The Strangest Studies About Cats (And The Humans Who Love Them)
A lot of very valid (or at least relatively understandable) science has been done about cats: after all, along with dogs, these are some of the most popular domestic animals in the world, and people are naturally interested in how they work (and whether they actually like us, or are just using us for food and occasional snuggles). Smithsonian did a fascinating roundup in March answering some of the more common questions about cats: yes, they are responsive to our emotional states (sort of); yes, they talk to humans in different ways than their communication with other animals; and yes, they do recognize their owners and experience separation anxiety when they're away. Beyond these relatively understandable bits of science, though, some studies about cats have sometimes gone into ... well, more peculiar places.
According to new research published this September, the spread of domestic cats across the globe likely occurred because people took them along — including the Vikings. The scientists behind the research, who examined the DNA of 290 ancient cats found in archaeological digs around the world, found that cat-human relationships developed as farming began to spread, likely because cats first proved their use as protectors of grain stores from rats. The genetic relationships between various ancient cats dotted in different countries show that they migrated at the same time as ancient farmers and explorers did, in two "waves" across the globe.
Cats could travel far, genetically: Egyptian cat DNA was found in a cat in a Viking grave in northern Germany. The importance of cats in Viking culture and mythology indicate that they were probably a notable part of their famous boating voyages, likely to keep rodents out of the on-board food. This isn't really a surprise; the ship's cat likely dates back to early shipping, and was the centre of many sailing superstitions about weather and luck. If you were in bad seas, a furry thing to cuddle was likely a comfort, too.
These days, our love continues, and every so often, a study turns up about cats that makes you raise your eyebrows and reach for the cat videos.
Cats Might Have Accents
This is actually an ongoing study, and the findings won't be available for several years; but if they turn out to be positive, they'll turn a lot of what we think about cats on its head. The "cat's meow" is generally thought to be pretty static, though it changes as a cat ages and may differ between breeds; but a study currently being mounted in Sweden aims to find out if cats actually have accents, developed in response to the different dialects of their owners.
The study, created by Lund University, is trying to ascertain, over five years, whether there's regional variation in the cat vocalizations in two different areas of Sweden with extremely different accents (Stockholm and Lund, which are over 300 miles apart). "We will record vocalizations of about 30-50 cats in different situations — e.g. when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed or even angry — and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns," the lead scientist told the media. Specifically, they're trying to see if the cat actually mimics what their owner sounds like, not that it's picking up regional slang. What exactly this might confirm remains unclear, but it may explain what happens if your mewing noise works well on cats in your home town and sends those in a another city screaming for cover.
Cats Have Very Different Tastes Than We Do
As somebody who spent all weekend trying to get her irritable cat to take medication using everything from ham to Vegemite, this is actually some pretty amazing science. Scientists in 2015 attempted to identify what, specifically, cats found bitter, in pursuit of a more nuanced understanding of their tastebuds. And what they found was fascinating.
The impression that cats are somehow supersensitive to things that humans could completely ignore in their food is actually incorrect, at least in some ways. The scientists did tests on various taste receptors usually found embedded in the tongues of cats, but isolated them in a lab environment (presumably to see how they reacted with more accuracy than just "a cat being snooty"). Compared to human "super tasters," cat's receptors were 10 times less sensitive to various bitter compounds; and they also responded differently to things ordinary humans find bitter, reacting very poorly to denatonium and more gently to a compound found in aloe plants. They also had no real reaction to saccharine at all. The cat mouth, it seems, is a fundamentally different place to ours. Yet another reason not to try cat food, ever.
Cat And Dog People Really Are Different
Some of the research on cats and dogs has actually focused on their owners; a 2014 study, for instance, found that "cat people" were likely to be intelligent, introverted, and sensitive — while "dog people" were inclined to be extroverted and to follow rules. This isn't a massive surprise; we get the pets we believe will fit our personality and lifestyle, and most dogs wouldn't deal well with an owner who liked sitting at home quietly all the time, just as most cats would prefer an owner who didn't constantly take them out on walks.
Humans Are Colorist Towards Cats
Many people who have adopted cats or worked in shelters are familiar with the phenomenon of "black cat syndrome": because of preconceptions about the unluckiness of dark colors on cats, black and dark brown felines are much more difficult to rehome than lighter ones. But a 2012 study found that our preconceptions about cat personality and behavior, likely gleaned from media and other sources, are much more complex than they first appear. We have a whole host of ideas about what a cat's color means for its personality.
The researchers, from the University of California Berkeley, asked a wide number of "cat people" across the U.S. to assign different personality traits, like shyness, aloofness, and boldness, to the main cat colors, from black to white to tortoiseshell or calico. The results were fascinating: for mysterious reasons, white cats were thought to be aloof, calm, and lazy, likely because of their slightly "precious reputation," while orange cats were seen as friendly and tortoiseshell ones were seen as intolerant of others. The problem with this is that it's largely complete nonsense: while there are some breed differences between pedigree animals (Bengals, for instance, are talkative and energetic), many common breeds will have personalities pretty much unrelated to their spots and stripes. In other words, we ascribe cat types personalities that aren't actually there.
Cat Videos Really Are Good For You
One of the most hilarious studies in the history of feline science, released in 2015, targeted the major way in which we get our feline fix in the modern world without access to the actual animals: cat videos. Yes, I'm serious. To be fair, the scientists made it clear that, as this is something that takes up a large proportion of peoples' time and is a sociological phenomenon, it makes sense to study it, even if it means a lot of time staring at Lil Bub and wondering why on earth he's making that face.
The scientists involved interviewed nearly 7,000 people about their feelings concerning cat videos and how they influenced mood, procrastination, and other things. The data was self-reported (i.e. how the participants said they felt as opposed to how they physically demonstrated emotions), and the results were positive: people reported feeling positive and less stressed after viewing cat videos, weighed their pleasure as more important than any guilt about procrastinating, and identified the main sources of their cat videos and how often they sought them out (only 25 percent of the time, apparently). Overall, the impression was clear: we're obsessed, and it doesn't look like something that's going to stop any time soon — nor should it.