I Don't Get Cats, And Neither Does Science

Dogs are big, dumb, infinitely lovable obedience machines. Cats—love 'em, hate 'em, or spend half your day giggleweeping to Internet videos of them—are anything but. Why are they so willfully difficult? What's going on in their heads? The short version: we don't really know.

Cats are weird. My cat has done everything from comfort me in times of ever-so-slight emotional trouble to suddenly deciding, in the middle of an especially excellent petting session, that my hand doesn't look quite enough like the scene of a grisly butcher knife murder. Or I might put out food and say, "Come get it!" only to be greeted by perfect silence. Then, when I turn my back, the food miraculously disappears as though abducted by some paranormal whisper. Oh, and of course, who can forget the moments when their cat tears across the house chasing and/or running from nothing and/or their own dark pasts?

"Why?" we ask ourselves. "Why do you do these things, cat? Why can't you just make sense?"

It's especially frustrating given how far studies of animal cognition have come in recent years. For the longest time, scientists assumed that animals were—by and large—simple creatures (or even organic machines) incapable of abstract thought, real emotion, or complex learning. However, recent studies of dogs, monkeys, and even fish have proven quite the contrary. Turns out, dogs are capable of morality, jealousy, and even basic ethics.

But what about cats? Well, they're a little more... complicated. David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs explained:

"To reduce the number of variables, [University of Padova comparative psychologist] Christian Agrillo's team always conducts the studies in its laboratory. But when owners brought their cats over, most of the felines freaked out. Even the docile ones displayed little interest in the test. Ultimately, Agrillo wound up with just four cats—and even they were a pain to work with."

"He laughed. 'I can assure you that it's easier to work with fish than cats,' he said. 'It's incredible.'"

Cats don't intrinsically pair well with humans. They can depending on the situation, but they often choose not to. For instance, one study by Hungarian animal cognition expert Ádám Miklósi found that cats—when they choose to participate—are actually quite good at a basic pointing test, wherein there are two cups, one of which has a treat hidden underneath it. A human then points to the one with the treat, and the animal either reacts or outright ignores the cue. Monkeys are apparently terrible at it, while dogs ace it almost without fail.

And cats? Same as dogs, assuming they don't just walk away altogether. The big takeaway: cats have a rudimentary theory of mind—that is, the ability to make guesses about what other creatures are thinking. A similar puzzle with an unsolvable variant—an immovable treat—left cats utterly flabbergasted, however. While dogs quickly looked to their people for aid, cats just kept futilely pawing away at their precious bounty. It didn't occur to them to "ask" for assistance.

Thing is, cats aren't necessarily dumb. They're just wired differently. As Grimm put it:

"Consider this: Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years—20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the 'human radio frequency'—the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that's why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don't hang on our every word like dogs do. They're surfing other channels on the dial. And that's ultimately what makes them so hard to study. Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box."

So gears are churning, but it's incredibly difficult to measure exactly how. For now, then, it's cats one, science zero. We're getting there, though. As technology improves and we continue to conduct more specific studies, we'll be able to piece together more and more portions of the enigma labyrinth puzzle that is the feline mind.

Or maybe that's just what they want us to think.

What Are Cats Thinking? [Slate]