When Becky Evans started studying cat-human relationships, she kept hearing,
over and over again, about how cats are psychopaths.
On one hand, anyone who has looked into the curiously blank face of a
catloaf knows exactly what that means. But also, exactly what does it
mean to apply a human mental diagnosis to felines? We let these clawed
creatures into our homes and our beds, but we still have trouble understanding
them on anything but our own human terms.
Evans, a psychology graduate student at the University of Liverpool,
recently devised a survey for owners who think that their cats are psychopaths.
The survey asks owners to describe the allegedly psychopathic behaviors,
and so far they have included bullying other pets, taking over the dog’s
bed, and waiting on the kitchen counter to pounce on unsuspecting family
members. In short, pretty typical cat behavior.
These answers get at the tricky semantics of calling a cat a “psychopath” when
it is just … a cat. There’s always an implicit comparison
when we talk about cats as aloof little jerks, says Mikel Maria Delgado,
a postdoctoral researcher on cat behavior at the University of California
at Davis. And that comparison is with dogs, which humans have spent thousands
more years domesticating and molding in our image.
“We like things that remind us of us,” Delgado told me. “We
like smiling. We like dogs doing what we tell them. We like that they attend
to us very quickly. They make a lot of eye contact.”
Read: How cats used humans to conquer the world
Cats, she pointed out, simply don’t have the facial muscles to
make the variety of expressions a dog (or human) can. So when we look
at a cat staring at us impassively, it looks like a psychopath who cannot
feel or show emotion. But that’s just its face. Cats communicate
not with facial expressions but through the positions of their ears and
tails. Their emotional lives can seem inscrutable—and even nonexistent—until
you spend a lot of time getting to know one.
Dogs, on the other hand, have learned to mimic humans. They do that thing
where they pull their mouths back into something resembling a smile.
They hang their heads in a way that looks super guilty. Just as humans
have shaped the physical appearance of dogs, we’ve bred them to
be extremely attuned to human social cues. Dogs that repeatedly raise
their brows to make cute puppy faces are more likely to be adopted out
Read: Your dog feels no shame
A common charge against cats is that they do not care about their owners
as anything more than a source of wet food. In studies of pet-owner relationships,
scientists have found that dogs are more “attached” to owners.
These studies frequently rely on protocol called the Ainsworth Strange
Situation, in which the pet explores an unfamiliar environment alone,
with its owner, or with a stranger. Dogs are more at ease with their
owners rather than with strangers. Cats can’t seem to care less
about the human there.
Maybe this says something about pet-owner attachment, but Delgado noted
that dogs are used to their owners taking them to new places. Cats are
territorial, and they might only leave the house to go to the vet, so
what looks like indifference to their owners might just be overwhelming
anxiety about a new, strange environment. Plus, the Ainsworth Strange
Situation was developed by Mary Ainsworth to study parents and infants—another
example of us judging cats on human rather than cat terms.
Also, not all cats. There are terrifying cats, but there are also cats
who just want to snuggle all day. Delgado was taking her cat on a walk
when I called her. Evans has a lovely ginger tomcat, who definitely is
not a psychopath and who definitely was not the inspiration for her latest
The survey, Evans hopes, is just the first step in devising a way to
measure psychopathy in cats. She’d like to eventually study cats
in their natural habitat—their house—so as not to rely on
the word of their owners. The ultimate goal of the research is to devise
a test for shelters so they can better match cats with owners. Whether
it’s fair to call a cat a psychopath, we naturally do it, and it
affects how well new owners and their cats will get along.
Talk to experienced cat owners, of course, and you’ll quickly find
that psychopathy, or something that looks like it, is hardly a dealbreaker.
When the subject came up in the office, my colleague Rachel Gutman launched
into a tribute to her childhood cat K.C., who terrorized everyone but
her immediate family members and, for some reason, Carmine the electrician.
He’d bite anyone who dared to pet him. He’d attack her grandfather’s
ankles. He’d pee in her grandmother’s bed when she came to
visit. “In conclusion,” she said, “he was the best
cat, and I miss him every day.”
5, 2019: "I was only a small child when the seeds
of cat enchantment were
sown within me." - May Eustace
Gratuitous Kittiness: "Would you like fries with that?"
Cat Mewvie: Song for a blind kitty.
Feline Art: "Old
Friend", graphite drawing, artist unknown.
6, 2019: "The city of cats and the city of men exist
one inside the other, but they are not the same city".
- Italo Calvino
Gratuitous Kittiness: "Mah buddy, mah pal, mah friend."
Cat Mewvie: Nothing stops the
Art: "Cat Island" by Elizabeth Jancewicz.
7, 2019: "A cat is an example of sophistication minus
Gratuitous Kittiness: "We. Are. Not. Amused."
Cat Mewvie: Kitty vs. cables.
Feline Art: "Black
8, 2019: "A cat is a tiger that is fed by hand."
- Vakaoka Genrins
Gratuitous Kittiness: The purr-sistance of memory.
Cat Mewvie: Kitty overdoes it.
Feline Art: "A
Portrait of Mona", artist unknown.
cat gets sacked.
by Kate Bernot
This is the story of Stormy the cat, a former shelter kitty who for the
last six years has enjoyed a lazy, lounging life as the indifferent mascot
of the Fritz Creek General Store in Homer, Alaska. I picture days filled
with sunlit naps next to the magazine rack, ear scratches from friendly
regulars, and the occasional indulgent can of tuna. (I just think it’s
important to paint the full picture here; Stormy doubtless contains multitudes)
Homer News only describes Stormy as a “black, slightly overweight
female cat,” who was “beloved” by the store’s
shoppers. But here Stormy’s story takes a dark turn: The Alaska
Department Of Environmental Conservation’s Food Safety And Sanitation
Program told the store’s owners that Stormy’s presence is
a food-safety violation, and the cat has to go. You may commence painting
your “Justice For Stormy” and “#StormyStays” placards
This story is receiving the national attention it deserves thanks to
the Associated Press, who picked up the plight of this food-unsafe feline.
Apparently, someone complained about Stormy to the food-safety officials,
whose section manager Jeremy Ayers tells the AP that because the office
received a complaint and subsequently observed the cat on premise during
a follow-up visit, authorities were forced to take action. They notified
the store’s owners that Stormy’s presence was a violation
and that she’d have to be relocated. A member of the owners’ family
says she will take in Stormy.
Store regular Al Breitzman brings up a solid point to the Associated
Press, saying that Stormy might make Fritz Creek General Store an even
more sanitary place by catching rodents. With Stormy gone, who will guide
shoppers to the (quite sanitary, I’m sure) bathroom?