"There is a popular stereotype of the unsocial or aloof cat."
Kristyn Vitale Shreve, Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University, knows this misconception better than most. She—along with fellow researchers—recently conducted a study that tracked the behavioral habits of felines and whether they preferred human social interaction, food, toys, or scents. (While studies had previously been done regarding these habits with dogs and tortoises, cats had yet to be examined in this way.)
The team conducted the study over several months with 50 cats (both pets and shelter cats). In a series of cognitive tests, the subjects were deprived of these four types of stimuli for a few hours. Then, the researchers reintroduced the stimuli to see what the cats would go for.
Shreve and her research partners discovered that the felines actually chose to be with humans more often. "Although there was clear individual variability in cat preference, social interaction with humans was the most-preferred stimulus category for the majority of cats, followed by food," the study notes.
Not only will this allow cat owners to prove, once and for all, that cats are friendly and loving creatures, but this sort of information also will prove helpful in other areas.
"One of the major reasons we conducted this study was to determine what items may best serve as a reward to cats," Shreve tells petMD. "If we understand what items cats prefer to interact with, we can utilize this knowledge in applied settings—such as when training cats or for use as enrichment items for shelter cats or, potentially, other captive wild cats."
Shreve also points out that, while human interaction was the most sought-after stimulus, each cat had their own unique set of preferences, something she found surprising. "I think we should consider cats more as individuals," she says. "Just like any animal species, you see a gradient of sociability and preference—many cats prefer social interaction, but also many preferred food, toys, and scent."
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