Cats know when to hurt you

How mean are cats?

There are days when even the most convinced cat owners wish they had bought a dog. For example, when they come home after a vacation and are not welcomed with exuberant, tail-wagging joy. How good would that do the ego!

Instead, as a cat owner, you hope that the cat will at least notice that you are back. And above all, don't be offended because you've left her alone for so long. If you are lucky, the cat will stroke your legs a few times.

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Doesn't matter - or does it?

"Dogs have masters, cats have staff," they say. Dogs clung to their owners, cats only in one place. But Dennis Turner doesn't see it that way. He is a Swiss-American biologist who researches the relationship between humans and domestic cats and is the director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Horgen near Zurich, which he founded.

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"Cats that were socialized to people as young animals develop real social relationships with their owners and don't just see them as can openers," he told DW. "They miss their owner, for example during a holiday - even if they may only give them the cold shoulder when they return."

In 2015, a study showed that cats' emotional attachment to their owners is different than that of dogs. Alice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills from the University of Lincoln in the UK examined 20 cats and their owners using a method originally designed for young children.

The method called Stranger Situations Test checks whether the child feels securely attached to its mother, which indicates healthy development in humans. This type of attachment to their owners has also been demonstrated in dogs.

Cats and their owners failed the test. "These results are consistent with the notion that adult cats are typically quite self-sufficient, even in their social relationships," the authors write in Plos One. "Cats don't need anyone else to feel safe."

That doesn't mean cats generally don't bond with their owners, Potter and Mills add.

Alone instead of with several

There is a simple reason why cats are so different from dogs - and thus their relationship with humans - "Cats are originally loners and independent," explains Dennis Turner. They do not live in large packs with a clear social structure like the ancestors of the dogs, the wolves.

The ancestor of the domestic cat is the falcon cat (Felis silvestris lybica), also called the African wildcat. This subspecies occurs in North Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula as far as the Caspian Sea. It is not very aggressive and therefore easy to tame. Domestication probably began in Cyprus about 9500 years ago, French researchers reported in the journal Science.

The African wild cat only eats small animals: mice, rats, birds and reptiles. Therefore she hunts alone. Like most big cats, they don't need the help of their fellow cats. The only exception are the lions: They live in packs like wolves, hunt and eat together - extremely unusual for cats.

Free-ranging cats form larger groups of up to a few dozen animals, which together drive intruders from their area. They also develop social relationships with other cats. But basically everyone relies on themselves. They have lived this way for thousands of years - domestication or not.

Subjugate? No!

"Socializing during the first two to eight weeks makes cats socially and voluntarily affectionate," Turner says. How tame a cat becomes with people depends on its early life experiences, wrote the late Patrick Bateson of the University of Cambridge. Bateson did a long research on cats and together with Turner published the book 'The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior'.

The character of the father also influences how friendly a cat is to people. Since many kittens never see their father, it is believed that tameness is inherited as well.

"But cats retain their independence, which is what most cat owners appreciate about them," adds Turner. No matter how friendly they are, cats are far from submitting to the will of the dear peace. If something doesn't suit them, they defend themselves - if necessary with scratching and biting.

As loners, cats also lack the diverse communication repertoire that dogs have as pack members. They then show that they are not doing well by urinating in the apartment. This peeing protest signals that they are stressed. Because cats are strong creatures of habit, they do not cope well with changes. Many misinterpret the behavior and say the cat is offended or angry.

Why doesn't she just kill the poor mouse?

Cats have a reputation for being cruel for one reason above all else: They have a tendency to play with mice and other prey until they are completely insane with fear.

"Cats are opportunistic hunters. They have to be ready at all times to stalk accidentally discovered prey and catch it - even when they are not hungry," explains Turner. The cat resolves this inner conflict by playing with the live prey: it becomes aroused and can then use the killing bite. "It looks cruel, but it's a necessary process that has been selected by evolution."

Looks cruel - from our point of view

As early as the 1970s, researchers were investigating the phenomenon of why cats play with their prey instead of killing them immediately.

The bigger and more dangerous the prey, the longer the cat will play with it, reported Maxeen Biben from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, USA, in the journal 'Animal Behavior'. So rats stay alive longer than mice.

Back then, Biben suspected that cats are simply careful: the larger the prey, the more dangerous it can be for the cat. Cats therefore felt their way slowly and played it safe before they got so close to the animal that they could kill it with a bite. Biben also found that the hungrier the cat, the faster it kills.

Humans tend to attribute human characteristics to animals. The typical behavior of the cat is only its way of making its way through life as a loner - as it has proven itself in the course of evolution.

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