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Does your cat want to kill you?

Skepchick

Rebecca Watson

November 11, 2015

Let’s start this article with a disclaimer: I am, by most definitions, a “cat person.” I have always loved cats, and I’ve pretty much always lived with cats. I currently have two cats: Brendon and Fry, two bonded brothers I adopted when they were about a year old. These cats, like most of my previous cats, defy the common stereotypes people seem to have about cats. They greet me at the door when I come home, follow me around the house, sleep in bed all night, like to have their bellies rubbed, and have never bitten or scratched anyone.

I don’t think they’re necessarily weird outliers. I think that any cats could be that great if they have humans who treat them well and bond with them.

It’s important to note that Brendon enjoys wearing clothes. I know you don’t believe me. That’s okay. You’re a skeptic. That’s a good thing. But it’s true. He runs over to me when I pull out his shark costume, and he purrs and rolls around for awhile after getting it on. I take his picture and put it online, and my friends tell me that secretly, Brendon wants to murder me.

Some of my friends, including the very editor of this article, felt vindicated recently when mainstream news outlets reported Study: Your cat might actually want to kill you It brings me no joy to report that they are wrong. Okay: a little joy.

The study is available in full online, and I’m happy to report that nowhere in it does it come even close to commenting on whether or not your cat has homicidal plans for you.

The purpose of the study was to compare personality traits across various species of cat in the hopes that doing so might provide insight into how to better treat big cats in captivity. Accordingly, the researchers asked zookeepers to fill out personality surveys for clouded leopards, snow leopards, and African lions. They compared that information with survey results from shelter volunteers rating domestic cats, plus previous studies on Scottish wildcats.

Already, you should note that this study didn’t look at domestic cats in your home—it looked at cats in the highly stressful shelter environment. The personality ratings may relate to how your cat behaves in a loving home, but it’s not by any means exact. You should also note that a personality survey that a human fills out for an animal is bound to be somewhat subjective. If people expect an animal (or another person) to be aggressive or conscientious or agreeable, they’ll be more likely to notice the behaviors that reinforce their opinion. This is simple confirmation bias.

Cat licking author's face

I’d like to note that while typing that previous sentence, Fry climbed on top of me and started licking my face while purring (see photo). I have no idea why.

This leads nicely into the personality traits the researchers identified most strongly in domestic cats: dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism. Spontaneously licking someone’s face could be the result of any one of those. I suppose that “murder” could also be a result, but the research doesn’t get into that at all. Come to think of it, perhaps Fry now has a taste for human face and it’s only a matter of time before I’m nibbled alive.

All that this research shows is that as domestic cats evolved, they seem to have retained some of the same personality traits as their big ancestors. This isn’t news; watch videos of big cats chasing laser pointers or “hugging” caretakers. There are a lot of fascinating similarities to our tiny companions, and it may very well be true that cats have never been truly domesticated.

But (many) domestic cats do share a mutually beneficial relationship with humans, and there’s absolutely nothing in this research to suggest that they would suddenly forget that fact if they were to magically grow a hundred times their size.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to open a can of chicken glop for Fry and Brendon, lest they read over my shoulder and get any big (cat) ideas.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson's photo

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.