Myth 1: Cats only care about themselves.
There have been many reports in the news of cats that have risked their lives to save people. The best-known of these is the cat that fought a dog to save a four-year-old child who had been pulled from his bike and attacked.
There are also numerous stories of cats that have alerted their owners to fires or gas leaks, even in cases where the cats could have easily escaped on their own without bothering to let anyone else know about the danger (see Cat Heroes for news stories and videos of cats that have saved people).
The following are some less dramatic but equally impressive acts of feline caring:
- Tommy dialed 911 to get help when his owner fell from his wheelchair – he’d taught the cat how to call 911, but wasn’t sure if he’d actually be able to do it.
- Tiger alerted his owner to a growing cancer by repeatedly scratching the spot over the tumor, which enabled early intervention that saved his owner’s life.
- Oscar, a nursing home cat, knows when a patient will soon die – he sits with the dying, comforting them in their final hours.
More stories of remarkable cats can be found in Eric Swansen’s book, Hero Cats: True Stories of Daring Feline Deeds:
- While his owner was in the throes of a severe asthma attack, Wheezer found the man’s missing asthma inhaler and batted it across the room to him.
- Brat alerted his owners when their child was having a life-threatening seizure that required immediate medical attention, which saved the child’s life.
- Midnight howled into a baby monitor, bringing his owners running to find that a mobile above the crib had fallen and tangled around the baby’s neck. The child had turned blue and was seconds away from brain damage and death, but was rescued in the nick of time because of the cat’s intervention.
- Salem rang a cowbell to summon help from the neighbours after his owner had a nasty fall and lay helpless on the ground.
- A stray cat looked after a baby abandoned in a cold barn on Christmas Eve during the Great Depression, covering the baby with his body to keep him from freezing to death and defending him fiercely against anyone who came near (the family who owned the barn adopted both the baby and the cat, and named the cat Christmas).
There are also many cats that act as therapy animals, visiting hospitals and nursing homes with their owners, and they often zero in on those who need them most. See the Therapy Animals page for more information.
Myth 2: Cats are not sociable and prefer to be alone.
Cats are actually very sociable and most prefer to have company, though they can be fussy about who they spend time with (much like people). Feral cats live in colonies where females often act as midwives for one another when giving birth, helping to clean the new mother and kittens, and they often raise their young collectively as well. Males in feral colonies may defend females and kittens, and sometimes bring the kittens food or even take over their care completely if their mothers are unable to look after them. For more on feral cat social behaviour, see The Social Structure of Feral Cat Colonies.
Cats that have been properly socialized enjoy spending time with people, whereas cats that are aloof and unaffectionate have usually been abused or neglected during the critical period for socialization (between 3 and 16 weeks of age). For more on asocial cats, see How to Encourage an Aloof Cat to Be More Affectionate.
Although cats are more sociable than most people believe, it’s never a good idea to put two adult cats together and assume that they’ll get along (how would you feel if some stranger was placed in your home and you were expected to share all of your food and belongings with him?). Introductions between cats need to be handled slowly and carefully (for tips on this, see How to Introduce a New Cat to a Resident Cat). Kittens aren’t so fussy about their companions, and it’s better to adopt two kittens rather than one so that they can keep one another company.
Myth 3: Cats are cold and unfeeling.
Feline emotions are regulated by the same neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that influence human emotions. They can suffer from the same psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and respond to cat-sized doses of the same emotion-regulating medications that many humans take to deal with these problems (for more on this, see Do Cats Feel Human Emotions?).
Common causes of anxiety and depression in cats are the same as those that trigger psychological problems in humans. Triggers include loss of a loved one, major life changes (such as moving house), and relationship stress (for example, a person the cat cares about begins ignoring him, or a new person or animal moves into the household and behaves in a stress-inducing manner). See Cat Anxiety and Cat Depression for more information.
Note: Never give your cat human medications without first consulting a veterinarian and obtaining a medication formulated for cats. Using the wrong medication or getting the dose wrong could be fatal.
Myth 4: Cats are natural enemies of dogs.
Many cats form deep, lifelong friendships with dogs, and some have shown their love in profound ways:
- Cashew acts as a seeing eye cat for his blind canine companion, Libby, spending every waking moment guiding the dog around his home and yard.
- In Hero Cats, Eric Swanson tells the story of a couple whose cat led them to their missing dog, which was caught in a fox trap, and then accompanied them to the vet, staying by the dog’s side in the car to provide comfort and wash blood from the dog’s paws.
There is plenty of additional evidence for feline-canine friendships online. Just do an image search for cat and dog and you’ll find thousands (perhaps even hundreds of thousands) of these friendships immortalized in photographs.
