Does Your Cat Care About You?

Does your cat care?  Admittedly, I am not much of a cat person.  So I am sometimes skeptical when my cat-loving friends and family tell me how much their cats love them.  After all, most of the cats I know tend to fit the stereotype of the self-interested and aloof.  Sometimes, however, a story breaks through the noise and proves too compelling to ignore.

The Warning

Do cats care enough to warn their owners of potential danger?  Maybe Boogey the tuxedo will convince you.

Boogey is a well-loved feline who is tightly bonded to his family.  Last week, his parents inadvertently shut Boogey in the bathroom when they left for work.  This can happen from time to time even in the best of homes, but it had never happened to our friend Boogey.   When his parents came home, Boogey was ecstatic to see them, and he seemed unfazed by his day in the bathroom. But he didn’t forget his experience.  Later that evening, when he saw his dad going into the bathroom, he came running.  He kept his body between his dad and the bathroom, cried out, and seemed to be making every attempt to keep his dad from entering the room.  He had never exhibited this type of behavior before.

Could it be that Boogey was trying to keep his human from being locked in the bathroom?  Was he warning him of potential danger?

Can cats remember experiences?

Scientists studying cat behavior and learning have made some intriguing discoveries that could provide insight into Boogey’s behavior.

First, scientists have demonstrated that cats can remember experiences, at least in the short-term.  This type of memory is called episodic memory in humans, and it demonstrates self-awareness.  Because scientists are not convinced that any animals are self-aware (apparently having never owned either cats or dogs), they refer to this type of memory as “episodic-like” in animals.

Scientists in Norway tested the ability of cats to remember experiences in the short term.  They tested 49 domestic cats.  In their experiment, they exposed the cats to four food bowls.  Two of the bowls contained food, and the other two were empty.  The cats were allowed to eat from the bowls with food, then they were removed from the room.  The food was taken out of the bowls, and the cats were allowed to explore the empty bowls after 15 minutes.  In the next phase of the experiment, the cats were exposed to two bowls filled with food, one with a non-edible item, and one empty bowl.  The cats were allowed to eat from one bowl.  Surprisingly, in both phases the cats spent less time exploring the bowls from which they originally ate.  This suggests that they remembered what was in those bowls and didn’t need to explore them further.  That they didn’t simply return to the bowls that had held food indicates they weren’t simply responding to a pleasurable experience. The study was published in the January, 2017 edition of Behavioural Processes.

This study could have been stronger had a control group of cats been exposed to four empty bowls as a negative control. However, even as an uncontrolled study it is interesting and suggests that cats can remember both “what” and “where,” at least in the short term.  So, Boogey could have remembered his bad experience in the bathroom.

Do cats really care about their humans?

In another study, researchers exposed adult cats, half from shelters and half pets, to stimuli in four categories: human social interaction, food, toy, and scent.  Although there was significant individual variability, human social interaction was the most preferred stimulus for a majority of the cats in both groups.  Food came in second.  It seems that for many cats, interaction with humans is more important than eating.  If human interactions are important to cats, then perhaps humans themselves are also important to them.  Boogey may have been acting out of concern for his pet parents.

This study demonstrates that cats care about interacting with their humans.  It doesn’t demonstrate that cats value their humans or act to protect them.  But stories like Boogey’s abound.  Can it just be coincidence or wishful thinking on our part? Did Boogey warn his parents of perceived danger, or was he just remembering a bad experience?  What do you think?  Does your cat care about you? Comment below and share your story.

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