Surprising study finds that cats actually prefer people over food.

By Seriously Science | April 3, 2017 6:00 am
Photo: flickr/Live Once Live Wild

Photo: flickr/Live Once Live Wild

If you’ve ever had a cat, you probably believe that, given the choice, your cat would always choose food over you. But assumptions are not always correct, which is why we test them with science! Here, scientists tested whether pet and shelter cats prefer social interaction, food, scent, or toys. They found that “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.” Now, doesn’t that make you feel special?

Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat (Felis silvestris catus) preferences

“Domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) engage in a variety of relationships with humans and can be conditioned to engage in numerous behaviors using Pavlovian and operant methods. Increasingly cat cognition research is providing evidence of their complex socio-cognitive and problem solving abilities. Nonetheless, it is still common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable. This disconnect may be due, in part, to a lack of knowledge of what stimuli cats prefer, and thus may be most motivated to work for. The current study investigated domestic cat preferences at the individual and population level using a free operant preference assessment. Adult cats from two populations (pet and shelter) were presented with three stimuli within each of the following four categories: human social interaction, food, toy, and scent. Proportion of time interacting with each stimulus was recorded. The single most-preferred stimulus from each of the four categories were simultaneously presented in a final session to determine each cat’s most-preferred stimulus overall. 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. This was true for cats in both the pet and shelter population. Future research can examine the use of preferred stimuli as enrichment in applied settings and assess individual cats’ motivation to work for their most-preferred stimulus as a measure of reinforcer efficacy.”

Related content:
Cats’ memories may be as good as dogs.
Flashback Friday: Scientists make “species-appropriate” music just for cats. Listen here!
Sorry, science says cats simply can’t love you the way dogs can.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals
  • OWilson


    Surely any pet owner knows that the warm greeting you (the great food provider) get every morning, can mean they are either hungry, or just happy to see you! :)

  • Internet Angel
  • Uncle Al

    A feral cat wants no human interaction at all. A happy adult cat squints at you. Dilated pupils are a murderous cat. A broadly smiling chimp is freaked and wants to kill you, ditto a purring raccoon. It is important to know these things.

    • Nicholas Cremato

      Not true, I feed a completely feral cat on my deck and for the past 8 years she wants me to put my hand through hole in the screen and rub her back every day. If I go in the backyard she runs away and hides. It has to be through the hole.

  • Bren W

    People think cats are antisocial because they have always just thrown the cat outside. My cats have been just as affectionate as any dog I have had. They follow me around the house and want to sit on my lap any chance they get. They also talk back and play, nothing like the stereotypical cat. And they each have a unique personality.


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