Study: Cats Are Too Socially Awkward to Understand Loyalty

  • They might act like royalty, but it seems cats may have more in common with socially inept basement dwellers.

You know how the old stereotype goes. If you want a loyal, loving pet, get a dog; if you want to be treated as a servant, go for a cat.

That’s not to say that there aren’t cuddly, affectionate kitties out there who genuinely love their owners. In general terms, though, cats tend to be more aloof and independent than dogs.


For cat lovers, that might just be their selling point. Having an independent, regal pet who seems to just barely tolerate your presence because you feed it appeals to some.

But now, a new study has found that cats might not act distant because of their massive egos. Instead, they’re just too socially inept to understand such concepts as loyalty and dedication.

According to the scientists, cats lack the ability to distinguish between positive and negative intent in humans. They will happily accept treats from people who have treated their owners poorly – unlike dogs.

In other words, it’s not that your cat doesn’t love you when it abandons you in a burning building. It’s just such a social shut-in that it can’t even comprehend what “loyalty” is.

“Yes, yes, you’re on fire. But you didn’t have to interrupt MY nap.”

The Good and the Bad

The research, published in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, tested 36 domestic cats. Out of this sample, 13 were house cats while 23 cats belonged to cat cafés.

In case you’re wondering what a cat café is, it’s a café where you can go have a cup o’ joe while surrounded by indifferent felines. It’s actually pretty nice, you should go give visit one.

Anyway, the scientist divided the cats into two groups: “helpers” and “non-helpers”. During the study, cats in both groups were made to watch their owner struggle to open a container and take out the object.

The “helper” cats got to see another person – played by an actor – show up and help their owner open the container. In other words, the actor was friendly and helpful toward the owner.

For the “non-helper” group, though, the actor didn’t help the owner. Instead, they dismissed the owners request for help and turned their face away.

Just for reference, a third neutral person just sat in the room and did nothing. Talk about getting paid for an easy job.

After the little show, it was time for dinner. Both the actor – whether friendly or rude – offered the cat a treat, together with the neutral third party.

Socially Inept Fur Balls

The results of the test didn’t exactly speak in the cats’ favor. After four trials, every single cat accepted all the treats, whether or not it was offered by someone who had been rude to their owners.

To provide a point of comparison, the research team also ran a similar experiment with dogs. They note that dogs were much less willing to accept food from the non-helper actors.

So did the cats not care about their owners’ feelings because they’re selfish little jerks? The researchers say no.

Instead, they think that the cats simply couldn’t read the social ques indicating that their owners were treated badly.

“It is conceivable that the cats in this study did not understand the meaning or goal of the owners’ behavior,” the scientists write, referring to the owner attempting to open the test container.

“But even if they did understand the owner’s goal or intention, they might have failed to detect the negative intention of the non-helpful actor,” they add.

So, just like a socially awkward human, the cats may simply have failed to understand a person’s intentions.

They Just Think Differently

But you can’t really blame the cats for their social ineptitude, the writers say. The cause for it, in the end, may just lie in us humans.

“We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation abilities as dogs, at least in this situation, because unlike the latter, they have not been selected to cooperate with humans,” the researchers note.

In the historical context, humans domesticated cats much later than dogs. Dogs have also been bred to be helpful, while cats’ most valuable asset has usually been eating mice and rats while staying out of the way.

However, the researchers say that their results might be far from conclusive. There are several factors in the experiment that could’ve affected the cats’ reactions.

First of all, the container used in the tests could’ve just been extremely uninteresting to the cats. Additionally, a large portion of the cat sample came from cat cafés, which may have conditioned them to ignore random and sometimes rude people.

“Although we found no differences between house and café cats, their owner-attachment and socialization histories seem likely to differ,” the scientists write.

It might also be a futile effort to expect cats to act with a lot of compassion and loyalty. We like to project such attributes onto our pets because we see them as family members.

But cats – or dogs, for that matter – are not human. They don’t think like humans, which makes their ability to interpret human social ques questionable at best.

Or maybe the cats understood the actors’ intentions perfectly. Perhaps they’re just darn smart that they realized it was nothing but theater.

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