, forced scientists to begin to consider that we humans are not unique in the way that we think and feel.
So what did the Journal say about cats? The researches worked with caretakers at wildlife parks and zoos to categorise the personalities of wild cats in captivity, comparing them with pet cats. They used human-style psychological definitions, attributing scores for 45 different aspects of the cats' personalities. These included terms like co-operative, solitary, vocal, playful, active and many more. Each cat was given a rating for each characteristic, then the combination of scores was used to give the cat a "personality type". You'd think that each species would have a distinctly different outcome, but in fact there were startling correlations between the different types of cat.
In particular, the researchers found that pet cats have strikingly similar personality structures to African lions, with high inclinations toward "dominance, impulsiveness and neuroticism". Lions are the most social of the Big Cats, so it's logical that pet cats, whose sociability is the reason why they live with us, might have similar personalities. But it's the close similarity of personalities which is surprising, and this provides a sharp reminder that our pet cats are not "little humans". It's far more accurate to describe them as "little lions".
The significance of the research is that it underlines the point that pet cats are still close to their wild ancestors: beneath the fluff and the purrs, they are independent, ruthless predators, with just a veneer of civilisation. Pet cats are renowned (and often despised) for hunting small prey, whether it's rodents or wild birds. It isn't their fault that they do this: they are still hard wired to be predators. And if people prevent their pets from hunting (e.g. by keeping them indoors), the research reminds us that their instinct to hunt is so strong that it is only fair to provide them with some other outlet to express their hunting behaviour. This could be toys (such as wands with feathers on the end of nylon threads), interactions with their owners (many cats love playing with laser pointer beams), or just the design of the home in a cat-friendly way (high up shelves to survey the world from, low down hidey holes to hide in, etc).
Cats are probably the most misunderstood pets: people treat them like little people, assuming that they like to eat dinner beside one another (they often hate doing this). They also force them to share litter trays (can you imagine being forced to go to the toilet in a public loo with no cubicles): the truth is that there should be one litter tray per cat in a house, with one extra one. Many of the common behavioural problems of cats are directly related to these misunderstandings. When cats are stressed, they do "bad" things, like piddling in shoes, pooing under cupboards, and scratching humans who terrify them.
If people take the time to read up on their pet cats' natural behaviours, they will be inspired to provide far more appropriate living conditions for them, creating a far more harmonious home environment.
Back to that question: how does your pet cat see you? As a master, a friend, or perhaps as prey? At the moment, my cat is definitely my friend. But if I was suddenly shrunk to mouse-size, would he still be my friend? I'm afraid that I strongly suspect that the feline hunting instinct is just too strong: I've no doubt that a tiny Pete would soon be batted, bitten then hungrily eaten.