Science brief: the science behind our feline friends

Above: My cat Lola, who I have successfully trained to come to her name, but have not successfully trained to not steal my pillows.

There are a few liberal stereotypes I just can’t break out of. Two of the biggest are: I like fancy espresso (thanks for that habit, Seattle) and I am a diehard fan of public radio. One of my all time favorite radio shows is Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which I listen to on my drives down Boulder Canyon to campus each day. Recently I heard the most NPRish (a real word) episode ever to be recorded on Fresh Air: a cat behavior specialist named Sarah Ellis explaining how people can train their cats, and why it seems so much more difficult to train cats than, say, dogs.

Once I stopped laughing to myself about listening to a cat behavior specialist on NPR, I actually learned quite a bit about the science behind my favorite pet’s personality (her name is Lola and she’s traveled with me from Durango, to Seattle, to Nederland).

Here, in a nut shell, is why Ellis says dogs and cats behave so differently:

Dogs evolved from wolves, which are highly social animals. Cats, on the other hand, evolved from the North American Wildcat, a far more solitary animal. In addition, humans domesticated dogs long before we domesticated cats. For this reason, dogs understand human social cues like pointing, for example, much more easily than cats.

Another interesting fact is that while dogs find comfort in bonds with people, cats find comfort and security in their bond with a place. This, Ellis said, is why cats often have a hard time traveling (I experience this each time Lola and I make the 20-hour drive between Washington and Colorado). Ellis’ solution is to allow cats to become familiar with their carriers, which can then act as a portable sense of place. Rather than hiding a cat carrier away when it’s not in use, she told Gross, people should keep the carriers out so that the cat will recognize the smell and associate it with home.

A few more quick tips:

Ellis said cats actually respond well to high-pitch sounds, so don’t feel bad about doing that weird baby-talk voice when you call them. Also, Ellis said, it is important to reward or punish (although Ellis warns against punishment) behavior within seconds of the behavior occurring; any longer and the cat will associate a completely different behavior with the reward. Cats, apparently, are “live in the now” creatures.

For more on the science behind cats, check out Ellis’ interview on Fresh Air here.


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