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The difference between cats and dogs

Why cats won’t punish a stranger who harms you

The difference between cats and dogs
If a stranger harms you, your dog will not look kindly upon them.
But your cat won’t react the same way. Here’s why.

There’s an old stereotype about the difference between

cats and dogs. Dogs are loving and fiercely loyal, they say,

while cats are aloof and indifferent. Most cat people probably

disagree. I certainly find it hard to believe, with my cat purring

away in my lap, that she doesn’t care about me.

Overall, cat cognition research suggests cats do form

emotional bonds with their humans. Cats seem to

experience separation anxiety, are more responsive to

their owners’ voices than to strangers’ and look for

reassurance from their owners in scary situations.

But a new  study, by researchers in Japan, complicates

the picture of our relationship with cats. Adapting a

method previously used to study dogs, the researchers found cats

unlike dogs don’t avoid strangers who refuse to help their owners.

In the experiment, a cat watched as her owner tried to

open a box to get at something inside. Two strangers

sat on either side of the owner and the owner turned

to one of them and asked for help. In “helper” trials,

the stranger helped the owner to open the box.

In “non-helper” trials, the stranger refused.

The other stranger sat passively, doing nothing.

Then, both strangers offered the cat a treat, and the

scientists watched to see which the cat approached first.

Did she prefer to take food from a helper over a passive

bystander? This would indicate a positivity bias,

showing the helpful interaction made the cat feel more

warmly towards the stranger. Or did she avoid taking

food from the non-helper? This negativity bias might

mean the cat felt distrustful.

When this method was used to test dogs, they showed

a clear negativity bias. The dogs preferred not to take

food from a stranger who refused help to their owner.

In contrast, the cats in the new study were completely

indifferent. They showed no preference for the helpful

person and no avoidance of the unhelpful person.

Apparently, as far as cats are concerned, food is food.

Social cues

What should we take from this? A tempting conclusion

would be that cats are selfish and couldn’t care less

how their humans are treated. Although this might

fit with our preconceptions about cats, it’s an example

of anthropomorphic bias. It involves interpreting cats’

behavior as though they were furry little humans,

rather than creatures with their own distinctive ways of thinking.

The difference between cats and dogs
cats are sensitive to human emotions
To really understand cats, we have to get out of this human

centered mindset and think of them as cats. When we do,

what seems most likely isn’t that the cats in this study

were selfish, but they weren’t able to pick up on the

social interactions between the humans. They weren’t

aware that some of the strangers were being unhelpful.

Cats were domesticated more recently, and have been
changed by domestication far less than dogs

Although cats are able to pick up on some human social

cues  they can follow human pointing and are sensitive to

human emotions they’re probably less tuned in to our

social relationships than dogs are.

Cats were domesticated more recently, and have been

changed by domestication far less than dogs. While

dogs are descended from social pack animals, cats’

ancestors were largely solitary hunters. Domestication

has probably heightened dogs’ existing social skills,

but it may not have done the same for cats, who were

less socially aware to begin with. So we shouldn’t be

too quick to conclude that our cats don’t care if people

are mean to us. What’s more likely is that they just can’t tell.


Cats, it appears, aren’t that choosy about who they will

accept a treat off (Credit: Danielle Donders/Getty Images)

Despite their popularity, we still know relatively little about

how cats think. Future research might show cats’ understanding

of humans is even more limited than we currently realize.

Alternatively, it might turn out that cats are better able to

recognize human social dynamics in different contexts.

But whatever studies reveal, we should avoid letting

preconceptions or anthropomorphism drive our interpretation

of cats’ behavior. Before we judge our feline friends to be

indifferent or selfish, we should first try to look at the

world through their eyes.


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