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

Royal We
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.

Fluffy the Vampire Slayer

Science suggests that cats are not really all that good at hunting rats, but vampire bats may be an easier target.  “Cats are efficient vampire predators,” concludes one 1994 study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, which followed outdoor cats living near livestock (aka bat prey) in Latin America. The presence of a house cat can discourage vampire bats from “foraging” upon “goats, pigs, cows” and also – time to breath a sigh of relief – “human beings.” But apparently, the cats sometimes wait to pounce until after the bat has sucked its prey dry (bats gorged with blood apparently don’t fly that fast), which is significantly less helpful from our perspective. 

No, Really: Your Cat is Morbidly Obese

Studying the many, many factors that contribute to rampant house cat obesity, feline nutritionists have concluded that human denial is a hefty part of the problem. When 60 German owners of clearly Garfield-esque felines were interviewed, there were “striking” differences between how they perceived their cats and how the scientists saw them. “Only a small percentage readily indicated that their cat was overweight,” according to a 2006 Journal of Nutrition paper. “The majority preferred euphemisms like ‘a little bit too big,’ or did not perceive or admit anything extraordinary about the weight of their cat … some even likened their cats to underweight silhouettes.” Fat cat owners were far more in need of a reality check than the masters of paunchy dogs, perhaps because “cats appear less often in public … where other people might comment.”

Hair of the Cat

Cats were fed saucers of alcohol-spiked milk as part of a 1946 experiment that—for some reason—explored the effects of inebriation on stressed-out felines. “All got drunk,” according to one description of the work, which was first published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. The giddy kitties soon lost paw-eye coordination, and flubbed recently learned tasks: “at the height of their inebriation they couldn’t respond to signals or operate the mechanism that delivered food; they simply sniffed and poked at the sides of the food box as if hoping for a miracle.” Some of the more stressed-out cats “developed a definite preference for alcoholic drinks,” the study soberly noted. 

A Very Royal “We”

Cats, alas, don’t appear in a dense 1975 physics paper entitled “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He.” But the paper’s lead scientist, Jack H. Hetherington of Michigan State University, became convinced that he needed a distinguished-sounding co-author to get his work published in Physics Review Letters, (For unclear reasons, Hetherington had penned his paper using the royal “we” pronoun, which was against the journal’s rules.) So, rather than re-type the whole thing (this was the ‘70s), he recruited real royalty: his Siamese cat. The cat’s name was plain old Chester, but that was quickly upgraded to F.D.C. Willard: F and D for Felis domesticus, C for Chester, and Willard was the cat’s dad.  

Memoirs of a Serial Killer

The shockingly gory killing sprees of a lone feline predator are catalogued in the 2007 study, “Seventeen years of predation by one suburban cat in New Zealand.” The house cat in question was such a deadly hunter that it caused the total eradication of rabbits throughout its backyard territory, researchers concluded. Only in the paper’s acknowledgments is it revealed that “the delinquent cat” under scrutiny is the author’s own pet: dear Peng You, who “provided all the data.”

Claws to Jaws

Not content with their own hunting, cats cause adorable sea otters to get gobbled by Great White sharks. Or at least that’s the implication of a 2003 Journal of Wildlife Diseases study, which notes that otters suffering fatal Great White shark bites are more likely to be infected with toxoplasma gondii, the notorious cat-poop parasite. The infection may cause the otters to act sluggish, making them easy shark chow. The otters probably get the disease from cat poop in the coastal environment, when the egg-like parasitic “oocysts” get flushed into the ocean, possibly via storm water run-off. Just how much poop is there? Luckily, scientists have done some digging on this question too: About 1.2 million metric tons of feline feces are deposited in soil and sand every year by domestic cats in America alone. 

Kimono Over to My House

The emerging phenomenon of cat cafés, where humans pay for feline company, has been a gift to anthropologists. Emerging research offers eye-opening first-person accounts of curious doings within: “The birthday cat was dressed in a miniature pink kimono,” scholar Lorraine Plourde observes in a 2014 issue of Japanese Studies. As the furry celebrant “unceremoniously” consumed its dinner, admiring humans (no doubt wearing the café’s requisite velour slippers) “gathered in a row in front of the cat … capturing the scene on their cameras and cell phones,” then presenting the cat with birthday gifts. (They knew just what to buy, since they’d all read the cat’s biography.)  The birthday cat was described as having a “sexy body.” Other cats were praised as “fuwa fuwa.” Translation: fluffy.

The Owl and The Pussycat

For a 2012 experiment, researchers writing in the journal Behavioural Processes dutifully observed what happened when cats were presented with a “novel object”—namely, “a plush owlet with large glass eyes.” The unfortunate stuffed owlet was inevitably menaced and attacked.

But the tables were turned in a 2013 experiment, appearing in The Journal of Applied Ecology. This time, the cats were the stuffed ones, and the birds were on the offensive: Researchers placed a taxidermied tabby cat near the nests of wild blackbirds, then recorded the birds’ aggressive reactions. (Presumably, living tabby cats refused to follow experimental protocols.) The blackbirds were so disturbed by decoy cat’s 15-minute appearances that they gathered less food, decreasing their hatchlings’ survival chances. Remarkably, the birds exposed to the fake feline also ended up getting hunted in real life, because their alarm calls attracted actual predators. 

Party Animals

A 2005 paper, “Caregiver Perceptions of What Indoor Cats Do ‘For Fun’,” set out to answer the eternal question: Just what do cats do all day? The authors tracked all available sources of feline amusement, including playing with sponges, “spinning,” sleeping on toasters, helping to cook and looking at a variety of objects, including alpacas, parking lots, snowflakes, window awnings and the sun. But a popular activity was one that many cat owners will find familiar: “Stares at nothing.”