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Cracking the Cat’s Code

by Belinda Recio

About 10,000 years ago, a small Middle Eastern wildcat known as Felis sylvestris, which translates as “cat of the woods,” started frequenting human farming communities to hunt the rodents attracted by stored grains.

The farmers appreciated the reduction of the pest population so they were friendly to the cats. Slowly, over time, the cats warily accepted the invitation to enter our homes, sleep on our beds and meow when they wanted massages or food. And before long, Felis sylvestris became Felis catus, the domestic cat.

For most of our 10,000-year relationship with cats, what we knew about what makes them tick came from informal interactions in our homes. Unlike dogs, whose behavior has been widely studied in labs by scientists, cats have been given short shrift when it comes to formal behavioral research. This is due, in part, to the cat’s independent, inscrutable and often uncooperative nature. In contrast, dogs are easier to work with, plus they provide services for us, such as guarding our homes, assisting the handicapped and sniffing out bombs. So there has always been plenty of incentive to study dogs. Recently, however, scientists are starting to take on the challenge of studying cat behavior, and new research is shedding light on the feline heart and mind. Here are a few of the ways that science is starting to crack the cat’s code.

Let’s start with the widespread belief in feline aloofness, which turns out to be a myth. Cats might not seem as sociable as dogs because, evolutionarily, they aren’t. The wildcats from which domestic cats evolved are solitary creatures who generally don’t cozy up to one another the way canids do. Cats had to learn to be social with their human family members and other domesticated animals. But they have only had roughly 10,000 years—an evolutionary blink of an eye—to do so.

That said, based on the bonds that many of us have forged with our cats, it certainly seems like cats are capable of emotional attachment. However, for those who still assert otherwise, science has provided some data. Kristyn Vitale, a researcher at Oregon State University, undertook a study that looked at whether cats, like children and dogs, develop attachments to their caregivers. And it turns out they do: Cats are attached to their human caregivers as much as dogs and children are attached to theirs. So we should forgive our cats their moments of aloofness. They really are attached to us, it’s just that they don’t always show it.

Another popular myth about cats is that they are so independent that they don’t need any input from their human caregivers. Unlike dogs, who seem to more readily look to us for guidance and approval, cats often appear disinterested in our opinions. However, research conducted by Isabella Merola at Italy’s University of Milan, shows that cats, when presented with unusual stimuli (a fan with flowing ribbons attached to it), continually looked back and forth from the stimuli to their human as if asking, “What’s going on here? Is this good? Bad?” The cats needed direction about how to react, and they pretty much took their cues from their human companions, even modifying their behavior based on how their humans were behaving. Despite the appearance of indifference, research suggests otherwise: Cats care about what we think.

Although science has reframed the way we think about feline aloofness and indifference, it doesn’t disprove all long-held beliefs about cats. One popular theory claims that you can bond with your cat by narrowing your eyes and blinking slowly at them. A recent study by United Kingdom researchers Tasmin Humphrey and Karen McComb confirmed that these facial gestures appear to make cats feel secure and content. For cats, closing their eyes in the presence of another is a way to communicate that they feel safe. Think of it as the cat’s version of a gentle smile. When a cat greets another cat or a human with squinty eyes and slow, relaxed blinking, she is communicating trust and possibly even affection. The researchers learned that the same message is communicated to cats when humans offer these gestures. Further, they confirm that engaging in this exchange with your cat really can deepen your bond with her.

Next time you’re enjoying a quiet afternoon with your favorite feline, try it out. Look at your cat, narrow your eyes as you would in a relaxed smile, and then slowly close your eyes for a couple of seconds. The message you will be sending is, “Everything’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about, and it’s nice to be here with you.” Chances are your cat will return the gesture, and you will have the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from reaching across the species divide to make another creature feel safe and loved.

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