Domestic cats, or felis silvestris catus, if you’re fancy, are thought to have domesticated themselves thousands of years ago in the Near East. That's right; cats chose to be around humans.
Early cats discovered that being around humans enhanced their survival, so they changed their behavior to coexist with people. Now, cats are the second most popular pet in the U.S., with approximately 95.6 million cats, compared to only 90 million dogs in 2017. The number one spot has been the freshwater fish, numbering 139.3 million in U.S. households in the same year.
Why exactly are people so overtaken by the urge to put a kitten in their pocket and keep it? According to Neuroscientist Shannan Odell, "our inexplicable drive to take care of kittens may be due to its baby schema, or the fact that kittens have big eyes and round faces, characteristics which, upon seeing, unconsciously switch our brains into caregiving mode."
As we mention in our A Neuroscientist Explains Why You Can't Help But Love Puppies blog, seeing the faces of those kittens with high baby schema is enough to subconsciously trick us humans into thinking they're interacting with a human baby.
Adults show high inactivation in attention and motion areas of the brain, reflecting readiness to interact with these cuties. Seeing kitten faces activate the nucleus accumbens, a key area involved in anticipation of reward. But beyond that, this may have to do with the neurotransmitter oxytocin (also known as the love hormone). It's produced in the periventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and is a crucial player in social bonding, trust, and attachment.
The Cat Science
One study found a rise in human oxytocin after playing with cats, suggesting that dangling that string in front of your cat is bringing you two closer—a bonus for your both.
Women may be especially susceptible to this bond, as one study found that the relationship between women and their cats is uniquely dynamic and complex. By viewing videos of cats and their owners interacting, researchers found that women owners strongly influenced their cat's behavior and vice versa. These pairs would respond to more subtle cues than male owners and their cats. This study also revealed that cats interact more with female owners, jumping on their laps and approaching them more often.
Understanding the Purr
Science also shows that humans may be able to understand the subtleties in their cat's purr. When cats want food, scientists find that their purr includes a high-pitched voice component, kind of like the cry of a human baby. Something mothers know very well.
Likewise, humans are incredibly in-tune to that sound, recognizing the sound as urgent, even if the subject had never owned cats. This suggests that humans can unconsciously identify distress purring from a non-distress purring.
Do Cats Actually Like Us?
Well, one lab aimed to look at just that. In the study, cats were presented with four choices: a toy, food, an interesting smell, and a human to see what cats liked best. When all was said and done, humans were the winners. And when given the choice between shelter, the pet cats spent most of the time playing and bonding with the humans.
Now to settle the eternal debate, cats versus dogs, which is better?
Just kidding. Why does it have to be a competition anyway? If animal compilation videos of dogs and cats hanging out together have taught us anything, it's that the cat versus dog competition is all in our brains. So why not just enjoy the company of both?
Kittens Need Our Help
Kittens are among the most vulnerable animal populations in the country. Summer is an especially vulnerable time for kittens, and it's when many shelters see a dramatic increase in homeless and newborn kittens. You can make a difference by fostering kittens from your local shelter. A great shelter to work with is Simply Cats in Boise. We've worked with this organization before and highly recommend this great non-profit organization.