To increase the likelihood that your dog and cat will become the best of friends (or at least tolerate one another peacefully), make sure that you handle the introductions properly. Cats and dogs are more likely to become friends when a dog-owning family adopts a kitten or an adult cat that has had positive experiences with dogs in the past. Also, some dog breeds tend to do better with cats than others and some cat breeds are more compatible with dogs.
Myth 5: Cats will harm children.
There are plenty of ridiculous old wives tales about cats stealing babies’ breath or accidentally smothering infants when using them as pillows, but there is no record of a cat ever killing a child. Dogs, on the other hand, kill approximately 19 people per year in the U.S. alone (Langley, 2009), and the majority of fatal dog attack victims are children. However, dogs that attack have nearly always been abused or neglected, so it’s the owners who are to blame (a dog that is well cared for, treated with kindness, and properly socialized will not attack people). Research conducted by Forrester et al. (2012) on human fatalities caused by animals found that the most common killers of people are actually farm animals.
Myth 6: Black cats bring bad luck.
Black cats were considered good luck in Europe, but somehow this got flipped in North America. This ignorant superstition has harmed the adoption prospects of black cats (and to a lesser extent, black dogs).
Black cats tend to have particularly good temperaments, yet they are the least likely to be adopted from shelters, so they are more likely to languish in cages for years or be euthanized.
Myth 7: Cats play with their prey because they are cruel.
Cats play with their prey to tire it out. An energetic prey animal can deliver a damaging bite or puncture a cat’s skin with its beak, resulting in a fatal infection. Tiring the prey out before moving in for the kill is a way for cats to stay safe when hunting.
Myth 8. Cats soil around the house to take revenge on their owners.
A cat will begin to urinate or defecate outside the box for one of five reasons:
- The cat is suffering from an illness that causes loss of bladder or bowel control or makes elimination so agonizing that he seeks other spots to go in the hope that it won’t be as painful.
- The cat is suffering from anxiety about his safety or territory (this problem is usually caused by moving to a new home, bringing a new animal or person into the home, someone mistreating the cat, or another animal that can be seen through a window regularly scaring the cat).
- The cat dislikes the litter box, the litter, or the box location (cats may reject a covered box, perfumed cat litter, or a box that is in a high-traffic location).
- Another animal or a child bothers the cat while he uses the box.
- The cat has been declawed (digging in litter is excruciatingly painful after declawing surgery, and many cats develop lifelong litter box avoidance after being declawed because they associate the box with pain).
If your cat starts having accidents around the house, take him in for a veterinary checkup to rule out illness. If the problem is medical, treating it will usually resolve the issue. If the behaviour is caused by anxiety, try to find and eliminate the stressor. If it can’t be eliminated (for example, the issue is a new baby, roommate, pet, home, etc.), there are other things you can do to fix the problem. See the following sources for more information:
Myth 9: Cats are useless.
Without cats, modern civilization might not have been possible. If you want to have scientists, engineers, doctors, artists, and other specialists working full-time in a society, you need to be able to feed them, which requires storing a food surplus. Farming produces surplus food, but when people first developed agriculture and began storing their surpluses, large rodents quickly moved in, eating much of the food and defecating all over the rest. Cats started venturing into human settlements to capture these rodents, and people encouraged them to stay.
Cats were later brought along on voyages to keep rodents from eating and otherwise destroying ship stores. Without them, we might not have established modern trade.
Large rodent populations can also spread plague-bearing parasites, and cats are very good at keeping these populations under control. Many believe that superstitious persecution of cats contributed to Europe’s large death toll when the Black Plague swept through the area. Europeans killed off cats in droves, and were in turned killed off at a much higher rate than they might have been if they had a large cat population to deal with the rodent infestation.
Most cats today are pampered house pets that do little (if anything) to earn their keep, but if the world falls back on hard times, we may once again need them to aid our survival.
Myth 10: Cats are stupid.
Cats perform below their abilities in laboratory tests of intelligence because they’re not particularly motivated to cooperate. Also, scientists tend to examine abilities that humans consider indicators of intelligence (for example, whether a horse can count, a pig can spell, or a raven can pass an IQ test designed for a young human child), rather than those that would aid animals in the wild. However, there is evidence that cats are smarter than many people think they are. To put the processing capacity of a cat’s brain into perspective:
- a mouse has 4,000,000 neurons in its cerebral cortex
- a rat has 15,000,0000
- a dog has 160,000,0000
- a cat has 300,000,000
- a squirrel monkey has 430,000,000
- a fin whale has 1,500,000,000
- a gorilla has 4,300,000,0000
- a bottlenose dolphin has 5,800,000,000
- an elephant has 11,000,0000,000
- a human has 19,000,000,000 to 23,000,000,000 (Wikipedia List of Animals by Number of Neurons in the Cerebral Cortex, December 2014)
For more cat articles, see the main Cat Facts page.