Are Cats Social Animals?

cat with glasses reading bookAre you one of those people who think cats are too independent to be friendly and social? If so, maybe it is not the cat — maybe it is you. A new scientific study shows us evidence that they are not as aloof as they seem. So, read this post and then answer the question, “Are cats social animals?”

Though this new study shows that “cats skew toward independency,” these Oregon state researchers found that many pet and shelter cats are pretty eager to interact with humans. Their strongest reactions are toward those people who interact with the cat and who are looking for kitty caresses.

The researcher, Kristyn R. Vitali, is a post-doctoral scholar in animal behavior and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal, Behavioral Processes.

She had found in previous research that often cats will choose to interact with humans over food or toys.

However, it is still somewhat of a novel idea to believe that cats are attuned to our behavior and responsive to it. Despite the popularity of cats as pets, there has been little research done on their social relations with people.

Another researcher, Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow who studies cat behavior at the University of California Davis College of Veterinary Medicine, says, “It’s a cool study, and it does show that when we are attentive toward cats, they are interested.”

The team performed two experiments. The first was with 46 cats, half from an animal shelter and half at the cats’ own homes.

Each cat was placed in a room with a stranger who sat on the floor for two minutes. During that time, the stranger pretty muchMan petting orange cat on fence ignored the cat. For the next two minutes, the person called the animal by name and petted it freely when it approached.

The second experiment involved only pet cats. These animals went through the same two cycles with their owners, rather than with a stranger. On the average, the cats spent much more time near the human when it was being showered with affection, according to researcher Vitale.

Delgado notes that the “cat-directed” design of the study is a good one. Previous research has suggested cats are usually more into interactions when it is something they instigate.

Delgado explains that even in the attentive phase, the cat has a lot of control. “That’s what they like — the ability to leave.” It is not that they are aloof — it’s just that they want the choice.”

The shelter cats in the study spent more time interacting with the inattentive person than did the pet cats. Vitale notes that this behavior could be a reflection of the fact that the felines from the shelter needed more attention. Also, because of their living conditions, they were probably more accustomed to unfamiliar people.

John Bradshaw, University of Bristol biologist and a long-time student of cat behavior, offers a comment. He says we should not read too much into the difference between the two groups, because the cats are territorial.

Person scratching cat's chin, outside houseThe pets were the only cats tested in familiar surroundings. If they know the place they are in, they will behave differently than they will if they are outside their own territory.

Bradshaw said the study pointed out that cats are quite like us at the individual level. Some of them are aloof, but others are very friendly.

Therefore, it appears it is worth making the first move, even if the cat seems detached. Offer attention and love to your cat, and you can help make him more social toward you.

Kristyn Vitale does not believe that cats are just solitary, aloof predators. She teaches cats to play together in a “socialization” class. She teaches people to train their young kittens to sit, stand, and perform tricks.

Vitale did a study of cats’ tastes. The cats were given choices of foods, toys, scents, and human interaction.

This study included 55 cats — a mix of shelter animals and pets.

The cats had not eaten for 2 1/2 hours. Fully one-half of these animals preferred to socialize with people. This included the shelter Cat, reaching for treat held out to itcats, who did not have a relationship with their tester.

How interesting! Some of the cats in the study were more motivated by food to cooperate. Others were more responsive to petting.

In conclusion, if you want your cat to be social, reach out to it. Give it pets and attention and some interactive play. The cat will learn to show its social side.

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6 thoughts on “Are Cats Social Animals?”

  1. This was an interesting read. I do enjoy learning about psychology, both human and animal. Some of my favorite quirks are those in rabbits, but it’s captivating how varying cat personalities can be.

    I would be intrigued to see what would happen if they did some of these experiments with strays.

    My father took in a stray male when it was a kitten and domesticated it. It’s a long process to get a feral cat to trust humans. Probably longer for him because he had three cats and a dog of his own.

    • I am glad you found the post interesting. Studies that teach us something new about an animal are helpful.

      It would be interesting to know if feral cats would react to such a test.  Since they don’t really trust people much, it might not work.  However, some of the animals in the study were from a shelter, and perhaps some of them were a bit on the wild side.  

  2. I always look at the cats as princesses. True to that, as I read your article, I was amazed with, “cats have the ability to leave.” Wow, just like a strong, independent pet!

    Factors affecting cats’ interaction such as territory and people can determine their behavior. I like to look and feed cats but I never dare to pet them. I remember one time, a street kitten went inside our garage, it was so small and fragile looking so I wanted to give it food. But what it did when I was trying to pet was to hiss at me with all fur standing up. I ran like crazy ’cause it was so scary! I still wonder why it did that to me when all I wanted was to give it some food. 

    • The kitten did that to you because it was scared.  It was so tiny and you were so big, and the kitten had no idea if you were someone who would hurt it.  Feral kittens, especially, who have had little or no interaction with humans will act that way because they are wild animals, and not part of the human world.  

      Somehow, cats and dogs know if we are afraid of them.  That will make them less likely to be friendly.  Me, if I see a cat or dog I’ll go up to it and offer my fist to sniff.  If the animal accepts the smell and acts non-aggressive, I will pet it, for sure.  I love to cuddle cats!  Mine have always slept with me, and they are so comforting, curled up next to you!  You should get to know a cat well.  I think you’d like them.

  3. I have adopted one male cat for the past 2 years. I would like to know if I leave him home alone for a few days, will he feel lonely or neglected and unhappy? I treat my cat as my own child. That’s why I don’t leave him to go somewhere for a few days at all because I will worry about him. One vet suggested that it is all right to leave him alone for that period with all the food, water and a few litter boxes if I have to be on a business trip. He further said that cat is not a social animal and asked me not to worry too much. In fact if I leave my cat unattended for only one night, I am worried. Can anyone help me clarify on this whether it’s all right to leave a cat home alone for a few days.

    • It is not something you want to do very often, as the cat will be unhappy with your absence. I am assuming you would leave him inside. If you let him go out while you are gone, he could very well disappear.

      I have a cat with special needs and can never leave him alone. If your cat is young and healthy, and your trip is brief, as long as you leave plenty of food and water and multiple clean litter boxes, I’d imagine he’d be okay. However, it would be better if you could find someone to come in and feed him morning and night, to make sure that all is well. Then the cat won’t feel totally abandoned.

      If I leave for an overnight, as long as someone comes in to feed the cat, then I know any problems that arose because of my absence can be attended to. Leaving him home alone for a few days is pushing your luck a bit. You will have to consider carefully and then make your decision. The best solution is to find someone who will stay in your house and care for the cat during your absence.


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