No tummy rubs, thank you

Research by Finka et al (2022) has demonstrated that many ‘cat people’ tend to pet their cats in areas the cat does not like. Their tummy being one such example. I know a cat’s tummy is soft and it is tempting to give them a tummy rub, but the vast majority of cats do not like this and will scratch you. When they lie on their backs it is a sign of trust, not an invitation to pet them. In fact, petting the tummy could be perceived as a betrayal of that trust.

From the researchers:

“Tactile interactions with cats are considered to have therapeutic benefits to humans and are increasingly included within interventional contexts to improve human wellbeing. However, cats are not considered an inherently social or highly tactile species and may have specific preferences for the ways in which they like to be touched and interacted with. Despite this, the common occurrence of human-directed aggression during interactions suggests humans’ understanding of cat behaviour and appropriate styles of interactions with cats may be limited. To address this, in a recent study, we incorporated expert understanding of ‘best practice’ styles of interactions with cats into an educational intervention for humans to use during unstructured social interactions with cats. By encouraging humans to engage in styles of interactions with cats which provided the cat with greater levels of autonomy and also emphasised focusing on the cat’s behaviour and comfort, cats responded with increased human-directed affiliative and positively-valanced behaviour, in addition to decreased rates of human-directed aggression and signs of negative affect.”

Slow blinking to bond with your cat

Reasearch by Humphrey et al (2020) has confirmed what many cat owners already suspected: narrowing your eyes is the best way to build a rapport with cats.

Their study found that “cats respond to a human giving a slow blink stimulus by producing eye narrowing movements of their own”.

“Firstly, cats deliver more eye narrowing movements when their owners slow blink at them than when the owner is present in the room but not delivering this stimulus.”

“Secondly, when an unfamiliar experimenter gives the slow blink stimulus compared to adopting a neutral face, cats respond with a higher frequency of eye narrowing movements themselves.”

Their study also found that cats were more likely to approach people after slow blinking as opposed to having a neutral face.

“From the current study, the slow blink sequence appears to be an indicator of positive emotion in cats.”

Cats are also known to initiate a sequence of slow blinking with humans. The slow blinking behaviour may well be innate behaviour but could also be a result of domestication.

“It could be argued that cats have developed slow blink behaviours because humans appear to perceive slow blinking as positive and cats may have previously been reinforced by their owners for responding to slow blink sequences.”

“It is also possible that slow-blinking in cats originated as a mechanism to interrupt an unbroken stare, which is potentially threatening in social interactions; this could then have been elaborated by a combination of selection and learning in the domestic environment.”

“Socio-cognitive abilities of cats are an under-studied area, and future research on cat behaviours, such as slow blinking, could enhance our understanding of interspecific communication and the ways in which domestication has shaped the social behaviour of an ancestrally solitary species.”

Why do cats love people who hate cats?

I remember the scene vividly as it happened every time my grandmother visited: as soon as my grandmother entered the front door the cat disappeared from the living room. This left my grandmother disappointed as she loved cats. The only time the cat did not leave in time my grandmother rushed over only to be confronted by a cat turning its back on her.

Conversely, cats tend to approach those people that do not want to interact with them at all. Why?

Well, precisely because these people do not seek any contact. This means the cat is in control of the interction. About whether or not it happens and how long it will last. The ‘non cat person’ is far more likely than the ‘cat person’ to accept a cat’s boundaries and need for space.

Click here for the research study if you’d like to find out more.

Come out, come out wherever you are

Research by Takagi et al (2021) has found evidence that cats track their owners movements.

As Linda Geddes reports in The Guardian “cats appear to track their owners as they move about the house and are surprised if they turn up somewhere they’re not expecting them.”

“The finding supports the idea that cats retain a mental representation of their owners, even when they can’t see them; a crucial bridge to higher cognitive processes such as forward planning and imagination.”

“Cats are notoriously inscrutable creatures. Although previous research has suggested that cats will search in the correct place if food is seen to disappear, and expect to see their owner’s face if they hear their voice, it was unclear how this ability translated into real life. “It is [also] said that cats are not as interested in their owners as dogs are, but we had doubts about this point,” said Dr Saho Takagi at the University of Kyoto, Japan.” I could not agree more and I suspect many cat owners agree with that. My own cat often greets me at the door and can’t get close enough to me when I’ve been away for a few days.

“This study shows that cats can mentally map their location based on their owner’s voice,” said Takagi, whose research was published in the journal PLOS One. “[It suggests] that cats have the ability to picture the invisible in their minds. Cats [may] have a more profound mind than is thought.”

“However, it’s not entirely surprising that cats possess this ability: “That awareness of movement – tracking things they cannot see – is critical to a cat’s survival,” said Roger Tabor, a biologist, author and presenter of the BBC TV series Cats.”However, it’s not entirely surprising that cats possess this ability: “That awareness of movement – tracking things they cannot see – is critical to a cat’s survival,” said Roger Tabor, a biologist, author and presenter of the BBC TV series Cats.”

“A lot of what a cat has to interpret in its territory is an awareness of where other cats are. It is also important for hunting: how could a cat catch a field vole moving around beneath the grass if it couldn’t use clues, such as the occasional rustle, to see in its mind’s eye, where they are? A cat’s owner is extremely significant in its life as a source of food and security, so where we are is very important.”

Flat faces negatively impact cats’ ability to communicate

Most of us know that flat-faced cat and dog breeds have breathing difficulties, but research by Finka et al (2020) found that “exaggerated” features may make it more difficult for pets to communicate with us.

Facial expressions help owners understand whether or not their pet is in pain. However, the researchers found that the “neutral faces of several of the brachycephalic breeds (e.g. Exotic short hairs, Persians and particularly Scottish folds)” showed more pain associated features “compared to the neutral expressions of most other breeds”. In fact,”[i]n the case of Scottish folds, their neutral facial landmarks indicated greater pain-like features even compared to the DSH cats that were actually in pain.”

These findings are potentially relevant when facial expressions are used to identify pain, especially in flat-faced breeds. This research suggests that facial expressions of domestic shorthair cats cannot be confidently applied to flat-faced breeds.

“The ability of companion animals to readily solicit care from humans is obviously advantageous. However, it is possible that permanently vulnerable looking individuals might have a diminished capacity to clearly indicate when care is or is not required, as well as to display other information relevant to their actual state or intentions. Thus, if certain cat breeds are being selected to display “pain-like” features on their faces, these features may serve to solicit unwanted or inadequate attention from their caregivers.”

“More generally, such types of anthropocentric selection might lead to increased anthropomorphic tendencies. If, for example, the animal has the appearance of an expression which humans find relatable on some level, even if it is not necessarily reflective of that animals’ affective state, it may be used to attribute emotions or characteristics to them. For example, “grumpy cat” a cat made famous by her coverage on social media achieved her moniker due to her perceived “frowning” facial appearance. However, this was likely a result of a combination of her feline dwarfism and paedomorphic features, rather than an expression of her irritability.”