Fur Real: Scientists Have Obsessed Over Cats for Centuries

Ten of the best feline-focused studies shed light on our relationship with these vampire-hunting, sexy-bodied killers

I just want to get this purr-fect. (Maciej Laska / iStock)

Human beings—including certain presidential candidates—can spend hours just watching cats be cats on the Internet. But scientists observe feline lives and behaviors in a far more advanced, technical and occasionally hilarious manner. I reviewed hundreds of these cat studies while reporting my new book, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World (you can read an excerpt in the latest issue of Smithsonian). Here are some of the most unique and creative contributions to cat science.

Don’t try these experiments and field studies at home … well, except maybe a few of them.

Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat

Can humans identify their beloved cats by aroma alone? That’s the pungent question explored in “The Discrimination of Cat Odours by Humans,” published in the journal Perception in 2002. Cat owners were “presented” with a blanket “impregnated with the odour of an alien cat,” as well as a blanket belonging to their own pet. The owners “were required to sniff the two blankets for as long as desired,” to see if they could tell the difference.

Mostly, they couldn’t. Only about 50 percent of cat owners snuffled out the correct pet, a success rate “no better than one would have expected from random chance.” When a similar experiment was done on dog owners, however, nearly 90 percent recognized their pet by its stench. This is likely because canines invest less “time and energy in grooming” and offer a bigger bouquet of “microbial flora” for us to inhale.


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